NFL Draft: How Are We Really Looking at Athletes?

draft collage

There’s something festive about the NFL draft, the way it’s somewhere between a graduation and the prom. I love seeing my favorite college players break into the next level with their friends and family cheering for them. It’s a dream come true, right? Plus, I get to keep watching them play.

But, for me, there are questions that surface during the draft. Does someone born and raised in Texas really want to experience years of Minnesota winters? Do any players have qualms about playing for teams with old-timey, racist mascots? How many of these guys have a degree or will ever have a degree?

Despite the happy smiles and flashy suits, the draft isn’t about the players. It’s about teams filling out rosters with guys who have the right stats, height, and weight. The players’ preferences are secondary as long as they want to play in the NFL. Someone is always ready to counter any complaint with the reminder that these men know what they are in for and are paid handsomely to do it.

Conversations about the problems in football culture usually involve how women are hurt, and objectification of women is encouraged. I’m glad we’re having those conversations. Yet the objectification of players themselves, and the damage it does to them, is rarely talked about.

Objectification is generally framed as a sexual thing, but treating someone like an object isn’t inherently about sex. Football players are treated like commodities – they are ranked, priced, and ultimately replaceable, no matter how popular or remarkable they are.

There are a few factors in football culture that contribute to the objectification of players. The huge sums of money on the line is definitely part of it; the NFL and owners want teams to keep them rich, and it can be hard to look at people as people when their bodies are tied to your income. But we can’t just pin this on the big, bad capitalists. The NFL’s profits keep growing because fans keep watching. Americans love football the way the NFL delivers it.

When I watch on Sunday, the players always seem fine. Of course, they’re fine. They’re living the dream, making a choice, living up to their talent, being an inspiration. And then a big hit comes and I’m standing and screaming at the screen. For a second, I don’t give a sh*t whether the guy crumpled on the field is okay. It’s not something I’m proud of.

Fans can have the tendency to treat players like they’re not fully human when they’re injured. Once the fans who supposedly adore and support you assume you don’t hurt like everyone else, you’re in for a bad time. Especially when these same people are the ones driving profits for the organization you work for.

Part of the reason why fans expect players to just shake it off is because players have similar expectations of themselves. They get hit for a living; those who can’t cope probably choose to do something safer. There’s also maintaining the masculine standard that strong, tough guys don’t get hurt, not really. Not to mention that while most people don’t want to see someone hurt on TV, even more people don’t want to see their team lose games. We never love and respect a player as much as when he plays through an injury, even, or especially, if it’s bad for him.

Unfortunately, I suspect there is also a racial element in the perception that football players don’t hurt as much as non-players. While Blacks make up about 12.6% of the U.S. population, they make up about 68% of NFL players. Studies show that people of various backgrounds believe that Blacks, especially Black men, feel less pain than others. Football culture does little to dispel this. After all, being called a “machine” or a “beast” is a complement.

Of course, data and personal accounts show that players are getting hurt, badly, and the damage can be cumulative. In fact, you don’t need to even play a long time to be permanently injured. High school players are nearly twice as likely as college players to have concussions.

The attention being paid to high schoolers is also becoming serious. There are the rankings, recruiting, and colleges are paying big money (not to the players themselves) to have successful teams. Once we take away the big salary and big chunk of life experience, are we still okay saying these players made their choices and should suck it up and face the consequences?

We need to acknowledge that when playing in the NFL is the hope and dream of young players how we treat NFL players will have an impact. If our expectation is that professional players only exist to entertain us, and can be discarded when the sport catches up to them, we are teaching young players that it is their job to be entertaining and to power through pain to their own detriment.

Professional football players help shape our vision of masculinity, that’s why it matters to see them participate in domestic violence awareness or play with kids. So when we say that their pain is bought and paid for, that it is required for men not to hurt, that men can be ranked by numbers and their worth can be shown in dollars, it is a disservice to us all.

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Crystal Lasky Robinson

Crystal is a questioner of many things and a writer of essays and fiction. She loves ballet and opera almost as much as football.