Like a TV zombie that takes multiple hits to the body, the National Football League continues to survive, and thrive. The September 20 Sunday Night Football game between Seattle and Green Bay led all programs that week with over 26 million viewers. According to Variety.com, “This was the largest audience for a Week 2 NFL primetime game in 24 years (since Dallas-Washington on ABC’s ‘Monday Night Football’ in 1991).”
We could have seen this coming. The Hall of Fame game on August 10, the NFL’s preseason opener between the Steelers and Vikings that featured neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Adrian Peterson, had a 6.9 rating, (according to CBS Sports) better than Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals and both the American League Championship and National League Championship openers.
This all seems incredible based on how the NFL has presented itself as a tone-deaf botch-fest this year. We have witnessed many events that would weaken most corporations. Yet pro football keeps gobbling up brains.
So what, if anything, could possibly derail the NFL’s popularity? We asked a number of journalists their thoughts on the topic and categorized their answers.
Most seem to have joined this camp (well, less “joined” than “acquiesced to”). Even those who posited potential problems with the league included disclaimers. Nothing, it seems, shall damage the allure of the shield.
BSMW head Bruce Allen laid out the bullet points: “Well, what hasn’t derailed the NFL’s popularity? An active player arrested and convicted for murder. Numerous drug arrests and suspensions. Concussion and brain damage studies. Numerous domestic violence incidents. An inept boob of a commissioner who has been proven a liar on more than one occasion. Made up scandals (Bountygate and Deflategate) which the WWE wouldn’t even attempt…
If those things haven’t – I don’t know what will.”
Tanya Ray Fox, writer for SportsGrid, had a similar outlook, including a few specifics and a New England perspective.
“Let me put it this way,” Fox said. “In a league where a superstar QB has been substantially accused of rape, a superstar RB was videotaped beating his wife, a Hall of Fame LB was arrested for rape, a former TE is in jail for murder, a former DB and NFL Network employee is in jail for serial rape, and Pacman Jones is still playing (Note: a rundown of Jones’ arrests here), you know who the fans hate the most? Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who they believe have been in six of the last fourteen Super Bowls because they cheat.
“Think about that. Fans still watch loyally, despite the fact that they think the most successful team in the NFL are cheaters and the rest of the teams that they hate far less are peppered with violent criminals. If that’s not enough to take away even a fraction of the fan base, I don’t know what is.”
Dan Duggan, NJ.com Rutgers football beat writer, agreed. “I really don’t think anything (can derail it), at least in the short-term. We all get outraged about the off-field issues, and then we dedicate all day Sunday, Thursday night and Monday night to watching the NFL.”
Duggan did hint at a possible pitfall. “Maybe there will be an effect down the road as parents shy away from allowing their kids to play football due to concerns about concussions. But I can’t see the popularity of the NFL diminishing any time soon.”
The greatest trouble for the NFL lurks within this issue. Just a few years ago, we would hear about a player from a past era dealing with what was then an alleged – and seemingly rare – brain injury. Now, in real time, we’re witnessing the decline of recent retirees whom we followed into the new millennium; meanwhile, young players have decided to hang up their cleats early. The most recent report from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) puts the rate at 96 percent of NFL football players tested.
The study comes with caveats, of course. The brains that have been tested came from players who showed symptoms and/or had concerns. Still, we could see these occurrences increase. We have to ask: will more and more of our favorite players live out their post-NFL lives in constant physical and mental pain? That’s tough to consider, and even harder for the league to spin.
“The only thing that could remotely threaten the league’s popularity is the concussion issue, and even that is probably not enough to stop it.” said Mike Giardi of CSNNE.com. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re just scratching the surface on the staggering amount of brain injuries players have suffered in the past, and I wonder if eventually we get to the point where players are forced to sign waivers, absolving the league of any legal responsibilities and the financial burden that can come with it.
“That’s obviously a slippery slope, but unless there are some dramatic rule changes – say no helmets – then this will continue to be an ongoing issue. But by and large, I think the average fan doesn’t care. They want points, they want big hits and they enjoy the potential that you can rebuild your team from year to year if needed.”
Mark Daniels, football writer for The Providence Journal, said, “I think it would come down to the concussion issue. I still think we’re a long ways away from that, but it would have to get to a point where parents didn’t want their children playing because they were fearful of head injuries. If people stopped playing, then you might see a diminished product on the field. But so many people love this sport and it’s so popular, I don’t know if I see that happening in my lifetime.”
Reiss said, “Head trauma and concussions remain issues worthy of further exploration. As we learn more about it, perhaps there is a possibility that the game becomes more challenging for the general public to support. Admittedly, that seems like a reach right now.”
“You know, at this point I’m not sure if anything could (derail the NFL’s popularity).” Young said, adding, “Parents are rightfully concerned about their own kids playing, but that doesn’t mean they won’t watch someone else’s kids play. Maybe if we start seeing an increase in former players committing suicide (i.e., more Junior Seaus), that could affect it.”
The concussion/CTE issue puts the NFL in a tough spot. They have to admit their product can cause irreparable damage to its employees, yet the scheduling of Thursday night games reveals players’ health remains a minor concern. If former Patriot guard Stephen Neal can allude to NFL games as “car crashes every week” and few people bat an eye, it will take more time – and more exposure of damaging effects – for health issues to make a difference in fans’ minds.
While most respondents considered the long-term, chronic effects of playing football, Christopher Price of WEEI.com brought up another, more immediate danger. What if, he asked, a player died because of an on-field injury?
“I think that would cause the rest of the world to take a hard look at player safety and and the level of violence associated with the game. You’d likely get Congress involved, and there would be hearings, which would (inevitably) lead to other revelations, most of which would probably come down to money. I think the fallout from something like that would be incredibly severe, and making a sizable impact on how the game is viewed and played going forward.”
In 2005, Al Lucas of the Arena Football League’s Los Angeles Avengers died of blunt force trauma to the spinal cord. A write-up of the incident from 2013 can be seen here on Grantland. A high school player from New Jersey died last Friday night, cause as yet unknown.
These deaths happen rarely enough that they can be viewed as aberrations, but if an NFL player were to get killed in front of tens of thousands of spectators and millions of TV-watching fans, how would the league handle that? Is leadership prepared for this?
Which brings us to another potential issue…
In talking about the leaders of the NFL, I am reminded of a slogan from 30 years ago: Certs have Retsyn.
Sounds like an Eastern European language? Let me explain: the Certs breath mint company created an additive (basically cottonseed oil, sugar and flavor) specifically so they could mention it and set themselves apart from competitors (as does this vintage commercial).
“The NFL has integrity.” Right? They use words like “integrity” and “shield” as if they mean anything, as if they give the NFL something that other professional leagues can only long for but never attain.
We’re talking about a league with a commissioner that has – on the record – mischaracterized the testimony of two different players. Roger Goodell said Ray Rice lied to him; a judge disagreed. Goodell said Tom Brady did not mention speaking of the football scandal with his equipment manager. Brady’s appeal transcript showed that was not true.
“And maybe,” Young said, “if Goodell keeps making such stupid decisions, that could affect interest.”
Maybe. It seems probable the commissioner will make more mistakes; therefore, it must be possible he makes one or two big enough to actually make an impact. But how big do those gaffes have to get?
We know they’ve busied themselves with keeping the shield clean, but have the heads of the NFL stayed in touch with fans’ interests? As Reiss said, “Any time you are No. 1, there is always the possibility of resting on one’s laurels and not pushing harder to continue to improve and be proactive against competitive threats. Resisting against that is critical.”
This topic provides fascinating hypotheticals. What could possibly draw viewers away from the NFL?
We look past baseball, basketball, and hockey because, frankly, they’ve had their chances. Soccer? Too many teams, too many leagues, too many countries. And too floppy for the taste of many.
Maybe we’ll see a non-traditional sport like “American Ninja Warrior” grow, where we root for the contestants (rife with human interest stories) and root against the obstacle course. At some point, there could be a kind of live-action single-shooter video game, a choose-your-own adventure where viewers would text an actual human being where to go in a game of laser tag.
Mixed martial arts has gotten popular. But then we go back to the health/concussion issue.
I dunno. Is dodgeball still viable?
Well. Maybe something can take viewers away from football, but hell if I can predict it.
If you watch television for more than two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, you will see an ad for a fantasy sports website. On these sites, visitors pay money to participate in a fantasy league. According to DraftKings.com, “Daily fantasy sports is a skill game and is not considered gambling.”
Hey, remember when Pete Rose gambled and got banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame for life? Bet he wishes he’d had the Internet.
This angle seemed to intrigue Matt Chatham, founder of footballbyfootball.com, writer for Fox Sports “Game of the Week” breakdown, analyst for NESN and ESPN, and volunteer Super Bowl 38 security guard. Chatham sees the NFL’s potential downfall in the money that exchanges hands outside of NFL arenas.
“Reversal of some law regarding fantasy sports and some government overreaching would be the biggest potential blow,” he said. “Stripping away a huge new part of the audience that likely otherwise wouldn’t watch. TV revenue projections and ad values are based (I believe) on the assumption that that audience will be there and continue to grow. If for some reason it was gone overnight and there were a competing product that could accept that audience, that’s probably the most plausible scenario.
“But I don’t think that’s happening. Very unlikely. The wagering (legal, fantasy and otherwise), the league, and the communities that have these teams are symbiotic at this point. They both need each other. There would be holy hell to pay if it was ever disrupted, for politicians, whatever. So in the absence of choice, everything will be done to maintain the status quo.”
Young said the NFL could also get hurt “if some major scandal like finding out games are fixed is uncovered. But really, at this point I don’t think anything could have a major impact on numbers and interest, and fantasy plays a huge role in that.”
Related to Young’s point, let’s look at officials not for what they do or how well they do it, but for their role in upholding the (dare I say it) integrity of the game.
As Price said, “If there was some sort of overarching scandal involving officiating and/or gambling regarding major games, like the conference championship and/or the Super Bowl. I’m not just talking about Donaghy-esque style issues with regular season contests between the Bucs and Jags. If there were marquee games that were found to be not on the level, the fallout would be massive. The ripple of suggestion that games might not be on the level would in turn create sizable waves throughout the sports world – namely distrust among the NFL’s fanbase.”
Fans don’t trust the NFL front office or its players. They do trust the game itself and the effort put into each one. Taking those elements away could deal the biggest blow of all.
Concussions/Injuries, Leadership, Competition, Gambling, Officiating. All possible traps for the NFL. But, for now at least, it looks like they shield is safe.
Chris Warner has email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and tweets: @cwarn89