The NFL - America’s Favourite Socialist Sport

It was a phrase that I’d heard in television interviews a few times, but only recently did I hear it for real - Obama’s turning this country socialist. I’m a Brit and (on this occasion at least) I was far too polite to argue with my American friend - hey, it’s not my country... But afterwards, it struck me that what I should have said (don’t you always think of the right response too late?) was that in one very high-profile arena, the USA has been running a socialist system for years. And as far as I’m aware, President Obama has nothing to do with the operation of the NFL, America’s favourite spectator sport.

In Europe, the top professional sport is football (or soccer) and it’s run on ruthless market principles. Television revenue for the top leagues is divided according to performance. And if a club has a bad enough season then relegation looms – the club drops down to a lower league and the money from spectators, television and all the other sports franchise income sources goes south with it.

The following season the relegated club has to compete to try to return to the old league, and do it with less of everything – money, good players and crowds. It’s a punishing regime, and teams can get into a spiral of failure and drop like a stone through successive leagues in successive seasons, some go bankrupt and disappear altogether. Like any rigorous capitalist system failure is brutally punished and success is hugely rewarded.  

In contrast, the NFL rewards failure and punishes success in an effort to keep the teams evenly balanced. All revenue is shared more or less equally whether you have a good, bad or indifferent season. And there is just the one league with a (more or less) fixed set of teams – no relegation. Occasionally new franchises start and old ones fold or move, but most of the time if a team does badly they stay right where they are in the NFL. There is no punishment from the league itself for failure to perform...  in fact, quite the opposite.

During the NFL’s off-season, the latest draft of players coming out of the college system are farmed out to the clubs – and the worse performing teams get the first pick of players. If they pick right, they get the best new players to kick-start the process of improvement. The NFL is run on a system designed to maintain equality, and to give every opportunity for improvement to those performing badly. Now, if that’s not a system run on socialist principles then I don’t know what is...

Of course, the NFL isn’t a country, it’s a sports league competing against other sports leagues - not to mention movies, computer games and even books - for the attention and cash of US citizens. And the competition for that attention is run on a ruthlessly capitalist system. Sports that don’t get enough attention suffer quickly and cruelly. The NFL is the most successful sport in America, so it’s interesting to note that in order to achieve success in a wider capitalist system, the NFL has adopted socialist principles for its internal functioning. I can’t help thinking that there might be other areas where this same approach could be applied. Like education. Or medicine.