Big Football: Corporate Social Responsibility and the Culture and Color of Injury in America’s Most Popular Sport

Although much has been said about football concussions in the media, academic inquiry into the National Football League’s (NFL) strategies for containing critique and shaping public discourse remains limited. I investigate the league’s multi-sided “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) campaign, which involves harm reduction reforms (e.g., improved helmets, tackling techniques) as well as public relations and philanthropy. This campaign is an “anti-politics machine,” a movement that generates its own discourse about concussions, the integrity of football, and normativity; depoliticized the institutional and foundational sources of harmfulness; and advances narrow technical and managerial solutions. The league’s CSR initiatives are also intended to engender mass feeling, melding multiple images and rhetorics, invoking technoscientific progress as much as corporate care, family values, suburban comfort, national sentimentality, soft masculinity, and women’s health. Through strategic public relations, the campaign organizes a certain affective and cognitive antipolitics, a depoliticized way of conceptualizing and experiencing football that reflects a wider matrix of intelligibility framing what is normal and legible with regard to race, gender, and precarity in the United States. Rather than addressing societal factors or ending an innately destructive practice, the NFL proclaims social responsibility while perpetuating conscription, extracting labor and value from conditions of socioeconomic and racial marginalization. And strategic public relations inure a devoted fan base to football’s complicity in helping to reproduce the problems and privileges of America’s racial order. My analysis of harm reduction is also a critique of the dangerous moral contours of racial capitalism and how corporations influence and capitalize upon what is deemed tolerable in American life.