NFL still a giant as it prepares for new season but storm clouds collect

The NFL is set to haul in $14 bn this year. But the league is beset by racially charged protests, credit ratings dip and players brain damaged by the contact sport

William Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger was America’s first pro football player: he earned $500 for a single game for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association in 1892. Thirteen years later, he saved the game itself. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt was under pressure to ban football after several much-publicized player demises. But Pudge, a friend of the president, is thought to have talked Roosevelt into giving the game a second chance, suggesting the introduction of padding and helmets and prohibiting some brutal” animal piling” tactics such as the flying wedge.

Given current events in the US, many Americans may wish they had a chairman like Roosevelt. And as storms swirl around the country’s most profitable league, many in the NFL wish they had an advocate like Pudge. It’s an ominous sign when most of the publicity concerning America’s richest league- its revenue is expected to reach $14 bn this season– isn’t about athletics. As much as the league office would like to shift the conversation away from racial politics, domestic violence and the perception of declining quality of play, these and other issues dog the NFL as it prepares for the opening game of the season on Thursday night.

On the first day of the season , no NFL team has signed Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49 ers quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl in 2013. Last year, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans sparked a national disagreement and touched a nerve in the NFL, in which virtually 70% of the players are black.

Kaepernick’s stand has polarized NFL fans in the same style the Trump presidency has America. Groups of( mainly) white fans have lobbied squad proprietors not to sign him, saying his protest humiliations military veterans and the flag. On the other side, his supporters say squads are guilty of blackballing a player who has made a stand against racial injustice. Last month, the dispute literally landed on the NFL’s doorstep: a crowd of supporters rallied outside league headquarters in Manhattan waving signs that read” Hey NFL, grannies say thank you Colin Kaepernick” and” Should speaking out against injustice cost you your job ?”

But the Kaepernick issue is far from the league’s only problem. Domestic violence is not new to football. In 1994, the Washington Post reported that 140 current and former professional or players had been reported to police for violent acts against women from 1989 to 1994 alone. Then, in 2014, in the wake of public outcry against Roger Goodell’s light punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice, who was caught on video punching his girlfriend, the league adopted a much tougher policy against domestic violence cases, including the provision that a player can be disciplined even if he is not legally charged.

Tom
Tom Brady led the Patriots to the Super Bowl last year. Despite its many problems, the NFL is expected to increase its revenue in 2017. Photograph: Reinhold Matay/ USA Today Sports

But the NFL has bungled and mishandled many cases. Some players have landed longer bannings for smoking weed than those faced by players who have hit their girlfriends. In this season’s most publicized domestic violence incident, the Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott- one of the league’s best young players- saw a six-game suspension for allegations that he attacked a former girlfriend upheld( he will still play this Sunday, as his instance is reviewed ). Elliott was never charged by police. The NFL handed down the penalty after its own year-long internal investigation, but some wonder why, after years of ugly domestic violence cases incidents, the penalty was so light. To stimulate matters more muddled, the NFL appeared to ignore the advice of its own examiner that Elliott should not be suspended, and the player’s appeal is heading for tribunal.

Not that these problems will necessarily affect the league’s bottom line: the Sports Business Journal estimates NFL revenues will be up $900 m this year. As the late Steve Sabol, chairwoman and co-founder of NFL Films, told me in a 2012:” I frankly don’t think the fan who turns on their Tv at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon in the fall is conscious of the fact that the team he’s watching has players who beat their spouse or girlfriend .”

Then there are the problems on the field. Objections that the quality of play in the NFL is declining are apparently more than a matter of perception. Teams have started to dispose veterans, who must be paid more than younger players under league regulations, and bring in cheaper, inexperienced players who haven’t had is high time to perfect their craft. According to Football Outsiders , the average age of a pro player has dropped to a record low of 26.6 years, down almost a full year over the last 10 seasons. That entails teams are left with players who have yet to absorb the complex playbooks that are crucial to success.

The Baltimore Ravens head coach-and-four, John Harbaugh, told the Ringer: “[ There’s] merely not a lot of technique anywhere. This is a real serious concern , not just for the quality of video games, but for the well-being of these young guys coming into the NFL .”

Rookies

On the flip side, the legendary football novelist Dan Jenkins doesn’t think Harbaugh’s concerns are shared by viewers:” Do you think a viewer cares that a wide receiver who makes a spectacular catch and run for a 60 -yard touchdown was able to do that because a safety who was supposed to cover him turned the wrong way? All that matters to someone watching is that the play was exciting .”

Nonetheless, it’s a known fact that ratings for regular and postseason NFL games( with a few exceptions) were down 9% last season– about a million viewers a game- and most analysts agree we’re looking at a trend. One reason for the deterioration, Brian Goff wrote in Forbes, was politics and baseball:” The presidential debates[ in 2016] lopped about 3 million viewers while the World Series reduced viewership by 5 million in 2016 and 4 million in 2015.”

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg quotes another culprit- London.” It’s a small factor, perhaps, but a real one. As recently as 2012, the NFL played one game in London. In 2013 it was two. In 2014 and 2015: three. This year, four. That means four games were played in the early Sunday morning time slot, which is not a place to build a large Tv audience .”

Rosenberg cautions, though, that” for decades now, we’ve had a simple calculus: the highest the TV ratings, the more people care. It has never really been that simple. Baseball, for example, has experienced booming popularity even as national TV ratings have declined .”

The TV audience for the NFL has also become older too- the average viewer’s age in 2016 was estimated at 50, four years older than in 2006- but that may not mean younger people are not watching at all. In a recent story in Sports Business Daily, Jeramie McPeek, the former longtime digital media executive for the Phoenix Suns who founded his own social media consultancy, highlights the fact that the main reason for the loss of younger TV viewers isn’t absence of interest but” smartphone and tablet utilization by younger people who are on Snapchat or Instagram all day and watching a lot of videos on YouTube and Netflix. Rarely are they watching TV and they are on their device constantly where they can watch videos on demand .”

Luke
Luke Kuechly is carted from the field after an apparent concussion. Photo: Jeremy Brevard/ USA Today Sports

But by far the biggest problem for the NFL is something that is costing men “peoples lives”. A recent examine published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examining the brains of deceased NFL players showed that 110 out of 111 had signs of the degenerative brain illnes CTE( in mitigation, the brains were donated by family members, most of whom said their loved ones had reported CTE symptoms during their lifetimes ).

” We can’t say from this sample whether the rate of CTE in pro players is 1% or what; we have no notion ,” Dr Ann McKee, who led the study, told the New York Times in 2016. But, she added,” I don’t think it’s extremely rare. I would have to have some golden touch to see this many, if it were .”

The problem is that as football became more sophisticated, so did the padding, helmets and other protective gear. What no one envision, though, was that the helmets and padding didn’t so much protect players as turning their bodies into weapons, much in the way gloves let boxers to deliver harder punches, more often without fear of injuring their hands. That extermination is becoming more visible, too: one of the league’s most famous players, Cam Newton, was visibly shaken after taking brutal hittings to the head during last season’s opening game, which was broadcast to millions on national television. Later in the season, another of the league’s brightest stars, Newton’s team-mate Luke Kuechly, was carted from the field, disoriented and in tears. Many wondered what impact the injury would have on Kuechly in 20 years’ period.

Players are noticing, too: last season the San Francisco 49 ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after just one season due to concerns over football’s consequence on his health, and others have followed. The spouse of the NFL’s best-known player, Tom Brady, wants him to retire in order to protect his body. It’s hard to blame them. CTE can only be diagnosed after demise, but some of the testimony of former is heartbreaking as they describe “peoples lives” after football.” You try to[ say]’ All right, I’m gonna get a little more sleep, maybe it’s something I did last night, maybe something I drank ,’ or whatever it is ,” said the Super Bowl win Warren Sapp, who is now 44.” You try to find a reason that it’s not that it’s my brain. That I’m not degenerating right before my own eyes. It’s the most frightening impression, but it’s also a very weakening impression because you feel like a child .”

On 7 January this year, the final approving was put on a billion-dollar settlement agreed to by the NFL as the result of a suit being submitted by more than 4,500 players and their families. By the 4 August deadline, more than 18,400 players and associates( out of a potential 21,000) had filed for compensation. But many believe this is merely the first wave of lawsuits from youth to high school to college football programs that could end up driving video games out of existence.

It may not be long before studies like McKee’s begin to limit the number of players playing organized football. As Forbes’ Bob Cook, whose son plays high school football, wrote after the the study was published:” The decision as parents is this: are we comfy enough with health risks to put our children on the field ?”

All those problems may have had even Pudge struggling to save the game. Increasingly, his descendants may opt for the quieter- and safer- grasslands of baseball and soccer.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *