Two thousand thirteen was an annus horribilis for the National
Football League. Its signature event, the Super Bowl, was subjected to an unscheduled 34-minute delay when the lights went out at the Superdome in New Orleans. In the offseason, the usual spree of player arrests for drunk driving or bringing handguns to airports was dwarfed by New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez’ arrest on murder charges.
The issue of player safety, meanwhile, loomed ominously, suggesting the kind of existential threat that the sport hasn’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt championed the reforms that led to the creation of the precursor to the NCAA in 1906. The NFL is widely thought to have pressured a television partner, ESPN, to pull out of a documentary it co-produced with Frontline on the subject of head trauma. That film (and the accompanying book), League of Denial, spelled out in excruciating detail how the sport had soft-pedaled the risks of repeated blows to the head over the years. The headlines were so bad that the NFL’s $765 million settlement in August with a group of former players who sued over concussion negligence was seen as a break for the league. It could have been, should have been, much worse, went the thinking.
There was no relief when the season began. The Miami Dolphins’ locker-room imbroglio, in which a white veteran lineman, Richie Incognito, was accused of bullying a black rookie, Jonathan Martin, provided myriad avenues for “national discussion”—the euphemism for sports talk radio filling endless hours with the topic and ESPN trotting out every former player and coach on its enormous payroll for an opinion or 12 on the matter.
It all fed into the undercurrent of unease around football in recent years. The conversation, in the media and at the kitchen table, has devolved into whether we should support a game that, once you remove the dramatic endings to the games and the occasional moment of sublime athletic performance, is so ugly at its core.
So far, the NFL battle tank has managed to overwhelm the doubters. For all the PR disasters, pro football has rolled on as America’s favorite sport and television attraction.
But is football’s position in American culture truly unassailable? We hear a great deal about how the game has already changed irrevocably, how the focus in the last couple of seasons on penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits and other ultra-dangerous blows has legislated the snarl from the game, rendering football far less enjoyable than it was in the “good old days,” circa 2008. There is no question that the emphasis on protecting players, at least the highly paid skill players, has led to not only penalties for what most current fans would regard as “just regular football,” but also to inconsistent officiating from game to game. One referee’s “hit on a defenseless player” is another ref’s happenstance. That dichotomy is frustrating to players and fans alike.
The truth is, the manner in which the average Joe or JoAnn consumes the NFL has changed drastically over the past few years, independent of the rule changes. For instance, fans are more inclined (and able) than ever to consume the league in full, rather than through the narrow lens of his or her favorite team. This perspective is enhanced by fantasy football but also Sunday Ticket, the Red Zone Channel, video games, and the explosion of cable sports outlets, all of which rely on (endless) NFL discussion to fill airtime.
Indeed, watching the league each week is so compelling as a made-for-TV drama that actually attending games seems more and more like a sucker move. Why get stuck sitting through a game in uncomfortable, crappy seats, in bad weather, with all those boring timeouts, fighting awful traffic, and paying outrageous prices, when the full cornucopia of the sport is presented so beautifully to those watching from the couch? This reality must keep NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell awake at night as much as the concussion issue does. In-game attendance numbers are trending downward, with no solution apparent.
The fact that the league’s TV product is so awesome must soften these concerns. The value of live sports to embattled television networks ensures that the stratospheric fees they pay for the right to broadcast the games will continue to flow into the NFL’s coffers—the most recent contract was worth about $3 billion a year. There is simply too much money at stake for the league to go the way of boxing, for example, another violent sport that once dominated the national sports consciousness before dropping into near-irrelevance.