NFL Play 60: Stay Off Our Bus!
The National Football League's Gambit to Commercialize School Children
Part 4 - The Gambit
Now I’m going to address some of the tactical methods and psychological elements I believe were employed by the NFL in their quest to gain access to these schools and all of these children. I’m not going to pretend that what I’m about to present won’t be controversial. In fact, I am expecting NFL representatives to not only deny that there was any intent to deceive or manipulate human psychological factors in the implementation of NFL Play 60, but to label my opinions as outright fantasy and perhaps even crazy. However, all I ask of the reader is to hear me out and draw your own conclusions.
First let’s look at some of the reasons I believe allowed the NFL to slip in without question, after which I will address some of the reasons why I believe they felt comfortable that nobody would challenge them once they became accepted. Please bear in mind that these are just my opinions.
I don’t believe much more needs to be said regarding how the monetary incentive - the award - became such a useful tool for gaining entry into these schools, especially when they devised a method to get the prospective participant to initiate the process. This would provide the NFL with the element of plausible deniability; the ability to claim that their demand for promotional materials was just a misunderstanding of the contest rules should they meet any resistance. The incentive had to be significant enough to offset any potential objections. Sure, $10,000 may seem a bit expensive, but when your business generates over $9 billion in revenue it’s not all that much, especially when compared to some of the player’s contracts. Plus, $10,000 breaks the five-digit threshold to grab everyone’s attention. Well, almost everyone.
Of course, it would take some time before the promotional benefits would be fully realized, but the investment was deemed worthwhile, especially since it was classified as charity and tax deductable. Yet, if everything went as planned, the long-term advertising benefits would be seen. The NFL would take the financial risk in the hopes that nobody would object to what they were doing. Invest now in pursuit of future gains. That’s what businesses do. The gambit was now in play.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Slow and steady wins the race.” An evaluation of the images, videos and other media on NFL websites and other media outlets suggests that the NFL took this cautious approach when asking schools to provide their students for promotional purposes. From the number of videos and other promotional materials I have seen, it appears that the NFL only tried this at one or two schools at first. To test the waters with ones toe. It’s apparent that they met no resistance so they tried a few more schools the next time around. Still no apparent resistance so the foot was immersed. Once the NFL experienced enough success they could open up the spigot. Now, if they did meet any resistance they could just say, “Nobody has objected so far,” with the implication being, “Why are you?” Thus, after enough time and success the NFL Play 60 advertising campaign was now in full force and ready to bear fruit.
If one reviews all of the NFL Play 60 videos and other media it becomes apparent that they did not stray far from the core market for their franchise teams. After all, one might reasonably assume that Portland, Oregon, Vancouver, Washington, or even Spokane, Washington would be considered a part of the Seattle Seahawks market region. Yet, none of the NFL Play 60 Super School award winners are located outside of the metropolitan area where the franchise team is located. The reason for this is that fan loyalty is stronger the closer it is to its central core. This is evidenced by the NFL Play 60 contest rules that restrict participation to those schools that are within a 30 mile radius from the franchise club. Yes there are those two non-franchise winners, but those winning schools are either still close to a local franchise or are located safely in “football country.” So while locations like Austin, Texas qualify, do you really think you would see a winning super school from Idaho or Montana? Judging from the trend over the past few years, this appears unlikely.
The NFL employs legions of legal and public relations personnel as a part of their day-to-day operations, so certainly they wouldn’t do anything that hadn’t passed a thorough legal review, would they? After all, just look at the NFL’s waiver; everything is written in legalese and looks buttoned up, right? Evert “t” is crossed, every “i” is dotted and all contingencies appear to be accounted for. Certainly the NFL wouldn’t do something improper, unethical or illegal, would they? I’m willing to bet most people make this assumption and the NFL is aware of this; that people assume their legal counsel and senior managers would never engage in a questionable endeavor or if the risk was high. This leads us to the next topic…
Then there is the blind trust in the NFL. Again, I wonder how many parents just signed the waiver without reading it, blindly trusting whatever documentation the school sent home with their children. Again, the NFL’s waiver was obviously written by lawyers and certainly the school district previewed and approved of the waiver, right? Certainly everything was good, right? I’m willing to bet many parents just trusted the documentation the school administrators sent home with their children and never read what they were signing. So now we’re no longer talking about parents placing their trust in the NFL, but with the school district as well.
“Woo-hoo, we’re winners!” I can still hear the jubilation. I had business to conduct at Cathcart Elementary on three occasions in the time between receiving the announcement (and NFL’s waiver) and the time of the celebration assembly. During each visit the atmosphere was charged. Staff members were wearing their Seahawk jerseys and winning the contest was the talk of the school. Students were busy painting posters and inflating balloons. Everybody was so happy to be named a winner that nobody settled down long enough to look at the situation rationally. And before you knew it, the NFL was in and out with their promotional materials. Quick and easy. Sheer the sheep before they realize it’s cold outside. Unfortunately, most of these sheep never realized or cared that they had been sheered at all.
Arguably, football is America’s favorite sport, with baseball and basketball following close behind. Everybody loves football, or at least nearly so. What’s more, the NFL knows this and they play this to their advantage. Good players are recognized early in their school years with parents, coaches and fans complimenting their abilities. As these players become more accomplished and begin to rise to the top of their game they have experienced several years of positive reinforcement that they are the best. They become accustomed to the recognition and their popularity. Wherever they go and whatever they do they receive praise. They have made it to the top of their profession and have achieved celebrity status. It seems that everybody welcomes the opportunity to associate with one of these elite athletes.
Marketing professionals know the value of using celebrities for selling their products and services and the NFL has a large pool of talent to draw from. To assure the success of an advertising campaign, not just any athlete or celebrity qualifies for the job. Name recognition is required. As with NFL Play 60, if you view the videos and look at the lists of NFL players that visit these schools you will see that they use some of the most recognized players in the league. That’s what is necessary to sell the concept to you, the consumer.
Loyalty to your local school and loyalty to your local sports team; the peer pressure to go along is enormous and is akin to coercion. Let’s look at these separately first.
Loyalty to your school: The pressure to play along is enormous. Nobody wants to place the NFL’s award grant in jeopardy by complaining or not playing along. Just who wants to be singled out as the disloyal rat that had all of the effort of your neighbors in the parent organization discarded? The unwritten message is, “Don’t rock the boat.” We have to wonder how many parents just signed the NFL’s waiver, regardless of what they thought of the language contained within the wavier, just because they didn’t want to be branded as the party poopers. Come on, just sign, everybody’s doing it. I figure the parents fell into one of five groups:
Loyalty to the home team: There is absolutely no logic or critical reasoning behind a person’s attachment or loyalty to a home team. Yet, exploiting this emotion would explain the NFL’s reasoning to use players from local markets to visit the award winning schools instead of a dedicated team of NFL players that traveled from school to school. By placing local players at the schools, the NFL would reduce any negative exposure because it would be much less likely that anybody would want to disparage the local sports team. This would explain why the NFL kept the contest winners local and to help assure this they wrote into the contest rules that the entrants had to live within a 30 mile radius from where the franchise club (or city center) was located. Of course, we need to account for those two extra at-large or non-market winners, but upon close inspection I believe you will find that those winning schools really weren’t located all that far from a franchise team or at least was located in established “football country.”
Let’s look at this another way. Loyalty to one’s country is a very strong emotional attachment. Most people feel a very strong attachment to where they were born and/or raised; wherever that place is that a person calls home. Therefore, most people will fight for their country or home out of blind loyalty, usually without regard for the principles involved. The attitude prevails where if your country’s leadership calls upon its citizens to take up arms to fight for their country, few questions are asked. However, if the standing armed forces already in place for our country resembled anything like an NFL team, then a typical company of soldiers would come from all parts of the globe. It would look like a fully integrated United Nations fighting force and soldiers would be exchanged on a regular basis. But we do know that UN forces are not fully integrated. No, UN forces still consist of soldiers and commanders from the same country. Yes, they may fight alongside the forces from other countries and the higher command structure may be more fully integrated, but the troops on the battlefield remain separated by country. Yet the NFL shows none of these traits at all. The NFL shows absolutely no loyalty to their players and eagerly trades them to other teams when they are deemed as no longer useful or a good fit. Would you expect the United States Army to trade their soldiers with Russia, China, or France just because their current lineup of soldiers weren’t deemed battle ready? Of course not. This is just silly, yet this is exactly what the NFL does and nobody questions this practice. The local fan base is as eager as ever to cheer on the local team just because of they are associated as “the home team.” Just look at John Carlson, the Seattle Seahawk player who visited Cathcart Elementary during their celebration assembly, the Seahawk player who was honored with the teams “Man of the Year” award. Gone. Traded to the Minnesota Vikings at the end of the 2011-2012 season and now with the Arizona Cardinals. So much for showing the team’s Man of the Year any gratitude. No, there is no loyalty shown by this or any other NFL team towards any of their players. These guys are treated as a commodity and nothing else. So just why do fans show any loyalty to teams they know treat their players in this way? It simply comes down to home team loyalty.
We must recognize that loyalty is a very powerful emotion, but one shouldn’t confuse loyalty with something that needs to be earned like respect or trust. Yes, loyalty can be earned as well, but loyalty can be and often is blindly attached to something - like the home team - when there is no rational basis for making that attachment. In these instances, a person’s mind is already set and raw emotion is firmly in control. I have discovered that few people consciously recognize just how powerful an emotion loyalty is and how difficult it is to neutralize. And in this case there is the multiplier effect where you not only invoke this emotional attachment to you local NFL franchise, but you include your children’s school as well. Now just who wants to be identified as the ungrateful rat who challenges this scheme?
You would be correct in assuming that I have recognized the emotional component that comprises loyalty and can suppress its control. If you are able to keep this emotion under control and look at NFL Play 60 with any logic or reason, then I believe you will see that I have a stronger sense of commitment to the principles of freedom, fairness and equality than any sense of loyalty to the home team.
Some people can and will say that I am missing the larger picture by not focusing on the benefits to the school and the children who did attend the celebration assembly, but there is an even bigger picture to focus on and I am not missing it.
“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.” - Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Men In Black, 1997
The study of crowd psychology dates back many years and in 1895 Gustave Le Bon published his work, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon noted that when people became part of a crowd they develop a collective unconsciousness which could be induced to commit acts contrary to their typical behaviors as individuals. Additionally, the leaders of these crowds were shown to have considerable influence in persuading the crowd to act as they wish. In this case, the NFL passed this influence on to the school principal; someone who wielded the authority which strengthens the ability to persuade the crowd. In this case, the parents.
There are many elements to crowd psychology that come into play here, not only for successfully gaining entry into these schools, but for slipping out without raising any alarm. For now, we will only address some of the elements regarding how the NFL was able to use and even manipulate elements of crowd psychology to gain entry into the schools.
The first element of crowd psychology I would like to address is groupthink. The definition of groupthink varies a bit according to the source, but one of the better ones is this:
“Groupthink occurs when individuals in a group fail to express their doubts about the group’s dynamic, direction or decision because of a desire to maintain consensus or conformity. Thus the group may be on a headlong rush to error or disaster and no-one speaks up because they don’t want to rock the boat.” Groupthink was further defined as, “Affected group members tend to ignore their own doubts ‘for the good of the group’.”
Another definition is:
“Groupthink occurs when a homogenous highly cohesive group is so concerned with maintaining unanimity that they fail to evaluate all of their alternatives and opinions.”
There are two prime examples that are cited when researching groupthink: the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Morton Thiokol engineers had concerns about faulty parts months before Challenger was scheduled for liftoff and had additional concerns, specifically about the “O” rings that failed due to the cold temperatures. Processes allowed engineers to become isolated in their discussions which constrained critical questioning. Nobody voiced their concerns because they did not want to be the one responsible for stopping the launch, especially since launch delays could result in the loss of future business. When President Kennedy made the decision to proceed with the Bay of Pigs invasion, members of his staff supported this decision despite their concerns . One key advisor to President Kennedy - Arthur Schlesinger Jr - fell silent during cabinet meetings even though he expressed misgivings in private. During one meeting President Kennedy called upon cabinet members, except for Mr Schlesinger whom the President knew had reservations, to vote for or against the plan. In the absence of any objections, cabinet members assumed everyone else agreed with the plan.
So were all of the parents at Cathcart Elementary and all of these other schools subject to groupthink? I would think so. Yet, I would like to point out that I did voice my concerns prior to the NFL Play 60 celebration assembly at Cathcart Elementary, although I failed to voice these concerns directly to Casey Bowers. Still, I will argue that the teachers and staff should have made my concerns known to Casey Bowers, especially when those concerns were expressed to multiple staff members, both verbally and in writing and while using terms like, “bad paper” and “rotten paper.” You can tell I voiced my concerns by the response I received from one of the teachers:
“I understand your concerns completely (especially as my father was an attorney). If
“… to safeguard (their) rights.” Think about that. Why would any child’s rights (like this) need to be safeguarded within a public school? So why didn’t this concern go up the chain of command and if it did why didn’t I receive any response?
The second element of crowd psychology I would like to address is known as obedience to authority. Many people will blindly follow the directions of an authority figure without question. In the case of all of the NFL Play 60 celebration assemblies the school principal becomes that authority. Stanly Milgram conducted well publicized experiment which showed how individuals (ironically labeled as “teachers”) could act contrary to their beliefs and even commit harmful act upon others because they were simply following directions from someone with authority. Another example of this obedience was brought to light during the trial of Adolf Eichmann who was accused as one of the masterminds behind the collection, transportation and extermination of six million Jewish people during the Holocaust. In his defense, Eichmann claimed that he was simply following orders and wrote in his memoirs, “The orders were, for me, the highest thing in my life and I had to obey them without question.” The same “I was just following orders” defense was offered by Lieutenant William Calley Jr and the soldiers accused of murder during the My Lai massacre. In both cases those arguments failed and they should fail here as well.
Then there is the concept of pluralistic ignorance where even though a majority of group members may reject an idea in private, they go along with the idea based on the incorrect assumption that most others accept that idea. I wonder how many parents had their concerns but never said anything.
Finally I would like to address the element of how the event was hyped. Many of the psychological elements surrounding the charged atmosphere or hype surrounding the NFL Play 60 celebration assembly have been covered already so we will only provide brief summaries. We see several major elements for creating the environment of hype:
We aren’t psychologist either so we imagine there are other elements at that we haven’t thought of yet, but these are just some of the psychological elements at play which prompts everybody to jump on the bandwagon without critically thinking about what they are doing. Of all of the psychological elements discussed, I would go as far as to say the hype surrounding the event was probably the strongest element at work here. Still, any of the psychological elements listed above have powerful influencing effects on their own, but now that they are working in tandem, the emotional influence becomes very powerful. We figure this bandwagon effect explains why many parents decided to sign the NFL’s waiver without questioning its appropriateness or even reading it at all. So the next time you see the NFL run their commercial where the athlete says, “Hop on the bus,” they might as well be saying, “Hop on our bandwagon.”
As young athletes hone their skills and it becomes obvious that they are to become some of the game’s best players the special treatments begin to emerge. It may be simple stuff at first, like the ability to “borrow” the nice electronic toys that no other kids in the neighborhood can afford. These athletes develop special friendships with boosters who seek to guide these players in certain directions. Eventually, money enters the picture, sometimes before they reach the professional level. These players have now become accustomed to special treatment when they need something or get into a jam. This culture of privilege grows as athletes reach the top of their game and it is no longer limited to the athletes. The entire institution of top notch coaches, players and staff have gathered together in a centralized system that feeds off of itself. It becomes self evident that this “we can do no wrong” attitudes exist and they have it drummed into their heads often enough that they all convince themselves that they can do no wrong. Confidence then turns into arrogance. They are on top of the world and they can do whatever they please and nobody will question the mighty NFL.
However, none of this is possible as long as the fan base remains loyal and does not question what these people do or how they behave. As long as people are willing to turn a blind eye to questionable behaviors then they are helping to create this culture of privilege. When a person is allowed to act contrary to the rules that apply to everybody else, they will certainly do it again. Just think of it this way, how many bank robbers stop after a single robbery? I believe the statistics will indicate that the chances are very low if not zero. So from a certain point of view, none of this becomes possible unless the public allows it to happen.
At this point I have offered several sociopsychological factors that allowed the NFL to believe they could gain unfettered access into our nation’s public schools. And as the program grows and becomes more successful it becomes increasingly likely they will not meet any resistance. So this is how the NFL gains entry. Now let’s turn our attention to how they get out without any challenges.
The NFL’s award money is significant and acts as a powerful force to keep people silent. A very powerful force. I mean, who wants to be identified as the no-good, low-down selfish ungrateful rat? And no matter how convincing my arguments may become, there will always be people who will feel that way. To them I will always be a traitor to the Seahawks and our children’s school. However, as the saying goes, “The cost of freedom is not free.” So I will take this risk and endure the costs to fight for my own freedoms and those of my children.
It was only for an hour or so. They were in a classroom. A teacher was present. Yes, we can hear the justification and rationalization. So what was the harm? The idea that our children suffered no real harm has become an obstacle to overcome. This is one of the difficulties I encountered when seeking legal assistance in that no lawyer wanted to get involved in a matter where the harm was so minimal as to not warrant the time and expense spent to recover any potential damages.
Okay, as a business person, I understand that perspective. On the other hand I have difficulty when lawyers refuse to represent my interests on that basis alone.
I recall a story from a fellow college student who was applying to medical schools. He was taking some preparatory classes and during one of those sessions the topic focused on how to interview. As the story goes, a prospective medical school student was participating in an interview and was asked the question, “Where do you see yourself ten years from now.” Figuring he would be out of medical school by then and have a thriving private medical practice, the prospective student looked at his watch and replied, “Well, it’s 10 AM, I figure I will be on the sixth green by now.” Of course, this lesson was about what not to say and the lecturer wanted to impart upon his students that there was a correct answer and that was to say something like, “I just want to help people in need, wherever they are and however I can.” Okay, so the lesson is that you tell them what they want to hear. However, this approach doesn’t always pay the bills and every business person is conscious about this.
While I understand why an attorney would determine that the extent of the harm to an individual student is not all that great, we are no longer talking about just a couple of kids anymore. As you recall when we performed some simple math and extrapolated the potential number of affected students to number in the hundreds and maybe well over a thousand, then we are no longer looking at something insignificant. What we do need to discover is exactly how pervasive the problem really is. I would find it really difficult to believe that the number of affected children would be as low as to be rendered as insignificant. However, there are two things to consider here:
In my opinion, one child whose rights have been infringed is significant, especially when that child is my own. But quite frankly, I am much more concerned about the threat this behavior represents to our freedoms than I am about the extent of the harm experienced by my children.
So where does this leave us? Well, I have attempted to convince several non-profit organizations and several private practice attorneys that there is a real problem here, but to no avail so far. Obviously this does not mean I have given up. What I need now is help from the public. Please recognize behavior as an assault on our freedoms and speak up. Speak to your state and federal representatives and share your concerns. Write to your local newspapers and raise your voices. Ask your local reporters to go to these award winning schools to ask how many students were “accommodated” like my own. Perhaps all I need is increased public awareness and political support to accomplish my goal (to keep commercial cameras out of our public schools).
As you will notice, the NFL holds their celebration assemblies within a few weeks after the award winning school announcements are made. While I expect the NFL will shrug this off and simply state that this is the speed of business, this may actually be by design for more deliberate reasons. Quite simply, the idea here is to get in and out of these schools with the desired promotional materials before anyone becomes wise to what may be happening and before the euphoria dies down.
This is a continuation of our discussion regarding crowd psychology. While psychological elements such as the bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance come into play here, the dominant element is the diffusion of responsibility. As usual, let’s start with a definition:
“Diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon in which people are less likely to take action or feel a sense of responsibility in the presence of a large group of people.”
Quite simply, nobody does anything because everybody assumes someone else will step up and be the person who actually intervenes. There have been many documented instances where people have endured physical assaults in public and in clear view or within earshot of many people, yet nobody intervenes or helps. It has also been shown that that this phenomenon becomes more prevalent as the group becomes larger because the responsibility to intervene is lessened because it is shared by more people.
Very closely related to diffusion of responsibility is another psychological concept known as the bystander effect. One definition is:
“The bystander effect is the sociological effect where people will sit and do nothing in the face of an event, even dangerous or tragic ones. Although anyone would like to think they’d do something different in the face of a problem, it’s been shown both experimentally and in real life.”
Another, very similar definition is:
“The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer any means of help to a victim when other people are present. The probability of help is inversely related to the number of bystanders. In other words, the greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.”
We have already mentioned the concept of pluralistic ignorance as a psychological factor for influencing the behavior of groups of people to make a decision that may be contrary to that which they would make as an individual and it has been shown to be just as effective in influencing individuals to not speak out.
As we apply the concepts of the bystander effect and pluralistic ignorance to the NFL Play 60 event we can see that they are closely related to diffusion of responsibility. In the case of NFL Play 60, the group appears to be spread across the nation, but it is a group just the same. It becomes easy to see how parents can easily dismiss the disrespectful treatment of their children thinking that some other parent will be the one to speak out. So, I hope all of you other parents who cringed and looked the other way appreciate the efforts and risks I have assumed by publishing my opinions.
Most parents of young children are usually very busy and it may be no accident that nearly every NFL Play 60 Super School award winner has been an elementary school. Typically, elementary school students have siblings which only assure that the parents are just too busy to follow through and carry a complaint very far. There always seems to be something more urgent to work on. The fragmented and lengthy journey I have been on is a testament to that concept.
This entire episode, from the day our children brought home the announcement until now and probably into the future, my wife and I have been divided over this issue. I am not going to delve into the exact nature of that relationship because it is personal. What I need you to clearly understand is that this event did have a very significant and divisive impact on the spousal and parenting relationship. To dismiss this fact would be to turn a blind eye to the impact it has had. Perhaps this is just a coincidental consequence that wasn’t considered if the NFL consciously chose to manipulate the psychological factors we discussed, but this just added another element to those factors that could stifle dissent. The assumption that the parents would need a consensus to take action isn’t correct in this instance.
Was the desire to acquire promotional materials using all of these school children intentionally planned by the NFL or was our situation just an unfortunate circumstance? By now you should figure that I believe the desire to acquire promotional materials from children was intentionally and carefully planned by the NFL.
The NFL and each franchise club maintains a staff of communications experts and media management professionals whose job is to create profits for the NFL by projecting the most positive and marketable image of the NFL to its consumers. I can’t stress this enough because I suspect that the NFL will attempt to brush aside the issue that their demand to use children to promote NFL Play 60 was unintentional or accidental. I don’t believe this, not for a second, and neither should you, especially when you consider that I voiced my objections to NFL representatives. The NFL had an opportunity to consider my input and make appropriate changes, but did they choose to continue to run NFL Play 60 as if I never existed. In essence, the NFL doesn’t care about the few kids that are being shoved aside, just as long as they are able to project to the public an image of benevolence. However, as you should know by now, that is a false image.
|Copyright 2014 Mark McChesney|