You may have noticed that the NFL has faced a few issues (mostly of their own doing) the last few weeks. Some of the issues are explicitly about heritage – such as the nickname of the Washington team – while others have little or nothing to do with heritage, such as player safety, off-field player conduct, and transparency about the NFL’s disciplinary procedure (particularly how these procedures are handled by the league’s commissioner). The interesting thing to notice will be how heritage is used going forward to as a way of addressing these issues – or, alternately, distracting from them.
On the surface, heritage hasn’t seemed to be a major part of the NFL. Although at a franchise level, heritage might be mobilized for a variety of reasons from establishing a history and legacy to selling tickets a products, NFL heritage hasn’t been a large part of how the league is positioned, at least in comparison to MLB and the NHL who are quite explicit using their past as a product (the NBA might utilize it’s past even less than the NFL, though that is a different blog for a different time). There are certainly elements of NFL heritage that are used, such as the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio that kicks off the pre-season schedule, the NFL Films retrospectives, and some teams (such as the Chicago Bears) that use retro jerseys, but by and large the NFL is about today and tomorrow and the draft and next season, and not so much about the past.
However, it appears that heritage is now on the radar a bit more than before. Mid-September to mid-October is Hispanic Heritage Month in the NFL, a program instituted a few years ago seemingly to both recognize the contribution of Hispanic players, coaches, and media as well as broaden the appeal of the NFL to Hispanic-Americans. A recent set of ads asks fans to send videos about how football is a part of their identity, and how it helps connect them to others – a kind-of existential authenticity/heritage narrative. Franchises have also incorporated heritage in new stadium amenities and design, most notably the San Francisco 49ers team museum at their new stadium.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see if the NFL use heritage more than it has in the past. As we know, heritage is often used when a site or tradition or way of life is under threat. Certainly, the Washington name controversy has generated heritage discussions, particularly in the case of fans citing team traditions and personal heritage affiliations in support of the maintenance of the team name. However, at a league-level, might the NFL draw more substantially on its past to remind (or, perhaps, distract) from its current controversies? For example, next year is the 50th Super Bowl – might the league have a year-long celebration of itself, particularly if some of the issues from the past few seasons carry over to next year? Could the NFL do something akin to the NHL’s Winter/Heritage Classic, and remind fans of the “roots” of the game as a way of muting these issues and reminding fans what they might lose? Might there be more programs similar to the Hispanic Heritage month, recognizing the contributions of a particular people while also creating a narrative that the NFL is and has always been a source of social change (similar to Jackie Robinson Day and the Civil Rights Game in MLB)? Of course, whether the NFL has ever been a source of social change is highly debatable, but that is hardly the point. After all, heritage is a tool meant to address any number of contemporary needs and circumstances. As such, it will be fascinating to see how the NFL uses this tool this season and in the seasons to come.