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Last week, Bleacher Report published a piece by Mike Freeman insinuating that history was almost made this NFL offseason. Freeman fancies himself an NFL insider, so I’m inclined to believe parts of this particular version despite the likelihood that he and his cabal of NFL journalists are often spoon-fed false information by their “sources.” The crux of the story: Gay NFL free agent sits on proverbial sidelines, ready, willing and able to help a team win games but denied the opportunity. The player, who Freeman ostensibly names, fielded serious inquiries from a number of teams this offseason and was for a time under the impression that he would be signed by one. But, according to Freeman, the team backed out under the threat of media scrutiny.

I don’t believe that was the reason the player wasn’t signed, but wouldn’t it be ironic if it was – if the same media that effusively spews moral-high-ground perspectives on gay acceptance into professional sports was itself the reason that one wasn’t. Regardless, the story would have been media gold, a colossus of a tale that would have Tebowianly devoured weeks of programming time and gave carte blanche to the talking-head pundits to trip over themselves with preachy “It’s about time”s. In my view though, the real story here is not the suggestion that the league was a phone call away from signing a gay player. The real story is why it didn’t happen. To answer this question, follow me on an epic journey (eh, more like a weekend getaway/staycation) to a simpler time when the league purposefully chose to act as the moral authority on two other hot button causes dominating our sociosphere – Breast Cancer Awareness and Supporting the Troops.

The NFL and its marketing cognoscenti have us wrapped around their finger like a size-too-small ring that already lodged itself underneath the second knuckle. Despite our tepid ethical objections to the violence of the game, we’re never going to stop watching until someone dies on the field. Even then. The game is too entrenched in our culture to stop. We love the feeling of waking up on Sunday morning to set our Fantasy lineups, the decision to bolt 11 a.m. church service early to catch the excitement of the opening touchback, and the connection we feel to our family and friends when watching our favorite team play. These people could market the game in their sleep – unless Roger Goodell donned Freddie Krueger claw gloves in their dreams and went on a killing spree, which I wouldn’t completely rule out.

The real stroke of genius lies in building the emotional connections through cause marketing. Let’s start with Breast Cancer Awareness month. In order to make our connection to football more profound, the NFL links our emotions for the game with a calculated mirage of altruism and philanthropy – an artful yet saccharine ruse of public image cultivation that makes us see the league as an essential paladin of breast cancer awareness. “Wow, the NFL cares so deeply about women, look at all the pink on the field! They even have pink towels! Or wait, is that a penalty flag? That wasn’t pass interference stupid ref!” I don’t know how much of the profit from this blatant pinkwashing campaign actually goes towards breast cancer research, but if you give me an over/under bet, I’m taking the under. No need to specify the line. Here’s an idea: October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month, National Book Month, and Richie Incognito’s least favorite month of the year, National Bullying Prevention Month. Maybe the league should show some love towards these deserving causes as well.

We’ll now move our tour to November. Once the cloying pink binge of October comes to an end, we are treated to the NFL’s “Salute to Service” (<whispering> sponsored by USAA. Shhhh.). The league donates $300 to a few different deserving military charities for every point scored in 32 games during the month of November. Last year, the jackpot ended up at $800,000. Not chump change, but certainly not a magnanimous offering.  The league also donates 100% of the proceeds from the camouflage apparel auctions to other military charities.

Because of what I’m sure was the measurable Q-rating-esque success of the initiative last year, iiiit’s back! As a result, the NFL basically gets the keys to associate its brand with the military in any way it sees fit. Drew Magary at Deadspin recently suggested that it’s “the world’s cheapest licensing agreement.” One thing he overlooked was the league’s partnership with USAA, also known as the checkbook behind Salute to Service, or in the league’s corporate-speak, “The Official Military Appreciation Sponsor of the NFL” whatever that means. While terms of the 4-year agreement are not disclosed, a decent estimate would be $5 million per year that goes to the NFL to give USAA “the right to” use the NFL’s brand to attract new business. So, $5 million (est.) – $800,000 means that the NFL made $4.2 million last year off of this campaign (not accounting for tax breaks for the $800,000 donation). The relationship with the military is the silver bullet for any PR woes that ail the NFL. As the Deadspin article mentions, the NFL gets to “lease the goodwill” of the American military. That’s not an empty phrase. Goodwill, as an accounting term, means that the reputation of a company has an intangible yet very quantifiable value as an asset. This leasing of goodwill provides real monetary value to the league.

Many if not most companies use Veteran’s day, Memorial Day, and other patriotic events as a marketing tool, and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to show their respect and gratitude to the military using whatever pulpit may be at their disposal. It’s just that the NFL happens to have a massive platform from which to broadcast – its influence boosts whatever cause it’s championing, an approach that uses the asset of goodwill from other groups at a steep discount.

The NFL, without a shadow of a doubt, doesn’t think that anyone will be a big enough jackass to actually criticize its link to the military or to call out the league for scamming the system to reap the image-building and economic rewards of such a partnership. After all, what kind of anti-American Debbie Downer spoilsport doesn’t support something that has to do with our military? Well, just because none of us should ever criticize the courage and dedication of our nation’s bravest citizens doesn’t mean the NFL is bulletproof. They are two different entities, linked only by a corporate partnership of debatable authenticity. The NFL uses the military as a PR shield, an artificial aureole, like a bullied kid in school trying to befriend a kind-hearted but strong student to make sure he’s protected.

So, in a league that is so willing to make profitable connections with issues that tug at our heartstrings, manipulating the fan base like a puppeteer his marionette, why is the league so afraid to get a gay player? It could be the NFL’s next great marketing coup, a brilliant encore to the modestly superficial benevolence of October and November. But it’s not. Why? To be sure, the NFL has a reason for everything it does, or in this case, doesn’t do.

If it’s true that the player in question is gay, I believe it was a conscious decision by the league office. As we’ve explored on our brief sojourn, the NFL is more than willing to associate itself with causes that society cares deeply about, and many of us do care deeply about LGBT rights. The league clearly had the opportunity to sign a gay player, and it could have exerted its powerful influence to make sure that one of the interested teams actually pulled the trigger and signed him. The identity of the player is most likely known. He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player who still should be in the prime of his career, or very close. It just doesn’t make sense that multiple teams would reverse course so drastically after the initial intention to sign the player to a contract. The only conclusion to draw, in my mind, is that the NFL chose to not have this player in the league, whether because of a perceived danger to him in the locker room or another reason. Hopefully a player already under contract will soon find the strength to come out and inspire others to do the same.


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