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Selling Our Soul?

The NFL is sports’ evil empire and its takeover of our city raises questions about the values Jim Kenney thinks we share

By now, you’ve seen the NFL logos and banners draped all over City Hall, the monstrosity of a stage obliterating the view of the Art Museum, and you no doubt know that a portion of the city will remain effectively shut down for a week after we play host to the crass marketing machinations of the NFL Draft this weekend.

There has been justified handwringing over just how we got here. How is it that this branding invasion has been foisted upon the citizens of our city, particularly those living in close proximity to the festivities? Their lives are being upended for weeks, and most feel they weren’t consulted about this encroachment. Is the anticipated economic windfall and publicity worth it, particularly given that the Pope and DNC events both fell far short of economic impact projections?

I’m no fan of the NFL, which really is sports’ version of Big Tobacco, an evil empire that our city should think twice about being tied to—particularly if you’re a card-carrying progressive like Jim Kenney. If you quite literally fly the NFL banner on our behalf from City Hall, you have to account for its socio-political rap sheet.

Well, I don’t live in Fairmount, but like many who do, I’m feeling like we’re hosting a party few of us signed on for, and it raises concerns about what our government’s shameless shilling for the NFL says about our values. Imagine it wasn’t NFL banners whipping in the wind outside City Hall, but the logo of R.J. Reynolds. Imagine it wasn’t that behemoth stage shielding the Art Museum steps, but a giant Joe Camel. Or, better yet: Imagine it was the logos of Coca-Cola or Pepsi replacing the flags of the countries of the world that line our Parkway. Would Mayor Kenney be so gung-ho?

It’s not a far-flung analogy. Even if the Eagles blow the 14th pick in this draft, (not out of the question), I’ll remain a fan of our hometown team. But that’s partly because, even when they lose, they align with my values; the Eagles, for example, are one of the most eco-conscious sports teams in professional sports.

But I’m no fan of the NFL, which really is sports’ version of Big Tobacco, an evil empire that our city should think twice about being tied to — particularly if you’re a card-carrying progressive like Jim Kenney. If you quite literally fly the NFL banner on our behalf from City Hall, you have to account for the following socio-political rap sheet:

  • Rape Culture. The league proved once again last season that it doesn’t get the seriousness of sexual assault, punishing New York Giant punter Josh Brown only when it embarrassingly came to light that his team and the league had known of his wife beating. You remember the Ray Rice case, right? The Baltimore Ravens running back was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell (he of the $31 million annual salary) for all of two games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Only when video came to light of him punching his fiance in the face inside an elevator was Goodell shamed into fitting punishment to crime. And don’t think these are isolated cases, either. Since 2000, 83 NFL players have been arrested on domestic violence charges. In fact, 48 percent of violent crime arrests of NFL players are for domestic violence, compared to 21 percent nationally.
  • Lying About Concussions. It’s pretty much a settled argument by now: For years, the league denied that there was a connection between the brutality of the game and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in people who have had repeated blows to the head. A New York Times investigation documented the lengths to which the league lied for years about its epidemic of concussions, as did the 2013 Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.
  • Exploiting Cheerleaders. Thanks to an Oakland Raiders cheerleader whistleblower, it came to light that, of 26 teams that employ cheerleaders, precisely one—the Seattle Seahawks—pays its squad minimum wage. Just before the Super Bowl, a class action lawsuit was filed and it makes for harrowing reading. Cheerleaders get around $125 a game, with no benefits, and they get fined for transgressions like missing practice. Team mascots, on the other hand, can earn up to $60,000 a year with benefits. 
  • Ripping Off Taxpayers. Across the country, NFL franchises—who have been given anti-trust exemptions—have extorted local politicians into using taxpayer money to help pay for their palatial stadia. In The Atlantic, writer Gregg Easterbrook expertly unearthed the playbook, chronicling, for example, how then-Republican Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell, a budget-conscious conservative, slid a $4 million taxpayer gift to the Washington Redskins while his state’s legislature was out of session so his favorite team could upgrade its training facility. Redskins owner Dan Snyder has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion.

Look, this is not an argument against hosting world class events. The Pope visit and the DNC—despite those projections of economic impact coming up short in both cases—were absolutely necessary if we’re truly serious about taking our rightful place as an internationally-acclaimed first tier host city. But does hosting the NFL help us do that? That’s a conversation few of us were invited to have, which points to the bigger issue: A tendency toward old-school, top-down, silo’d civic decision-making.

Perhaps the best example of a city government and its citizens deciding together what matters most to them is Melbourne, Australia, where randomly selected people deliberate and make decisions that government bodies would traditionally have undertaken and led. They’re called “Citizen Juries.”

But there is hope. “The city is working with us on an upcoming event study that will provide a framework for making decisions about such events,” says Moore College of Art President Cecilia Fitzgibbon, who is President of the Parkway Council. “There may have been a framework behind the decision to host this event, but it was unknown except to the people who made the decision. Instead of getting a heads-up when a deal like this is about to get done, we hope there’s a partnership that can weigh in in advance on the benefits and explore where the hidden costs might be.”

Fitzgibbon says there are precedents for such collaboration, and cites the way the Parkway’s anchor institutions have been kept in the loop of the Vine Street Expressway construction. What she’s talking about, really, is a collaborative approach to governing. Jim Kenney, remember, came of age as a product of the backroom machine; he was Vince Fumo’s acolyte, and belonged to a crowd that would no doubt dismiss the phrase  “collaborative governing” as mere good government mumbo-jumbo.

Kenny has, at times, exhibited a capacity for growth; at other times, he seems to revert to the old ways of doing things at a time when innovative systems are changing cities. He opted for the sweetened beverage tax—an old fashioned, tax and spend, regressive means to achieving a laudable end—when other avenues were open to him. Remember, during the campaign, he wanted to pay for Pre-K by instituting zero-based budgeting, which was quickly abandoned. Or he could have followed Chicago’s lead and expanded Pre-K by floating social impact bonds, which give public and private sector stakeholders incentives to work together at the problem-solving table.

So what does this have to do with the horror of the NFL Draft this weekend? Well, if you agree that our cheerleading for the NFL is an expression of our city’s values—after all, we’ve never draped over City Hall a banner reading “Harrisburg: Fund Our Schools!”—there are examples of cities we could look to that are co-curating with their citizens a sense of shared identity.

We’ll get through this weekend, even those who live in and around the Parkway. But we won’t become the world class city Jim Kenney admirably sees us as until we all have some sort of say in what such a designation means.

Some cities—Boston and New York among them—have experimented with participatory budgeting, actually handing over a percentage of the city budget to citizens to spend as they see fit. In Washington, D.C., OpenGov Hub is a co-working space of techies, civic leaders and social entrepreneurs that invites government workers to set up shop there, too—putting policymakers in daily contact with social innovators.

Perhaps the best example of a city government and its citizens deciding together what matters most to them is Melbourne, Australia, where randomly selected people deliberate and make decisions that government bodies would traditionally have undertaken and led. They’re called “Citizen Juries” and, guided by “Ambassadors” from industry, academia and government they’re owning their own future—rather than outsourcing leadership.

How cool would it be to hear Mayor Kenney say to us what Robert Doyle, Lord Mayor of Melbourne, said to citizen jurors in the below video: “The decisions we put in place are going to determine what sort of city we become. And that’s why we ask you to help us. What sort of city do we wish to become?”

Had that question been put to us at some point, the answer might have been that we don’t want to be a city that shills for the soulless NFL—an organization often referred to as The No Fun League for its outlawing of end zone dances. (Seriously, do we want to align ourselves with organizations that forbid dancing? It’s like supporting the repressed townsfolk in Footloose.) Or the answer might have been, hey, hosting the NFL Draft would be cool. But we as taxpayers already paid for a giant football stadium—let’s hold it there.

Had the NFL balked, as Mayor Kenney suggested when the notion was put to him, would it have really been such a civic loss to not host its draft?

But instead of having that conversation, our government seems to be stepping all over itself to accede to every demand of the league—including the closing of streets that one powerful politico told me have no business being closed. We’ll get through this weekend, even those who live in and around the Parkway. But we won’t become the world class city Jim Kenney admirably sees us as until we all have some sort of say in what such a designation means.

Header photo by C. Smyth for Visit Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Citizen will only publish thoughtful, civil posts. We want to be a communal space. But that doesn’t mean you have a First Amendment right to be an idiot. Send us an insulting, offensive and/or wildly off-topic comment and not only will we refrain from posting it -- we will laugh at you before we hit delete.

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