by Keith Aksel
Americans expect their opinions to matter. They vote, protest, and clamor for reform on every topic imaginable, all tied to a larger shared experience with democracy. As the world’s most prominent democracy, and the product of the first successful democratic revolution, the United States provides a key example of how participatory government changes its population. Over the years, Americans have questioned their government like no other people on earth, which is kind of the point of the institution of democracy to begin with.
But, the problem with democratic politics is that when you extend the democratic impulse to sports, you begin reading into sports something that isn’t there. Pro sports are not, nor have they ever been, democratic. And yet, Americans still seem convinced that their voices can change how sports leagues operate. This is a trend that misleads legions of fans, causing a misunderstanding of the role of pro sports in daily life
Americans have distilled and applied their broader experiment with national democracy into all sorts of smaller forms of democratic governance. From a young age Americans are taught the virtue of voting and compelling their active participation in politics. This is a tradition that seeps into all types of other activities, like the simple election of officers at the local school PTA, and (more centrally to my life) professional association meetings with formalized elections and structured grievance protocol.
Americans try to apply their democratic impulses to the pro sports they watch as well. Today we are inundated with all sorts of news coming from the realm of pro sports. That news often doles out criticism toward leagues, owners, and players (think domestic violence & league punishments for rule violations). Fans are quick to voice their thoughts on contentious issues. When things get tense enough, fans start clamoring for change at the top of league governance.
For instance, fans’ perceived distaste for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has given rise to loud dissent; some believe that Goodell hasn’t done a good job policing the league or enforcing rules (or complaining about a lack thereof). New England fans upset with his punishment after the “deflategate” controversy greeted Goodell with boo birds during the Super Bowl trophy presentation after the Patriots’ most recent title. Still other fans voice “no confidence” in his ability to steer the league in the right direction. Apparently the perceived parallels between democratic governance and sports extend all the way to public approval ratings conducted in recent years. One particular survey of fans from early 2016 was reported by Fox Sports alongside concurrent presidential approval ratings, claiming that Goodell’s rating was “lower than” sitting president Obama at the time. Perhaps to these fans, voicing their disdain for Goodell might eventually lead to some kind of ouster from his position. What’s more, this kind of linkage with NFL and presidential approval ratings suggests that, like a president, a NFL commissioner can gain or lose his constituency if they remain tone-deaf to the public.
In the case of Goodell, the NFL commissioner is not a civil servant. In fact, no professional commissioner is directly employed by fans. Commissioners are paid and elected by franchise owners. The commissioner’s continued employment is dependent on the owners’ satisfaction, not fan approval. Further, people like Goodell don’t care about their hypothetical approval ratings conducted by research firms. After all, if a group of people were going to pay you more than $40 million a year to manage their affairs, wouldn’t you feel most obligated to serve their interests first? In a proud democracy, this news comes as a sad, hard truth to many who believe that those at the top of leagues should serve the interests of fans.
Even so, some may argue that fans are not completely without a “voice” in how pro sports operate. Fans can vote with their dollars, and choose not to support teams of leagues that don’t appeal to their interests. If a franchisee feels the heat of declining revenue stemming from fan disapproval of the actions of the commissioner, might that owner push for a new commissioner?
Perhaps. But, the consequences of exercising fan democracy in sports are not equal to those in politics. When one voices a vote of no confidence in an elected official, that official is likely out of a job, censured, or worse. In the scenario of the “voting with their dollars” fan base, a franchisee with declining revenue would choose to do what they always do in tough economic times: threaten to leave town. In other words, when a franchisee receives a vote of no confidence from fans refusing to shell out, that franchisee won’t be fired or push out the commissioner, which takes a lot of will and commitment from other owners. They will take the path of least resistance and move to greener pastures.
My goal in putting forth this argument is that fans need to reset their expectations regarding their relationships with the pro sports they follow. You as a fan are not a “constituent” of the leagues you follow, and expecting changes to league operation because you disapprove of something will not necessarily end the way you hope. The mobile and private nature of sports leagues ensures that instead of facing real consequences for not respecting fan sentiment, leagues and owners always have other means of responding to pressure. Certainly there is evidence that fan democracy can work in some cases, such as the NFL protest issue that has seen the league work harder to encourage less grandstanding at the beginnings of contests. This, however, remains a very rare occurrence. On a more practical scale, the sooner that fans stop believing pro sports are something they aren’t, the more effective their voices may become once they organize along more appropriate lines.
 https://www.si.com/2015/07/16/nfl-roger-goodell-fans-opinions-seahawks-colts-texans-jets-packers-the-mmqb-100; http://mashable.com/2017/02/06/roger-goodell-nfl-football-super-bowl/#gyfI15r_NiqZ