Hail Mary Passes and Corporate Cynicism

This was a tough week for football fans…at least of the Green Bay variety. For the first three weeks of the football season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sat in a Manhattan penthouse smoking cigars and laughing at the rest of the continent. He managed to pluck untested high school football referees right up out of their fantasy football draft and place them in the middle of regular season professional games. The poor guys did their best, but as they were trying to adapt to the big-time, the games spiraled out of control. On Monday night, a series of bad calls collided to make a huge difference in the outcome of the Seattle-Green Bay game. That night, I swore off the NFL.

Now, I’m a Packers fan by birthright. My grandpa sat at the fifty yard line at Lambeau Field every Sunday until he passed away in the late ‘80s. He was at the ice bowl – you know, the iconic NFL films reel in black-and-white where Packers’ guard Jerry Kramer undercuts Jethro Pugh of the Dallas Cowboys to create space for Bart Starr’s game-winning QB sneak? – my grandpa was there. My mom has had season tickets to Lambeau in her name since she was 13. Yes, I know. Cheesehead stereotypes do contain a surprising amount of truth.

Most of my life, I have tried to quit the Packers. But I might as well try to quit being a Hagley. During my childhood, the Packers were a middling-to-pathetic franchise. Rooting for them on Sundays created a type of weekly catharsis; Packer games were a tragic duty. I tried to root for other teams then. I liked Dan Marino and the Dolphins, I was captivated by Joe Montana and the 49ers. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop caring about what pathetic effort the Pack put together last Sunday. This, I am sure, is what it feels like to be a Vikings fan…but I digress. Then, in the 1990s, the Packers got quite a bit better. This created a new kind of burden because now I had expectations and anxieties about the games. I expected them to win, and losses in the playoffs brought with it a whole different kind of disappointment. But try as I might, I just couldn’t stop caring. Now I live in Canada. I see maybe 8 Packer games a year. But I still track scores when the games are on via the web or an NFL mobile app. Yes, I know, I’m sick.

But after Monday night, I was sick for a whole different reason. Yes, I thought the Packers should have won, but it was not the outcome of the game that bothered me as much as the fact that the NFL is a huge money-machine that has shown zero concern for the loyal (okay, fanatic? disturbed?) fan base that not only consumes its product but also marks portions of its life according to NFL-trademark moments.

Let me say it this way: I have this emotional attachment to the Packers, to the NFL; it has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. The Packers-Lions game always joined our family at Thanksgiving dinner. The Packer Superbowl win in 2011 was bittersweet because my grandma had recently passed away, and that was the kind of event I would have wanted to share with her on the phone. And yet, for all the ways that it functions as a part of my identity, the NFL or the Packers really don’t care about me as long as my eyes are on the screen to help their TV ratings and my cash turns the turnstiles at the games. The NFL is a business – a massive corporation – and they care about profit margins. My emotional attachment or sense of identity is only important to them as a motive that might help separate me from my money. And as the referee lockout demonstrates, their concern for the “integrity of the game” is also a sham. Again, the actual integrity of the game is less important than the perceived integrity; they are motivated not by good football but by revenues and market share.

The above rant could be directed at just about any mega-corporation that sells an experience or whose product helps construct community identity. It could even be directed at churches whose organizational structure incentivizes some bottom line while neglecting or reducing its parishoners to giving units or volunteers on a Sunday. You see, Roger Goodell might not be nearly as cynical as I picture. Maybe he wasn’t sitting in his Manhattan penthouse smoking cigars and laughing at the fact that he could put any kind of game out on the field and poor saps like me would still feel compelled to watch. And maybe the owners also (or at least some of them) care about the civic importance of their sports team for a community’s collective sense of identity. The problem is that individual actors are never only individual actors, and that their ‘heart’ and/or intentions rarely impact the collective consequences of corporate entities. That is, the NFL’s cynical approach to referees has more to say about the nature of corporations and power in organizations than it does about the greed or cynicism of individual actors.

Let me venture an explanation. Individual action is almost never individual. Coherent human action almost always discloses intention, telos, or even hope. When we act, we act-toward some intention. As such, human action takes place within a particular narrative construal of the world, within a particular understanding of the way things are. We act as if our understanding of ourselves, our world, and a possible future is the right one. We live within particular stories, and our intentional action takes place within these stories.

Whenever you or I participate in a community – in a corporate entity – we also enter into a particular story, with its own history, rationality, hope, and intention. When a young person starts a job at McDonalds, the first thing the trainer does is show a video that tells the McDonalds story. When I volunteer as a Ringette coach for my kids, the organization quickly disciplines me in their particular vision for player development. Now, we don’t have to believe a particular story to act within it as a part of an organization. But we must realize that any organization’s storied reality creates incentives, pressures, and conditions for any action we might perform within the organization. The organization’s story and its rationality is more ultimate than my own. In the end, Roger Goodell’s intentions regarding the integrity of the game have less to do with the referee lockout than the over-arching logic of the corporation, which bends most decisions toward the profit margin and market dominance.

If I’m right in asserting the power of corporate entities in subverting our intentions, then this poses a huge problem from a theological standpoint. It means that we are all have dirt on our hands. For the NFL helps us to see is that corporate entities tend toward idolatry. They take whatever good they offer and make absolute claims or assumptions about it. They do not operate with a sense of limitation or with a vision for how their good fits into a larger picture of the good (or the common good). They see their own story as ultimate, and thus see themselves as the chief end of any and all action.

Of course, pride precedes the fall. And as soon as the NFL’s idolatrous intent became clear the corporation buckled, made up with the refs, and has issued several (perhaps insincere) apologies. But this is not a picture of how the market (or the profit-motive) levels things out for human well-being. It is simply a calculated adjustment. The rationality – and the self-understanding – that drives the NFL is still false; it lives in a false world.

Because I also participate in various systems and corporate entities, I live in a false world, with a distorted story about the way things are. I cannot escape. My actions are also corrupted by the idolatrous systems in which I live as well as by my own sinful intentions.  The good news of the gospel is that Christ stands in solidarity with us even in the midst of this distorted and corrupted world, even as his presence creates a rupture and the new breaks into the old. As a corporate identity created by the gospel, the church rests on a boundary. As a corporate entity, we are prone to all kinds of distortions and false identities; but as an anticipation of the future we also have moments of pure gift where God’s future is made manifest, where people are reconciled and good news reigns – even if it is only for a moment.

Speaking of the moment…now that Goodell settled with the real refs, I have given up on my commitment to sit out this NFL season. Maybe I’ll try to quit next year…