On the surface, the NFL seems to epitomize conservative values. Yet the league’s structure is surprisingly progressive. (More)

When asked whether professional football best reflects conservative or progressive values, many people would likely say conservative. Professional football is a hard-nosed, testosterone filled sport that involves aggressive competition by the players and teams. The NFL brings in $9 billion in revenue every year, the average team was worth $898 million in 2006 and made $30.8 million in income, and the teams are owned by multi-millionaires. In short, the NFL would appear to perfectly encapsulate the values of unfettered competition that conservatives purport to hold dear.

But a closer look at the NFL shows that such competition occurs within a thorough system of rules and revenue sharing that enables the league to thrive and remain popular and profitable for all involved. If that sounds familiar, it should – it is quite similar to the type of economic regulation and investment in the common good that progressives believe, and history shows, are necessary for our economy and society to thrive.

For example:

Rules: The rough and tumble competition between players and teams during football games takes place in the context of a series of rules that make sure that games remain fair and watchable. The game simply would not function without rules placing certain limits on the types of plays that may be run and prohibiting players from being offsides, pass interference, and flagrant fouls, or without referees to oversee enforcement of those rules.

The Draft: Every year, the NFL holds a draft in which teams can choose and work to sign eligible college players to join them. In an effort to ensure that all teams remain competitive over time, the ordering of the picks in the draft are based on the teams’ records, with the worst team from the year before picking first, and the Super Bowl winner picking last.

Revenue Sharing: While some teams are more popular or come from larger TV markets than others, the NFL requires revenue sharing under which all teams get an equal portion of the revenues. This approach prevents big-city market teams from being able to perpetually win due to the economic advantage they would otherwise have without revenue sharing.  In fact, one of the smaller market teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, has the most Super Bowl victories – six – of any team in the league.

Players’ Union: The players in the NFL are represented by a strong labor union that ensures that the players get a healthy portion of the revenues from the league in the form of salaries. The rules negotiated by the union also ensure that team owners plow much of the shared revenue back into their teams, rather than simply lining their pockets with the revenue.

This system of rules works to create a wildly-successful sport, though one that needs to do a far better job addressing the issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other brain injuries caused by the repetitive hits to the head that the game involves.  The average team value increased more than 212% between 1997 and 2005, average team income rose nearly six-fold between 1997 and 2005, and the league’s TV revenue deals are worth more than those for Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association combined. And it works because the competition involved in professional football occurs within confines that makes the games fair and watchable, ensures that all teams have reasonable chance to be competitive, and allows the players to earn a fair share of the revenue that their work earns for the league.

Whenever Tea Party Republicans go off on one of their anti-government rants, I often think of the NFL example and how regulation has strengthened, not weakened, the league. Tea party Republicans argue incessantly for deregulation of the financial markets and industry, but just as a football game would fall apart without rules, economic collapses such as the 1929 stock market crash, the S&L crisis of the 1980s, and the real estate and financial crashes in 2007-2008 occur when we lack the regulations needed to keep the financial system working and the regulators necessary to enforce those regulations.

Tea Party Republicans criticize government programs that try to provide basic assistance or opportunity to the less-fortunate in society as illegitimate socialism. But just as the NFL would become a non-competitive league ruled by a handful of super wealthy teams without revenue sharing and basing draft pick order on the teams’ records from the previous year, society witnesses increasing economic inequality and decreasing social mobility without those programs.

And Tea Party Republicans criticize labor unions as inhibiting the unfettered free market, but just as the NFL players would receive far less of the significant revenue generated by the league, American workers have increasingly lost their secure middle class jobs as unions have declined in our country.

Now we can and should, of course, have spirited debates over exactly what the government should and should not do, and the most effective and efficient ways for government to carry out the tasks that are appropriate, just as we can debate the appropriateness of particular NFL rules. But today’s political debate is no longer focused on those questions. Instead, the Tea Party Republicans, aided by their billionaire sugar daddies and the conservative media, paint essentially all government as illegitimate and oppressive. If you imagine an NFL football game without any rules, you can see just how ridiculous the Tea Party Republican position is.