NFL Owners Exist To Be Hated

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From: Daniel Engber
To: Luke O'Brien, Barry Petchesky

As a mustachioed American, I was pleased to see Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and his glorious handlebar celebrated by the crowd at EverBank Field on Monday night. But as a sports fan, I was appalled. Rooting for your team is one thing; rooting for your team's financial backer is another.

Team owners exist to be hated by the fans; that is their role. It doesn't take any athletic skill, of course, to purchase an NFL franchise, only the means to do so and a desire to sit in the league's House of Lords. Once you've bought that peerage, you're one of them—a plenipotentiary from the world of finance, the guy holding the keys to the lockout. If that makes you a villain—a Mr. McMahon for football—then so much the better: Next to you, even the best-paid athlete looks like a humble working man. The best thing about the billionaire owners is their knack for making millionaire players seem like regular Joes.

There are some situations where an owner might seem lovable at first glance. My very close, personal friend Mark Cuban, for example, hasn't been afraid to spend money and speak his mind to support his Dallas Mavericks—and he brought Mavs fans an NBA title. But paying big salaries and fielding a winning team are just about the only things an owner can do to win our support. And even then it seems like he's just doing his job. If he were to provide anything less—a stingy payroll, a losing team—I'd call him greedy or worse. And if he billed my city for a new stadium, raised ticket prices, and then failed to re-sign Jose Reyes ...

Shahid Khan might try to claim some credit for being a newbie, a long shot, or a Cinderella of the boardroom—he is, after all, an immigrant interloper in the "old white boys club" that runs the NFL. In buying the Jaguars, though, the Flex-N-Gate auto-parts mogul has taken on the job of football boss-man, wherever he's from and whether he likes it or not. The man is not an underdog; he's the top dog.

Which brings me to the coin toss, and Luke's touching—but totally insane—paean to unfairness on the field. To say that "humans—particularly those prone to sports fandom—crave" such abridgements of due process ignores not just the entire history of sports fandom, but also a fair chunk of Western culture and a number of key findings in psychology, biology, and economics.

Not only do humans crave fairness, they appear to be programmed at the deepest level to seek it out. In laboratory games, we'd rather give up free money than see someone else get more than we did. It's not just humans, either: There's also evidence the capuchin monkeysand even dogs feel the same way. Dogs, Luke. Dogs. That could explain why everyone loves an underdog: There's something about one team being way better than the other that makes us angry. (I realize that what Luke actually said in his post was that people don't crave unfairness so much as they crave the opportunity to complain about unfairness after the fact. So when I said above that he was being "totally insane," that was unfair.)

In any case, a coin toss might be fair in the sense that both teams have a 50-50 chance of winning it, but it's unfair because a coin flip shouldn't determine the outcome of a physical contest. That's why we should replace the coin flip with something more closely related to the game of football. How about a two-point conversion contest, carried out like overtime penalty kicks in soccer? Or a game of field-goal H-O-R-S-E?

Barry, do you agree with Luke that the NFL seems contrived and scripted? Sure, as a national sport with humongous cable and network deals there's plenty of blather in the broadcasts. But professional football does seem less arbitrary in its officiating and more surprising or improvisational in its outcomes than the other major sports. If I don't know on opening day who's going to make the playoffs, I think that's good enough.

Daniel Engber is a senior editor at Slate, and writes for the magazine about science, culture, and sports.