It goes without saying that, for most sports entities, heritage is an asset. The past – particularly a glorious heritage or a heritage that induces nostalgia – can be an excellent marketing tool, and an avenue for commodification through souvenirs, events, and other experiences like fantasy camps. Specifically, sports like baseball and cricket have traded off of their heritage, positioning themselves as timeless cultural entities that are intimately tied to the past. Obviously, not all sporting pasts are glorious, noteworthy, or particularly positive but, more often than not, heritage is something that sports entities tend to embrace.
However, Cathal Kelly in the Globe & Mail recently argues that the NFL in particular runs from its past; that it is a forward looking league to the point that it almost denies its history and heritage. His argument appears to hold water, specifically that the NFL’s past is full of broken players who, in the large scheme of things, are almost infinitely replaceable. Sure, there are sometimes memorable players and teams but, by and large, the NFL is a league entirely focused on the present and future, and that the past plays little role in the way the league operates. Heritage, to the NFL, is not an asset.
A closer examination might be that heritage is used differently by the NFL than it is other leagues. In sports like baseball, cricket, golf, and tennis, there are masters leagues and competitions, and that the sports – though difficult – did not render ex-athletes incapacitated. This is not to say that the NFL doesn’t use its former and retired players in terms of promotion – this past weekend’s Super Bowl demonstrated that – and that it does broadly market events like Hall of Fame weekend in August. Rather, there is a knowing element – both by the league and the public – that football is a deeply damaging game, and that the men who played it often no longer resemble who they once were. Talking about the “glorious heritage” of the NFL is to embrace how deeply damaging the sport was, and continues to be. This is not to say that other football leagues haven’t openly marketed heritage – the Canadian Football League’s “This is Our League” campaign positioned the Canadian code of football as a distinctive form of cultural nationalism – but for the NFL, constantly reminding the public of the past only fuels some of the issues of the present.
That said, the NFL does embrace an element of continuity – not neccessarily in comparison with the past but, rather, as an entity that always was and always will be. It’s heritage is that endures. And, while Kelly’s argument is certainly convincing, it is worth noting that all sports – to borrow from this book – have excluded pasts. Baseball actively runs from it’s drug and steroid past. Cricket runs from its racial politics. Rugby runs from a legacy of class division. Soccer runs from its fan violence. Hockey – as Keith Olbermann explains – markets a fictional foundational myth. In fact, all institutions have pasts that are excluded for a variety of reasons, from politics to culture to plain old ignorance. Certainly, the ways in which the NFL excludes some of its past – or, at the very least, is uninterested in it – is unique, but it is hardly unheard-of.
The question then becomes not whether sports entities exclude particular pasts, but what pasts are excluded and why? Here, Kelly’s argument is important – “..the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past.” Heritage – or, at least, particular forms of heritage – undermine rather than enhance the NFL. For other sports, heritage is an asset – though, again, only particular heritages are touted, embraced, and commodified.
We tend to think of sport heritages as benign, and quite often they are. However, what the NFL’s reaction to its heritage tells us is that sport heritage can, in particular circumstances, also be a threat. Excluded pasts are often not just unflattering or embarrassing, they can also be dangerous.