“Born to Play,” an ad for the NFL that ran during Sunday night’s Super Bowl matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, promoted the league’s global recruitment program. The spot featured a spunky, adorable young Ghanaian boy, Kwesi, who loves (American) football and, after running around Accra playing an imaginary football game with NFL stars (Saquon Barkley, Justin Jefferson, Cameron Jordan and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) finds himself at a very real NFL recruitment camp. There, the ad suggests, Kwesi’s hopes and dreams are realized.
International recruitment in places like Africa, it would seem, is one of the NFL’s solutions to a declining game. Youth participation in the U.S. has steadily diminished since 2009, amid concerns about the game’s major health risks, chiefly brain damage. The 2021-22 National Federation of State High School Associations’ High School Athletics Participation Survey revealed a 12.2% decline in youth participation from a 2008-09 peak, and it “was the first [year] on record with fewer than a million players participating in 11-player high school football in America since the turn of the century,” according to the U.S. News & World Report. And this has shifted the demographics in participation, too, as kids from more affluent backgrounds withdraw from tackle football, and participants are increasingly from poorer communities.
A league that had $11.98 billion in revenue in 2022 recruiting in more economically vulnerable places like Ghana, which for so long were plundered by colonizers, seems like a natural extension for an organization known for being racially exploitative, but it is particularly dismaying given America’s legacy of slavery. The optics of the league’s white billionaire owners mining Africa for Black bodies in a dangerous sport are, well, not good.
It is, of course, important not to strip the Kwesis and their families of agency here. Playing in the NFL is a dream for many young players, wherever they live, and the financial benefits can transform lives, sometimes outweighing the risks of playing for some. Conversely, it is also important to note the NFL has also been mired in criticism for being a racially predatory organization.
In 2012, thousands of NFL players and their family members filed a class action lawsuit against the NFL, seeking compensation for the neurological damage those players sustained from playing the game. And while the plaintiffs won, the NFL participated in a horrifying practice called “race-norming.” The NFL alleged that Black people have lower cognitive abilities than white people, so any damage done to their brains would inherently warrant less or no money. That racist formula limited Black plaintiffs’ access to the $1 billion in damages the NFL agreed to pay in a settlement. The NFL finally ended “race-norming” in 2021, after a civil rights lawsuit accused the organization of racial bias and outrage ensued.
Furthermore, Brian Flores, the current defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, and a former head coach for the Miami Dolphins, accused the organization of being racist in a 2022 lawsuit. In an excerpt from the filing, he accuses the NFL of operating like a plantation:
[T]he NFL is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation. Its 32 owners — none of whom are Black — profit substantially from the labor of NFL players, 70% of whom are Black. The owners watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line every Sunday, taking vicious hits and suffering debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains while the NFL and its owners reap billions of dollars.
Yet, as Sunday night’s Super Bowl ad suggests, the NFL wants to expand its racial exploitation. Thus far, approximately 7% of NFL players are already of African descent. “Growing the NFL globally is a major strategic priority for the League and developing our footprint and fandom in Africa is an important part of this vision,” Brett Gosper, head of NFL Europe & Africa, said in an NFL press release in April 2023 ahead of a planned recruitment camp in Kenya. “We are excited to expand NFL Africa into Kenya and look forward to creating opportunities for the next generation of African players and fans there to engage with our sport.”
Again, while recruits have agency and the reasons for joining the NFL are varied, we must also acknowledge the desperate social and economic conditions that compel some people to pursue such a dangerous career in exchange for financial compensation — and the fact that the NFL is turning to communities where people are likely to be more vulnerable to such tradeoffs. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as the NFL pipeline dwindles, domestically, the organization has turned to places like Kenya and Ghana to fill the gap. Sadly, it’s a move that reeks of colonial exploitation.