NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently told Mike Florio of NBC Sports that American football should “absolutely” be an Olympic sport:
We’re already taking steps to gain that [International Olympic Committee] recognition. We have, I think, 64 countries that are playing American football now, and that’s one of the requirements. That’s been growing dramatically — I think it was 40 just five years ago.
There is, in fact, an International Federation of American Football (IFAF) that sponsors a series of world championships. Goodell’s “64 countries” figure reflects the number of national American-football federations recognized by the IFAF. It’s unclear, however, how many of these groups actively sponsor contact football. Only half the IFAF’s members participated in last month’s organizational meetings, and only a handful of federations are located in Asia and Oceania. The IFAF also has an African representative on its board but no member federations from that continent. And some IFAF members, like Thailand, appear to sponsor only a five-on-five flag football variant rather than 11-on-11 contact football.
The IOC requires a sport be widely played in at least 75 nations spanning four continents to merit consideration for the Olympic program. Even by Goodell’s count, the IFAF is at least a dozen members short. And judging by the most recent IFAF World Championship, held last year in Austria, the depth and quality of international American football leaves a lot to be desired. As you would expect, the United States easily won the gold medal. Only eight nations participated in the tournament. Unlike more established international competitions, where countries have to go through some sort of qualifying, only Europe had enough participants to stage a regional tournament.
Australia qualified as the only representative of IFAF Oceania without playing any preliminary matches, and it showed. The Aussies lost their three IFAF matches by scores of 61-0, 65-0 and 30-20. Similarly, Japan only needed to defeat South Korea to qualify, which it did 76-0. Japan actually won the first two IFAF championships where the United States did not participate. (It should be noted the IFAF games were played on a ridiculously truncated schedule—four 48-minute matches per team over eight days.)
The 2011 IFAF final—a 50-7 nail-biter between the USA and Canada—was played before 20,000 spectators in Vienna before a stadium that holds more than twice that. Team USA consisted of former college players who couldn’t get into the NFL. I could not identify a single ex-SEC player on the team. The head coach was a recently retired Division II and high school coach.
That’s not to say there’s no American football infrastructure outside of North America. IFAF Europe boasts a large number of national leagues in countries like Belgium, Germany and Italy. The United Kingdom has the most extensive organization, including a three-tier club structure and a college league composed of six conferences and 62 universities—the British Universities American Football League was actually just granted recognition as an official sport by the UK equivalent of the NCAA. (Not surprisingly, the NFL has had a hand in developing the British infrastructure through its NFLUK initiative.) Japan and Australia also have extensive club football programs. The Australians—who market the sport as Gridiron Football—have leagues in six states comprising over 70 clubs.
Goodell Moves to Consolidate His Power?
The biggest obstacle for Goodell’s dream of Olympic American football is the IOC’s insistence on having only the best athletes from each sport participate. In 2005, the IOC removed baseball as an Olympic sport, in part, because Major League Baseball players did not participate. The NBA and NHL both allow their athletes to participate in Olympic competition—in the NHL’s case, closing down the league during the games.
Any participation by NFL players in a potential Olympic tournament would have to be the subject of negotiations with the NFL Players Association. Given Goodell’s history of underhanded—some would say fraudulent—conduct towards the players, it’s highly unlikely the union would even consider an Olympic proposal without concessions from the league on other issues, such as Goodell’s disciplinary powers. That would be a non-starter with Goodell and the NFL franchise operators.
That leaves college players. Again, the IOC strongly disfavors this approach. But even if the IOC could be swayed, the NCAA would be acting against its self-interest to play along. Even if you took the approach least disruptive to college football—say, an all-star team that plays in the Winter Olympics—you’d be asking top college players to risk their future careers and earning ability to play in a meaningless international exhibition (even more so than low-level bowl games).
So we’re back to the current IFAF system, where the USA fields a team of largely unknown small-college graduates with no strong NFL prospects. Such a team would still dominate an Olympic competition—as it has the IFAF—but it’s hard to see how that “grows the game,” as Goodell claims.
All that said, I don’t think Goodell was making an idle or irrational comment when he spoke of Olympic recognition. Clearly the NFL has invested in the IFAF and its national counterpart, USA Football, with the expectation of some future return. There’s a definite plan here. I would speculate Goodell has three primary objectives.
First, he wants to encourage foreign governments to spend money on building American football infrastructure in their countries. Never forget that the NFL is a socialist enterprise—it maximizes the profits of franchise operators while maximizing the risk to taxpayers. Goodell is running out of American markets to swindle. That’s why he’s put so much effort into building up London as a future home for a permanent team.
More to the point, the “growth” of the game is restricted by the NFL’s exclusive dependence on American college football for new talent. The other North American leagues have international talent pools to draw from. The NFL no doubt wants the same thing—unless they have to pay for it. But if you hold out even the prospect of Olympic recognition, you might just get national governments to provide “seed” money and other subsidies.
Goodell’s second objective, I believe, is more domestic in nature. A key condition of IOC recognition is acceptance of the World Anti-Doping Association’s monopoly on drug testing. Major League Baseball’s steroid scandal was another reason cited for kicking baseball out of the Olympics. Goodell failed to get an ironclad commitment to the WADA monopoly during last year’s lockout, notably on the issue of testing for human-growth hormone. He can say, with faked sincerity, that if the NFLPA doesn’t capitulate on this question, American football will never get the Olympic recognition it so richly deserves.
Finally, Goodell may view Olympic recognition as the first step towards assuming greater personal authority over all organized football, not just the NFL. USA Football, which is nothing more than an NFL puppet, describes itself as the “national governing body” for American football. That’s pure myth.
The NCAA is the sport’s de facto governing body; indeed, a number of IFAF members use NCAA, not NFL, rules for their own contact leagues. High school football is regulated at the state level. USA Football currently does little more than hand out meager grants for youth football equipment. But that could change with the specter of IOC affiliation. In addition to drug testing, Goodell could use an IOC-backed USA Football to assert national jurisdiction over setting concussion policy—a growing legal and regulatory threat to the NFL—and ultimately supplant the NCAA and state groups as the sole regulator of football.
Speculation of over Goodell’s hidden agenda notwithstanding, there are no serious prospects for American football in the Olympics. The most obvious indicator of that is the sport the IOC chose to replace baseball in the summer games—rugby. Starting in 2016, rugby sevens, a variant of the traditional 11-man game, will be a medal sport. Sevens are a good fit for the Olympic format, as the matches only last 14 minutes and one stadium can accommodate an entire tournament. If rugby proves even moderately successful, there will be no incentive for the IOC to add a more difficult and less popular (global) sport in American football.