Let’s face it: the National Football League has had its share of controversy the past couple of years. The player protests over the national anthem and the looming specter of middling quarterback turned political lightning rod Colin Kaepernick have damaged the league in the eyes of many.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell thought he could quell some of the brouhaha by issuing a blanket policy banning 0n-field protests, but that act just stirred the hornet’s nest further.
The league may have hurt itself by wading into political waters. A recent poll shows that even some of the NFL’s hardcore fans are losing interest. One former Super Bowl champion even went on Fox Business this week to express his belief that the NFL’s problems with protests are just beginning.
Burgess Owens, who played in the league for ten years and won a Super Bowl with the New York Jets in 1980, told Fox’s Stuart Varney that he believes the coming season and beyond hold problems for the NFL. “This is about a global reach,” Owens said on Monday. “It’s about a corporation that understands that they need to get past the American market.”
Owens believes that the league has forced itself to “demean the NFL brand” by allowing politics to divide and frustrate fans. “This is the worst of the leftist,” he said. “They can care less about patriotism … our country – they care about their profits.”
Certainly the NFL has damaged its reputation as an all-American sport in the eyes of so many people. I encounter folks on a regular basis who say they will never watch the NFL again — and they take their grievances to social media. Television ratings have dropped for the league as well, and that’s one of the ways politics can affect the bottom line.
But are the anthem protests the only problem the NFL is dealing with? Not by a long shot.
One of the biggest issues with the league outside of politics is the problem of concussions and the long-term effects they bring. Last week I wrote about how concussion fears have affected college football, and the NFL isn’t much different.
Player safety should be paramount, and fans should never sacrifice the well-being of the players for the enjoyment of the game. Rule changes are making a difference, but they can only go so far. The NFL must also be willing to seek out and adopt new technology to protect players. On the same note, corporations should be willing to help develop solutions. We’re a modern, capitalist society, and our marketplace should be able to provide the solution that improves and saves lives.
Restlessness and dissatisfaction among NFL owners isn’t helping the league. Owners have expressed their grievances with Goodell, as Andrew Brandt of Sports Illustrated reported back in November:
Two reported events are cause for concern. First, Texans’ owner Bob McNair, in trying to manage an explosive situation with his players, shined a light on the ownership—or at least a segment of ownership—dissatisfaction with NFL senior executives…
Further, a team source confirmed to me the accuracy of an ESPN report that 17 of the 32 owners convened a conference call to discuss NFL leadership from, as he called it, “the top down.” In my ten years in the NFL I never heard of such a call that debated league leadership and for whatever reasons, excluded certain teams from the call.
Perhaps the most pernicious problem the NFL has outside of player safety — and yes, I’d rate it higher than national anthem protests — is the instant replay. What was once a tool meant to help referees and broadcast teams has become yet another catalyst for controversy.
Officials wrongly overturn plays week after week. Just listen to the boos in the crowd when the replay of a contested call comes on the screen. We’ve even seen the refs overturn game-changing plays.
Reviews affect the viewership experience as well. Though game time actually goes up and down over the years, the amount of time that reviews take up has increased. In fact, game stoppage of all kinds is on the rise, as Ty Schalter points out:
…what fills all that screen time is different. The average number of incomplete passes, penalties called and plays reviewed are all the same or higher, meaning we’re spending a larger percentage of those three-plus hours watching referees make decisions, players stand around, or commercials commercialize.
These interruptions have made the viewership experience less exciting, particularly for younger viewers who are used to having more control over what they watch.
The NFL needs to work out the national anthem controversy one way or another — that much is true. But the league has plenty of other problems that it should address if it is going to recover and sustain long-term growth. Here’s hoping leadership can figure out how to fix these issues.