Don King, the NFL and the Power of Uncontroversial Controversy

It’s 4am, Halloween morning, Zaire 1974. You and thirty thousand compatriots wade through a damp 20th of May Stadium. Save a behemoth in red shorts, and his millionaire supporters, every single man, woman and child of the tens of millions closest to you are screaming for the underdog fighter, whom you believe – whom you are sure – is the Greatest of All Time.

Ali Crowd

Fast forward to last Monday Night.

A Hail Mary is ludicrously ruled to be a touchdown gifting the underdog Seahawks a home win on Monday Night. Ready. The call is under review. Set. “After reviewing the play, the call on the fields stands.”


In the hours after the expeditiously dubbed “Inaccurate Reception,” and for the next few days, tens of millions of casual and hardcore fans, along with every corner of the national media took to the nearest mountaintop to scream, bloody murder!

The moment had been building. Week after week, game after game, bogus call after bogus call, an exponentially increasing amount of people across the country had something very important to say about America’s favorite sport. (Those in Baltimore said it best.)

But this one wild play magnified the nation’s unrest tenfold. Millions tweeted, thousands if not hundreds of thousands blogged, and an astounding seventy thousand people called the NFL league office to voice their displeasure

The Sportscenter immediately following the MNF fiasco drew a record 4.5% of US households – higher than any college football game so far this season. The mad intrigue in the controversy continued for days, as all of the ESPN’s midday opinion shows received huge ratings.

There isn’t much we love more than hearing people on TV badmouth the establishment. Folks like – who you might have guessed spend most of their time complaining about TV sports coverage – praised the balanced coverage of ESPN, saying “Everyone on-camera wasn’t afraid to speak out against the league.”

Nobody was afraid. Every analyst on every network including the NFL’s own, railed against the miss call and the ongoing labor dispute, prophesying that it would have a devastating impact on the image of the league.

Even non-sports shows like the Today Show and The Colbert Report chimed in on the abomination.

How could the NFL be so arrogant, so hard-headed, so irresponsible, so….genius?

Americans love money, football and scandal. When a scandal over a big money contract impacts football – now that’s a story! Through the appointment of division III referees as temporary replacement officials, not only did the NFL get everyone and their mom screaming about the sanctity of their product – they got everyone to do so together, on the same side of the ledger. No one could get enough of the controversy, because everyone was right – and everyone knew they were right, because everyone was agreeing with them. We all took turns shouting our agreement.

There is some truth to the adage, all press is good press, but that was only half of the NFL’s success these past few weeks.

Sure, the NFL product has been worsened so far this season – but it was always on the verge of being righted back to normal.

Steve Young, perhaps the most thoughtful and highest profile critic of the NFL during this stretch, said over and over again on shows like the PTI program, the NFL suffers from “inelastic demand”. In other words, no matter what the league did the public’s consumption of the league would not be negatively affected.

Well, that’s true. But what about all the possible measures the NFL can employ toincrease interest in its product.

Last season, the noise around the lockout – which amounted to exactly 1 missed preseason game – lead to the highest early season ratings in over two decades. Like a man that passes through a near-death experience goes out and celebrates life – the nation cherished football more than ever simply because they had feared they were going to lose it.

This year the league did itself one better, having its big off-season controversy spill over into the start of the regular season. Once it reached its boiling point, poof, it was magically corrected.

They got us talking about how bad it was. They corrected it. Now we’re going to talk about how much better is. Win. Win. Win.

The only event in history I can think of where millions of people were driven to such a unilateral, one-sided hysteria was when Muhammad Ali traveled to Africa, championing the cause of Black Pride and taking on the face of the establishment.

Over the past three weeks, we have all been the Congolese watching the Rumble in the Jungle.

The integrity of professional football was Muhammad Ali; we couldn’t adore him more if we tried. His speed, his power, his ‘and what?!?’ personality – he symbolized us at our best and most fearless.

Even when he was clinging to the ropes, dodging and blocking the world’s most powerful blows, we had faith his guile and inner strength would eventually win out. When he did emerge victorious, we danced in the streets. We turned to our brother and saw no difference in politics or class, only a mutual love for all things right in the world.

Ali in Zaire

Now you might say – but look the NFL’s still standing.


In this case the brute, George Foreman figure in this contest was not the National Football League – despite the fact they shared an ugly, arrogant, one-dimensional strength that threatened to annihilate the noble figure we love.

Foreman, who we cursed, who we called uncivilized, who we told our man to kill, was not in fact the establishment, only its tool. He was just another passing challenger soon to be proven no match for the ingenuity of OUR man. George Foreman was the labor dispute.

The NFL was Don King, getting paid for the fervor surrounding the contest, almost indifferent to the outcome.

Don King put his arm around Ali in public and around Foreman behind closed doors. The stronger Foreman looked – the more money. The meaner Foreman looked – the more money. The more noble and righteous Ali looked in comparison – you guessed it – the more money.

The worse semi-legitimate football looked – the more we screamed for the real thing. The more we joined together in support of Ali. During these three hysterical weeks of sub-par football, we realized just how much we adored the product the NFL is now selling us, and will be selling us for decades and decades to come.

And like Don King in 1974, the NFL enjoyed a picture book finish to the contest.

Two players go up for the ball. One catches it – the other tries to wrestle it away. The wrong decision is made. Perfect. At that moment, it looked almost like the NFL sky was falling down. What better time for the NFL to give the signal: you get off the ropes. Give the people what they want.

Foreman goes down, King doesn’t bat an eye. Like any other warm blooded man in Zaire, King runs out into the ring, smiles big and praises the Greatest of All Time.

Don King

Anyway, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for some football.

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