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

The NFL is set to haul in $14 bn this year. But the league is beset by racially charged protests, a 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 forbid football after several much-publicized player deaths. But Pudge, a friend of the president, is thought to have talked Roosevelt into dedicating the game a second chance, indicating the introduction of padding and helmets and prohibiting some brutal” swine heap” tactics such as the flying wedge.

Given current events in the US, many Americans may wish they had a chairperson 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 sports. As much as the league office would like to switching the conversation away from racial politics, 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 member states national” anthem in protest of the therapy of African Americans triggered 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 way the Trump presidency has America. Groups of( chiefly) white fans have lobbied team owneds not to sign him, saying his protest dishonors military veterans and the flag. On the other side, his supporters say teams 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 mob 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 girls 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, including the provision that a player can be disciplined even if he is not legally charged.

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. Photo: Reinhold Matay/ USA Today Sports

But the NFL has bungled and mishandled many cases. Some players have landed longer prohibits for smoking weed than those faced by players who have hit their girlfriends. In this season’s most publicized domestic violence cases incident, the Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott- one of the league’s best young players- saw a six-game suspension for accusations that he assaulted 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 punishment after its own year-long internal investigation, but some wonder why, after years of ugly domestic violence incidents, the punishment was so lighting. 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 estimations NFL revenues will be up $900 m this year. As the late Steve Sabol, president and co-founder of NFL Films, told me in a 2012:” I honestly 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. Complaints that the quality of play in the NFL is declining are apparently more than a matter of perception. Teams have started to discard veterans, who must be paid more than younger players under league regulations, and bring in cheaper, inexperienced players who haven’t had 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 means squads 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] just 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 .”


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

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 concur 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 cites another culprit- London.” It’s a small factor, maybe, but a real one. As lately as 2012, the NFL played one game in London. In 2013 it was two. In 2014 and 2015: three. This year, four. That entails 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 higher the TV ratings, the more people care. It has never actually 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 tale in Sports Business Daily, Jeramie McPeek, the former longtime digital media executive for the Phoenix Suns who founded his own social media consultancy, argues that the main reason for the loss of younger TV viewers isn’t lack of interest but” smartphone and tablet usage 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 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 expensing 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 disease 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 such studies, 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 anxiety of injuring their hands. That destruction is becoming more visible, too: one of the league’s most well known players, Cam Newton, was visibly shaken after taking brutal reaches to the head during last season’s opening game, which was broadcast to millions on national television. Afterward in the season, another of the league’s brightest superstars, Newton’s team-mate Luke Kuechly, was carted from the field, disoriented and in tears. Many wondered what effect the injury would have on Kuechly in 20 years’ hour.

Players are noticing, too: last season the San Francisco 49 ers linebacker Chris Borland retired after simply one season due to fears over football’s effect on his health, and others have followed. The wife 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 NFL stars 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 winner 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 deteriorating 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 lawsuit 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 examines 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 such studies was published:” The decision as mothers is this: are we comfy enough with health risks to set our kids on the field ?”

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

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