Team owners need to treat NFL players with dignity

Fantasy football is rapidly emerging as an American pastime and fueling the nation’s competitive spirit. According to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, about 33 million people play fantasy football each year. The game provides football enthusiasts with the opportunity to enter a virtual reality of ownership. Owners form teams by selecting actual NFL players who earn them a certain amount of points per week based on their performances.

Many students at St. Olaf and across the country take quick (or not-so-quick) study breaks to check up on their team’s score, scope out the competition or monitor a player’s status. They feel the rush of winning, the pride that comes with “buying” the best players at auction-style drafts, and the thrill of success when they add a risky player to their starting line-up whose labor earns them valuable points. However, ownership comes with risk. Owners also feel the sting of defeat when their players underperform, which can be especially poignant when owners play against family, friends, and even complete strangers for a variety of incentives, including but not limited to money, bragging rights and cage cookies.

I suspect that most owners at least occasionally approach their teams with this dichotomous win-or-lose mentality. I certainly have been guilty of this mindset from time to time. Competition can be consuming. However, there are more serious implications to ownership that extend beyond victory and defeat. This virtual reality affects our ethical reality. When we choose to become owners, we assume an omnipresent responsibility to put the person before the player. This responsibility is a challenge because the objective of the game often encourages us to see only the player, a point-producing machine whose worth is limited to his labor on the field. All personal matters that make the player a son, father or friend are irrelevant to our success.

Thus, owners must make a conscious and intentional effort to prioritize human dignity and reject an ownership culture that is commodifying and insensitive to players’ humanity.

Perhaps one of the most common situations that reveals a commoditizing mindset is an owner’s reaction to season-ending injuries. I would guess that most owners who put the player before the person, when faced with a season-ending injury, respond with self-pity and frustration at the point-producer rather than compassion and sympathy for the human enduring the excruciating pain of a broken collar-bone or torn MCL. Reacting to season-ending injuries is an especially relevant scenario this NFL season as stars like Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr. and David Johnson (who was the first overall pick in many league drafts) have suffered what are all suspected to be season-ending injuries. The expected action is to pull yesterday’s shining stars from the starting lineup and drop them into the dark abyss of broken bodies called Injured Reserve. Soon they are forgotten; unless they recover, they lack point-producing value. Frustration is understandable because owners play to win. But when this frustration consumes the potential for compassion and sensitivity, it is time to take a step back and evaluate your mindset and the language you are using to think and talk about these individuals.

Some may argue that the way in which fantasy owners view and speak about players has little connection to the real world. On the contrary, tensions run high between actual NFL owners and players due to insensitive and dehumanizing language during the 2017 season.

For example, CNN reports that in response to player-directed protests, Donald Trump said that “NFL owners should respond to the players by saying, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!’”. By pressuring NFL owners, many of whom Trump considers his “friends,” to attack players with derogatory language, Trump encourages owners to abuse their power and prevent NFL players from defending their personhood—the face beneath the impersonal helmet. Instead of promoting meaningful dialogue, his comment fans the flames for a firewall that divides owners and players.

Although we are not actual NFL owners, we have the responsibility to affirm the humanity of players; the way we approach the people on our teams affects the way we approach people in our daily interactions. We must reject an ownership culture that puts competition before compassion, labels before lives and players before people.