What happens when America's most dangerous sport is faced with declining youth football participation and an aging fan base? It turns to the shadowy world of education marketing to turn schoolchildren into brand loyalists.
Before he became a Washington, D.C.-area science teacher, Matt Ross worked in corporate marketing. So he knows a slick sell when he sees one. Case in point? NFL Rush Fantasy—Learn, Play, Score!, a classroom curriculum that purports to teach third- and fourth-graders math and critical thinking skills through the educational magic of ... Tom Brady's touchdown passes and Rob Gronkowski's receiving yardage.
Created by a youth edu-marketing company in partnership with the National Football League and distributed to teachers across the country free of charge, NFL Rush Fantasy works like this: students are taught the basics of football scoring, and then the basics of fantasy football scoring. They are asked to select their own fantasy teams—after registering at the league's official fantasy-for-kids website, of course—before tracking players and tallying points throughout the professional football season. (Students are also encouraged to write written reports on their chosen athletes and play-act ESPN's First Take by pretending they're on television with "two minutes to state why they stand behind their pick and persuade other panelists to agree with their selection.")
Along the way, participants supposedly develop their ability to use statistics, graphs and basic arithmetic, all in service of creating the—hey kids!—"ultimate" fantasy squad. Oh, and if those same kids develop a sudden, nascent interest in the NFL's on-field product that ultimately blossoms into lifelong fandom, then, hey, that's just a happy branding accident, right?
"I look at some of this and it seems pretty reasonable," says Ross, who reviewed the NFL Rush Fantasy curriculum for VICE Sports and asked that his real last name not be used to avoid running afoul of his school district's media policy. "Gaining yardage, multiplying and dividing by 100, adding and subtracting, that is very important. It's tough for a lot of kids."
"All corporate marketing stuff is there for a purpose other than just enhancing the classroom content," he says. "That's not cynical. A lot of this marketing is very, very targeted. The number of brand impressions and messages that children see every day before lunch is staggering. They are one of the most coveted demographics that don't spend money. If the sole purpose was just giving out credible information, these [NFL team] logos and players' names wouldn't be included.
"It's the cigarette model. It really is."
Facing declining youth football participation and an aging television audience, the league is doubling down on its efforts to tackle the next generation of fans. Think a kid-friendly website and apps. A football-themed, Power Rangers-knockoff cable cartoon. NFL toys stuffed in Happy Meals. A multi-pronged effort to slip the league's shield into classrooms, including exercise and nutrition programs and a lesson plan built around football player trading cards. Anything and everything, it seems, save for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hanging around playgrounds with NFL branded merchandise.
On the other hand, it's only February.
Of course, none of this is exactly secret: NFL executives have bragged in the press about being "laser-focused" on schoolchildren, the better to ensure that they become "locked in for life." And that's hardly unique. Targeting today's kids in order to secure tomorrow's disposable adult income is standard operating procedure across the corporate spectrum, a multibillion-dollar marketing long war that encompasses everything from fashion to fossil fuels to the Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour food and drink.
Given the benefit of the doubt, the NFL is merely mimicking other industries, peddling its wares to a particularly receptive demographic; viewed less charitably, the league is less Spongebob Squarepants than Joe Camel, deliberately exploiting children for selfish ends. Boston-based child advocacy group Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood argues the latter. In a recent report titled "Out of Bounds: The NFL's Intensive Campaign to Target Children," the group contends that the NFL's youth marketing efforts are both educationally vacant and downright harmful—deliberately encouraging vulnerable kids to consume unhealthy food, become fantasy football junkies, and buy into a pro-league point of view that includes normalizing the controversial team nickname "Redskins."
"In terms of the effects this stuff can have on kids, we think that when you have corporate propaganda masquerading as education, kids are not being taught to be skeptical," says Josh Golin, the CCFC's associate director. "Similarly, there are some really fascinating studies on kids and advertising. A few years ago, some researchers put the same food in a McDonald's wrapper and a plain wrapper. Kids said the food that came out of the McDonald's wrapper tasted better. That shows how powerful branding is for young kids, and why they need to be protected."
The graying of the NFL
In the mid-1990s, the NFL had a problem. Football wasn't cool enough. At least not among children. Basketball, soccer, video games: all were gaining serious cultural ground. In response, the league hired top executives from MTV, who proposed a straightforward solution. "It's all about getting a football, this unusual-looking object, into a kid's hands as soon as you can," one of those executives explained to the New Yorker in 1997. "Six years old, if possible. You want to get a football in their hands before someone puts a basketball in their hands, or a hockey stick or a tennis racquet or a golf club."
Between 1998 and 2007, ESPN reports, the NFL spent more than $100 million promoting youth football.
Today, the league faces a similar conundrum. According to Variety, the average television audience ages 18 to 49 for NFL games declined nearly 11 percent between 2010 and 2013, while the total number of male viewers ages 18 to 24 fell five percent during the same period. Worse yet for the league, the median age of a league viewer in 2013 had risen to 48.4—"just skirting the edge," Variety's Brian Steinberg notes "of the 18-to-49 demographic advertisers say they covet most."
Meanwhile, youth football participation is down. Way down. According to Sports & Fitness Industry Association numbers cited by ESPN's Tom Farrey, the number of children ages six to 12 participating regularly in football fell 29 percent from 2008 to 2013, a drop that mirrors previous reports. In short, the NFL's fan base is getting older and less lucrative, and the previous fix—create new fans by putting little kids in helmets—is no longer viable, because parents and children are increasingly (and rightfully) leery of football-induced brain damage.
The league has tried to stanch the bleeding by pushing a "safe" tackling initiative through its youth arm, USA Football, that has even seen Goodell himself host tackling clinics for moms. Thing is, there's no evidence that NFL-approved "Heads Up" tackling actually makes football safer—the concept has been around for decades under different names—while mounting scientific evidence suggests that the sport is actually more dangerous than previously understood.
What's left for a league that doesn't want to end up like the newspaper industry? That needs young blood to survive? "The NFL has decided to position itself more like a corporate marketer," Golin says. "Like Disney or Coca-Cola, trying to reach kids through media properties."
Call it the Cocoa Krispies approach—if the league can't convince kids to be active football participants, it can encourage them to become passive football consumers, in part by running a sales playbook familiar to toy and junk food makers. Akin to Hasbro pushing G.I. Joe and Transformers dolls in the 1980s via after school cartoons, the league now has its own Nicktoons network animated series, NFL Rush Zone, which began in 2010 as a series of shorts that averaged 1.2 million boy viewers ages six to 11.
Ostensibly about a group of pre-teen heroes wearing football-cum-Power Ranger outfits who team up with NFL players and mascots to fight anti-football villains and free the "benevolent life force" trapped inside the league's 32 stadiums—sadly, there's no mention of also freeing the billions of taxpayer dollars used to build said stadiums—NFL Rush Zone is basically an infomercial, a way to build brand affinity among grade schoolers who might find actual football to be slow, complicated, and boring. In a 2012 interview with National Public Radio, Nickelodeon executive Keith Dawkins admitted as much:
... [The league] wanted to see if there was a different kind of way that they could tap into a fan base at a young age—6, 7, 8 years old—and create these lifelong fans of the NFL. For us, [our interest is] the Nicktoons network—all animation, all the time, [a] 24-hour network really focusing on boys 6 to 11—so that's when we realized there was a common sweet spot there ...
In 2007, the league hired youth marketing firm Brandissimo to create a kid-friendly website, NFLRUSH.com, that has three million registered users and features contests (can you run a 40-yard dash faster than NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen?), highlight videos ("John Harbaugh: The Sounds of a Winner"), video games (Blitz Botz 2!), and a Valentine's Day poll asking children why they love their favorite NFL team (selectable answers: "they play in my home town"; "the awesome players"; "their sweet uniforms"; "their humane Toradol policy"). Three years later, the league offered more than 16,000 elementary schools an opportunity to win a visit from league players and one of 35 grants worth $10,000. The catch? According to the Wall Street Journal, schools had to outdo each other in showing "the most team pride":
... at Frontier Middle School in Buffalo, N.Y. students in Buffalo Bills jerseys showed their love for the hometown team by stampeding someone dressed as a New York Jets fan. At Ogden Elementary school in Wilmington, N.C., students getting off the bus were greeted by Carolina Panthers cheerleaders and the Panthers' mascot, Sir Purr.
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a small Catholic school outside Baltimore, all 225 students swapped their school uniforms for their favorite NFL jerseys—most of them purple in honor of the hometown Ravens—and appeared in a video where they ran screaming off the school bus. The kids participated in a day's worth of NFL-themed lesson plans in everything from spelling to geography, and participated in a contest to see which student could best mimic the famously barbaric and unrestrained dance that Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis performs on the field before games ...
If $350,000 seems like a relatively cheap price to pay for turning America's primary schools into corporate marketing platforms, well, now you're starting to understand why Goodell earns $35 million a year. Mascot bus stop visits are just the tip of the NFL's classroom marketing spear. The league has partnered with the Department of Agriculture for a "Fuel Up to Play 60" program that reportedly reaches nearly two-thirds of all American schoolchildren—about 38 million students—and supposedly instills healthy eating habits through a series of football-themed awards.
A related "Play 60 Challenge" encourages students to be active for 60 minutes a day. In 2004, the NFL and edu-marketer Young Minds Inspired introduced NFL School Smarts, a free-to-use curriculum that used packs of Topps trading cards to theoretically teach fourth and fifth graders math and technology skills; programs based on fantasy football and NFL Rush Zone have followed.
None of this is by accident.
Cradle to grave
In 2005, then-NFL marketing director Scott Lancaster stood before a projector screen in a crowded conference room at a Florida resort. According to Orlando Weekly, he was there to give a talk to more than 100 fellow marketing executives. The title of his presentation?
"Making Your Brand Kid-Cool and Mom Acceptable."
As journalist Leigh De Armas writes, Lancaster said that children were important to the league because they eventually become adult football fans with discretionary income. He lauded the Madden NFL video game franchise for producing widespread recognition of the NFL brand among kids and teenagers and getting "kids excited about football off the field." He stressed that truly successful youth marketing has to involve parents, too, and that the league was particularly proud of its football clinics that "made soccer moms the coaches of tackle football":
... "a lot of times you'll hear a kid say he can't play football because his parents don't approve, or they don't want him to get hurt. By bringing the mother in to coach, we were not only empowering the mothers, we were appealing to the fact that when children reach the ages of between 12 and 14, mothers will want to spend more time with their kids. This is the age when a lot of kids start slipping away to do their own thing. So by involving the mom, we were not only getting parent participation, it's great exposure for the brand ... "
Lancaster's speech was part of Kid Power 2005, a three-and-a-half-day conference that cost as much as $4,000 to attend; featured guest speakers from the National Hockey League, Reebok, Burger King, and Coca-Cola; and included seminars on how to market in school systems and to children with learning disabilities.
None of this should be surprising. In 1983, companies reportedly spent $100 million a year marketing to kids; by the mid-2000s, that number had grown to nearly $17 billion. In part, businesses are attempting to secure their share of the $40 billion children under 14 reportedly spend every year. They're also looking to implement what a General Mills executive once dubbed a "cradle to grave" model, a marketing blueprint that a Kids-R-Us executive summed up with "if you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come."
Corporations target children for the same reason football players use steroids: because doing so works. In the 2005 book Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, author Juliet B. Schor reported that the average 10-year-old had memorized roughly 400 brands while the typical kindergartner could identify nearly 300 commercial logos. (Remember, kids: when you think sports, think VICE Sports). Studies have found a strong association between alcohol advertising and drinking among teenagers—the more ads children see at younger ages, the more likely they are to drink sooner and drink more. The same holds true for junk food and tobacco use.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a 2010 NFL tracking survey found that 60 percent of its most avid fans began following the sport during their elementary school years, while more casual fans didn't begin following pro football until later.
"Sadly, it was the tobacco industry that learned this first," says Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. "They had to target kids to get them hooked on smoking. Now with any company, the name of the game is to get a child loyal to your brand as early as possible. That will help ensure it for the rest of their lives, given that we know people tend to stay pretty brand loyal with things like Coke and Pepsi."
A public health lawyer whose advocacy helped spur a federal ban on alcoholic energy drinks, Simon says that children under age 12 are particularly vulnerable to marketing because they don't fully grasp the concept of "persuasive intent"—in other words, the idea that marketers will fudge the truth or outright lie in order to sell you something.
In 1989, advertising executive Nancy Shalek told the Los Angeles Times that children were easy marks for another reason.
"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser," she said. "Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable."
Last summer, then-NFL marketing chief Mark Waller discussed the league's youth efforts with the Wall Street Journal. The NFL wanted to make sure kids could play a sometimes complicated game to better "engage" with the sport, he said, but also wanted to use fantasy to help children learn. "If you love football and you teach them math through football," Waller said, "the chances are you may teach them better math and more quickly."
The company that helped create the NFL's classroom fantasy football curriculum, Young Minds Inspired, tells a slightly different story. A 2009 marketing deck—that is, a slideshow presented to potential corporate customers—touts YMI's ability to break through "traditional media clutter" by getting students to interact with brands for "hours"; extending marketing messages "beyond the classroom" via homework; showing that companies "value learning" and "care about families"; and giving brands extra credibility among children and parents by having "teachers they admire and trust present these materials in the classroom."
The marketing deck also lists the aforementioned NFL trading card-based curriculum—the one that teaches, like, geography or something—as a successful case study, with an NFL Players Union executive stating that "had it not been for [YMI's] expertise in the field of 'in-school' marketing, we would have never met our goal of promoting trading cards to the youth marketplace."
"When a child experiences marketing in school, they feel that they are in a protected environment," says Faith Boninger, who studies commercial activities in schools for the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center. "School makes things seem approved. And if their teacher approves of something, that is a reasonable argument that they should be okay with something, too.
"When my own daughter was in fifth grade, everything her teacher said was true. If he had handed out fantasy football stuff, she would have been, 'oh, cool.'"
"They called it propaganda"
Two decades ago, Consumers Union published a report examining corporate curriculums such as NFL Rush Fantasy—Learn, Play, Score!, which are commonly referred to as "sponsored educational materials." "That's kind of a cleaned-up term," Boniger says. "In the past, they called it propaganda." Of the 77 packets studied, nearly 80 percent contained what the report called "biased or incomplete" information. This also seems like a cleaned-up term, given that many of the purported lessons wouldn't be out of place in the film Idiocracy:
... the lofty objective stated for Campbell's Prego Thickness Experiment ("To help your students become aware of the many situations in which scientific thinking plays a part") quickly degenerates into the promotional objective of the sponsor—have kids prove its ad claim that Prego is thicker than Ragu. Domino's Pizza's Encounter Math: Count on Domino's promises to develop "mathematical problem-solving and critical thinking skills," but what it really does is continually remind students of its pizza and its logo. Count Your Chips from the National Potato Board and the Snack Food Association promises to "sharpen skills in computation" but focuses on potato chips and encourages consumption of chips ...
"The most amazing example was from Exxon," Golin says. "This was after the Valdez disaster, and the company's materials were talking about how the Earth was really good at regenerating itself after an oil spill."
None of the NFL's classroom offerings are quite so daft. They do not disingenuously laud Goodell's public relations acumen, nor the human brain's ability to regenerate itself following concussions and/or the onset of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. That said, they're hardly junior Mensa material. The NFL Rush Zone package purportedly teaches vocabulary and geography by having students follow league teams and Nicktoons Rush Zone characters across the country—but a CCFC analysis concluded that the curriculum mostly teaches fourth and fifth graders how to watch cartoons, visit the league's youth website, and better understand football terminology. To wit: according to the CFCFC report, 44 percent of the vocabulary words in the 2012 Rush Zone curriculum are basic football terms like "interception" and "quarterback," 22 percent are names of characters from the animated series, and 33 percent are names of NFL teams.
(Add those numbers up, and that's 99 percent. The entire course, basically. Rush Zone may not include actual useful real-world vocabulary, but perhaps it inadvertently builds math skills).
When the league's marketing isn't turning children into more attentive football consumers, it's arguably making them less healthy human beings. For example, the NFL's classroom materials include the word "redskins." The Rush Zone television show features a character based on the Washington Redskins' mascot, who vaguely appears to be Native American and is called a "redskin." As the CCFC report notes:
... using the term "Redskin" normalizes a racial slur that simply has no place in children's television programming ... it is unimaginable today that in any other context schools would use the term "Redskin" in instructional materials, except in curriculum explicitly designed to examine racism and bias ...
Additionally, the same "redskin" character was was featured in a series of Rush Zone toys given away in Happy Meals by official NFL restaurant sponsor McDonald's in 2013, which means the league is essentially selling kids casual racism to go with their junk food.
Speaking of fast food, one-third of American children's already are overweight or obese. Type 2 diabetes—colloquially known at "adult-onset diabetes"—is becoming increasingly common among kids. Children are bombarded with advertisements for crappy, nutritionally-bankrupt, sugar-salt-and-fat-laden processed food—a 2010 Yale University study found that kids ages six to 11 see an average of 3.2 fast food television commercials a day; that McDonald's was targeting children as young as two at the now-shuttered website Ronald.com; and that the fast food industry disproportionately targets black and Latino youth, who face higher risks for obesity and related diseases.
Additional NFL encouragement isn't helping. In partnering with Nickelodeon, the league is allying itself with what Yale researchers call "the biggest source of food ads viewed by kids," a network that displays 26 percent of all television food and drink commercials seen by children. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, almost 70 percent of all food ads broadcast on Nickelodeon in 2013 were for unhealthy items. By producing a weekly Nicktoons cartoon—and then requiring students to watch the show to complete their Rush Zone school assignments—the NFL is exposing children to what CCFC reviewers say is an average of 16 ads per broadcast, including commercials from McDonald's, Chuck E. Cheese, and Cocoa Puffs.
Then there's Fuel Up to Play 60, the crown jewel of what the NFL peddles as a benevolent, do-good-to-do-well youth marketing approach. According to a written agreement between the league and the Agriculture Department obtained by the CCFC and provided to VICE Sports, the program is not supposed to serve as "a vehicle to sell or promote products or services"—yet as the CCFC points out, the entire thing promotes the NFL, as "students and schools can earn NFL-themed rewards and recognition like NFL player visits, game tickets, NFL footballs and shirts, teacher and student events at local NFL stadiums, and digital prizes." When public health lawyer Michele Simon examined Fuel Up to Play 60, she realized it involved a third partner, the National Dairy Council, an industry advocacy group.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simon says, the $50 million-a-year program promotes consumption of sugary chocolate milk and flavored yogurt and touts the following as a "success story":
... a school in West Fargo, North Dakota, which put up posters promoting dairy week, distributed free Greek yogurt samples, and gave out yogurt bars for correct answers to their dairy trivia game ...
"This is a school-based program to promote dairy, basically promoting all kinds of junk foods that contain dairy, under the guise of education and a NFL sports tie-in," Simon says. "Associating a program like that with the NFL and having these football players telling kids to consume dairy is gold."
As for the league's in-school fantasy football programs? They don't just promote football. They arguably promote gambling, and inarguably promote the multibillion-dollar fantasy sports industry. NFL Rush Fantasy—Learn, Play, Score! requires students to register and interact with the NFLRUSH.com website, which includes a fantasy league for children ages six to 13 that offers weekly and season-long prizes. (Cash prizes range from $500 to $10,000; according to the CCFC, the league calls the cash prizes "scholarships" but pays them out in check form).
Last year, East Carolina University professor Ryan Martin co-authored a study that examined fantasy sports participation among college students. The study found that playing fantasy was correlated with gambling-related problems, and concluded that fantasy should "not be perceived as a 'safe' or 'harmless' form of gambling." Other research suggests that the earlier children begin gambling, the most likely they are to have addictions or problems later in life.
"It's important to know that fantasy sports are gambling," Martin says. "Most kids probably aren't going to have a problem, because most adults gamble safely and don't have a problem. But some kids with mental health issues, antisocial issues, things like that, they probably don't need this early exposure to gambling. A vulnerable group that is predisposed to problems, they don't need this.
"The literature shows that the earlier you are exposed to gambling or cigarettes or alcohols, the more likely you are to have a problem later down the line. So the NFL is increasing risk at the aggregate level. And they don't need to be this desperate for new customers. They already have plenty of customers. It seems kind of predatory."
"Sometimes you need that"
When Matt Ross began teaching, his biggest surprise didn't come in the classroom. It came at his school mailbox, which day after day was jammed with unsolicited supply catalogs, book order forms, and dozens of corporate-sponsored lesson plans.
"You get so much of this stuff," he says. "It's very, very common. At one point, I was like, 'Can I get off these mailing lists? I don't want all this paper.' But you can't get off."
So what does Ross do?
"We have a huge recycling bin right in the main office," he says.
Many of the educational materials given to American students in some way reflect_—or push—an agenda, be it that of a school board, an influential non-profit like the Gates Foundation or a private sector benefactor like the NFL. Some of those agendas are more obvious than others. Four years ago, Scholastic, the world's largest publisher of children's books, partnered with the American Coal Foundation to produce a curriculum titled _The United States of Energy. According to a New York Times report, the program's classroom materials touted the benefits of coal, but did not mention toxic waste, greenhouse gases, or the dangers of mining. The same article noted that Scholastic also offered:
... a lesson plan sponsored by the American Egg Board recommending the health benefits of eggs; a program stressing the environmental wrongs of plastic water bottles, sponsored by Brita, which sells water filters; a $3 million Microsoft campaign in which schools could earn points toward prizes for each Microsoft search; a program featuring Playmobil's small plastic figures; and programs sponsored by Disney, Nestle and Shell ...
The egg curriculum was particularly absurd:
... "All About Eggs" gives teachers a poster showing how eggs journey from farm to table, lesson plans revolving around eggs, and promotes the Good Egg Project, through which farmers contribute one egg to feed the hungry for each student who takes the pledge to "Eat Good. Do Good Every Day."
In the 2010-11 school year, the program included a Back to Breakfast contest in which 12 teachers each won $5,000 for short essays describing how they would use that grant, with the winners creating videos to post on YouTube. In one video, "Eggucation Week Back to Breakfast Challenge," a Chicago fourth-grade teacher tells of teaching her students about the benefits of eating eggs, and asking them to create egg recipes ...
Following protests from the CCFC and other child advocacy groups, Scholastic pulled The United States of Energy from its website and publicly promised to curtail its in-school marketing efforts. It was a rare victory. While some European countries tightly regulate advertising aimed at children—or just ban it outright—the United States does not. Congress actually blocked a 1978 Federal Trade Commission proposal banning ads directed toward kids under age eight, and subsequent efforts to limit youth marketing and schoolhouse commercialism through federal intervention largely have been watered down or beaten back by industry lobbyists.
"Curriculum is not the only thing that goes on in schools with advertising," Golin says. "Companies advertise on school walls, on school televisions, by painting billboards across a row of lockers. One new company puts in what looks like giant iPods—instead of a bulletin board, you have this big digital screen that also has commercials, and even allows you to buy stuff from sponsors.
"One of the ways they market it to schools is by including a gunshot detector. So they're using school shootings as a way to deliver ads from Subway."
Why do schools succumb to corporate marketing, using programs like NFL Rush Zone and allowing companies to advertise on report cards sent home to students? Because they're vulnerable, too. On the macro level, many schools are starving for cash. The Great Recession pummeled state and local finances, and grade school funding remains down. Three years ago, USA Today reported that a Colorado-based edu-marketing company, Education Funding Partners, said it had a goal of bringing $100 million in corporate funding to major public school districts by this year. The company's president, Mickey Freeman, told the newspaper that "the public isn't paying for public education anymore."
On a micro level, teachers such as Ross know how powerful children's advertising can be. "I have this little FitBit-looking flash drive with a PBS Kids logo on it, and every time I wear it to school, at least one kid will look and point and say, 'Ah! PBS Kids!'" he says. "They see the logo and react. It's really kind of spooky. We could be talking about a fire drill and some kid will be distracted by it.
"There are all kinds of things I just won't do because I don't want the kids to see me do it and think it's okay. For a long while, I didn't drink soda in front of them. You're constantly second-guessing yourself. That can be exhausting."
Some days, Ross says, he can't hold the line. His kids are too unruly, too draining. He reaches for a Diet Mountain Dew. And sometimes, he says, corporate classroom materials play the same role. A few weeks ago, Ross had to miss two days of class. He was teaching electricity. He needed something that would make life easier for his substitute teacher. He settled on a packet provided by a local power company. Ross examined it carefully, concluded it was "pretty benign." "One of the lessons was like, 'don't have wet hands and touch electrical outlets,''' he says. "I suppose you could argue that it's in the best interest of power companies to educate consumers to avoid lawsuits, but really it's common sense."
Ross says he understands why other teachers—even conscientious ones—would find the NFL's programs appealing. And other sponsored materials, too. Even in wealthier districts.
"Budgets are tight," he says. "Materials are tight. Enrollment is rising. [But] there are a million reasons as to why people will gravitate to these things. We know that kids are interested in sports, period. This is something they can relate to. The NFL has a big fan base. This is something that a family member might be interested in. Math has always been hard. Anytime somebody can come up with something novel, it's going to get a glance.
"If you even have 20 spare seconds before you go to the recycling bin, if you see something in your mailbox that looks like it is going to solve a problem for you in terms of interest or even time—in my case, it was 'why am I reinventing the wheel? This is something from the power company that would be great while I'm out'—sometimes you need that."
Where there's a need, there's a branding opportunity. The NFL and other companies know that. They aren't dumb. When the CCFC posted its report on Facebook in late January, a user named Allison Zimmer Guiliotis replied with the following: I was the web producer of the NFLRush Zone for Brandissimo at its launch in 2009 up until December 2012. I completely agree with the points in this article and would add that the motivations of the NFL are for profit only and children are only viewed of as future brand loyalists.
Guiliotis—who did not respond to a VICE Sports interview request—isn't wrong. Just incomplete. After all, children aren't the only target of ubiquitous youth marketing. Through cartoons and commercials and websites and lesson plans, the #brands aren't just normalizing their products, be it football or sneakers or carbonated sugar water. They're normalizing the way they sell those products, and to whom, and at what age they begin their assault.
Years ago, former Texas A&M professor and The Kids Market: Myths and Realities author James McNeal—a man considered by many to be the world's leading expert on selling to kids—wrote that "children are consumers in training. Anybody can fool them, deceive them or cheat them. It takes a mighty good marketer to satisfy children's wants and needs and not do anything unethical, intentionally or unintentionally." Left unsaid? That satisfying children's wants and needs is the job of parents and teachers, doctors and babysitters. Not salespeople. Not the National Football League. Not anyone looking to make a buck. Get that confused, and there isn't a recycling bin big enough to hold all the marketing bullshit that follows. Which brings us back to our initial question: is the NFL Spongebob, or is it Joe Camel? The answer, perhaps, is a distinction without a difference.