— The Onion (@TheOnion) September 16, 2014
This is what happens when you’re king. Sure, people kowtow to you. But heavy is the head that wears the crown, and the NFL has a great deal weighing on it.
Coming into the season, it looked like the NFL’s ongoing refusal to deal with the nickname of the National Football League Franchise from Washington, D.C., and the bathing habits of Michael Sam, the NFL’s (would-be) first outwardly gay player, were the hot-button issues.
Now, a mere two weeks into the regular season, the NFL is facing scandal and scrutiny over a rash of off-the-field incidents of violence and abuse involving players Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell’s ham-handed disciplining of Rice and allegations that the NFL had video of the elevator assault far earlier than than it admitted, have some calling for Goodell’s resignation. The Vikings’ clumsy suspension/unsuspension/deactivation of Peterson achieved a level of incompetence that would make Daniel Snyder envious.
It’s tough to trust anyone involved in the league right now. Many of the league’s media insiders seem to be carrying water so as to avoid becoming outsiders. The NFL’s TV partners have addressed the stories and made their objections to domestic abuse quite clear, but none of them are going to outright condemn the league. There’s way too much money at stake, and they need the NFL more than the NFL needs them.
Same goes for some NFL sponsors who are finger-waving and issuing toothless statements, just so they can make sure consumers know that they don’t condone violence (except for that on the field, of course) and that you can still enjoy their products responsibly and free of guilt.
If NFL and its partners have played fans for chumps, it’s because we’ve let them. Fans have the power to vote with their pocketbooks and their TV remotes, but few will exercise that power. I’ve read fans on Twitter post stuff like, “I’d stop watching the NFL if it would make a difference, but it won’t, so I’ll keep watching.” After all, no one wants to miss watching Tony Romo implode. (And yes, I am going to watch this weekend because I’m a shameless hypocrite and have profited from the NFL’s popularity.)
Rather than fans turning away from the NFL in disgust over these events, they’re rubbernecking in even higher numbers. Take CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ comments at a media conference this week:
CBS CEO Leslie Moonves on Wednesday alluded to problems with the NFL — presumably accusations of violence perpetrated by star players Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice — but said the network’s ratings for Thursday Night Football were “above expectations.” He even suggested that controversy might have increased viewership for the game, which saw the Baltimore Ravens defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Obviously, Baltimore against Pittsburgh is a very good matchup. Obviously, Baltimore and their team were a little bit in the news, you may have heard, other than the football game, so I’m sure that may have attracted a little bit more attention. Possibly in the wrong way, but it did attract attention,” he said.
“The advertising is terrific … football is still the best thing on television … the ratings are phenomenal, the advertising rates still go up, there are still certain advertisers that have to have it … we love having those games on Thursday night.”
I live in Wisconsin, where football is a way of life. It’s so engrained in the culture here that I can’t imagine any scenario in which fans would stop watching Packers games en masse. I think of some alternate universe in which Michael Vick, Aaron Hernandez, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are all Packers teammates and get in trouble simultaneously. The season-ticket waiting list would maybe be shortened by two or three people, tops. Games will still be sold out. The number of Packers stock certificate burnings would be zero. I’m sure it would be a similar situation with other teams’ rabid fan bases. Fans can be incredibly loyal, sometimes to a fault.
The NFL will be just fine in the near term. It will repair its image rather quickly by suspending people, forming committees, making statements, launching independent investigations and becoming leaders in spaces. Fans will probably forget this all happened by Week 7 because their team is 6-0 and WOOOO! 6 AND OOOOH, BRAH!
But the league could be in serious trouble in the decades ahead. Brent Schrotenboer at USA Today wonders if this crisis could be a tipping point for the NFL’s future. The documented health risks of playing football could dissuade parents from allowing their kids to participate in youth programs, causing the slow decline of interest and talent. Fans will continue to pay more for tickets and PSLs, even though the at-home TV experience is vastly superior. And watching the NFL on TV is going to continue to get more expensive with games migrating to cable and the price of having ESPN and NFL Network only going to get higher. The players are faster and more skilled and athletic than ever before, but the quality of the teams across the board, due to free agency and the salary cap limiting the quality of depth, seems worse than it ever has been. NFL parity seems to have only brought mediocrity. I no longer look at the best teams in the NFL as being the best teams in the NFL — they’re merely the ones that got lucky enough to keep all their ACLs intact longer than the others. The NFL is now penalizing players for doing the things that have made this fast, inherently violent game worth watching. Contrary to the claims of some football equipment manufacturers, helmets do not prevent concussions. Unless the game slows down (not going to happen) or some means of protecting the brain from inside the skull (probably not going to happen) gets developed, football players are at risk of brain injury.
There’s also the NFL’s off-putting hubris and “too big to fail” mentality. Will Leitch of Sports On Earth argues that the NFL’s emergence as a mega-corporation has hurt the fan experience:
The NFL, through television and through its massively efficient marketing talents, is supposed to be as big as it gets. But the NFL is now like any other American corporation: expanding ambitiously and always on-message. This has led some to wonder whether the league is losing its soul a little, becoming less a “game” and more a corporatized “experience” — occasional anonymous men running into each other to fill time between advertisements for erectile dysfunction pills and water infused with vitamins. This is the entertainment business, after all, and the NFL seems to be doing all it can to erase as much of the organically generated (and thus unpredictable) entertainment as possible. If there isn’t room for Johnny Football in football anymore … is it still football?
The NFL would argue that its way is just fine, and considering the most-watched programs on television last year were almost entirely NFL games (19 of the top 20), it’s difficult to disagree. But there is an increasing sameness to the games; the squelching of individuality is lulling us into a sense that these are robots playing rather than flesh-and-blood people.
The NFL will weather this storm has it has many others. But we’re seeing increasingly more flaws in the league, in its business dealings and in the product it produces. The NFL needs to fix them before they’re fatal.
“We’re beginning to see cracks in the shield,” said Jason Maloni, who specializes in crisis communications at Levick, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C. “They may be faint cracks, but they deserve a great deal of attention, because faint cracks always become larger cracks.”
Without repairs, those cracks in the NFL shield will only spread. And then fans may start asking themselves an important question, [Indiana University’s Ann] Bastianelli said:
“At what cost do we want to continue to watch this?”