Apparently feeling impotent due to the realization that he will likely be unable to fulfill his two biggest campaign promises (“The Wall” & repealing Obamacare), President Donald Trump has decided to pick a fight with the NFL over the issue of national anthem protests. The league immediately fired back by saying that his comments, provoked by the never-ending Colin Kaepernick controversy, were divisive and disrespectful.
My own view of this issue is that if the media, and specifically ESPN, hadn’t made it such a big deal (because it was a ratings-friendly pro-liberal narrative) the whole thing would have been forgotten long ago. As a former TV sportscaster who has coached high school football in multiple states, I am also very suspicious that Kaepernick didn’t effectively concoct this situation as way to provide an excuse for why his once-promising career had collapsed due to poor play well before he became even better known for not standing for the Star Spangled Banner.
While there is no doubt that the Kaepernick problem has had some negative impact on the NFL, it seems to me that the conservative narrative that it is causing fans to tune out from the game is probably overblown. There are a lot of reasons that the NFL juggernaut is suddenly very vulnerable, and Trump now urging fans to effectively boycott certain teams are only a small part of that equation.
Make no mistake. The NFL is by far the most dominant sports league and the most powerful force in television. They are the only entity which has an annually scheduled event (the Super Bowl) which demands the attention of at least half of the American population.
But there are legitimate signs that this giant is now susceptible to a rather epic fall. For many reasons other than #TakeAKnee, the league is off to its worst start since taking over the mantle of “America’s Game” from baseball.
– The combined record of teams in the eight largest media markets is 8-16 (and that’s if only if you generously include Oakland at 2-0).
– The league is down to only a few truly marketable superstar players and by far the largest, Tom Brady, is forty years old.
– Thanks largely to the concussion issue and growing fears of the impact of CTE, the game at the lower levels is in disarray and fewer kids are taking up the sport competitively.
As someone who has lived in Los Angeles for over a decade, I am not surprised by the current lack of fan interest here over the Rams and the Chargers. I have never understood how a city which couldn’t support two teams in the early 1990s suddenly could do so now when almost all the new residents who have been added in that ensuing period are demographically far more likely to be soccer fans. Meanwhile, the the core LA football fan from that era is now either dead or no longer attending games.
There are numerous possible explanations for the decline in TV ratings, some of which have nothing to do with the sport, but rather with the nature of the medium. However, the most underrated to me is the impact of fantasy football and rampant player free agency which have severed the fan’s loyalties to a particular team and instead placed them on to individuals with extremely short careers, usually in multiple cities.
Those fans under 35-40 years old, a generation with already frighteningly short attention spans who don’t watch three-hour plus games on TV, have been essentially trained that the team really means nothing, it’s all about the individual. While in the short run these factors artificially increased interest in the game, like a drug user with a bad addiction, the league is now suffering the negative side effects as this group grows older and suddenly the sport/league no longer has the same power over them that it once did.
While the Kaepernick controversy has certainly raised the issue of race in the sport, I think that many have been afraid to voice the league’s biggest problem players like him have inadvertently created. The dirty little secret is that whites, who make up the vast majority of hardcore NFL fans, have no problem with the sport being dominated by black stars, but they need to have at least some significant whites with whom they can identify (some will say this is a form of racism, but why is that no one ever criticizes blacks for openly wanting to be able to root for blacks in sports usually dominated by non-blacks like golf, tennis, hockey, and baseball?).
Kaepernick is part of a wave of black quarterbacks threatening to not only change the way the game is played, but to further reduce the number of white players at the premiere position. With Tom Brady now 40 years old, the average age of the five most famous white quarterbacks is almost 37. With the college game rapidly evolving, the league could soon find itself with a demographic makeup, especially among its most important stars, which is much more in line with the NBA.
The news this week that deceased former star Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of one murder and charged with two others, apparently had a severe case of CTE, the brain injury caused by concussions, has once again raised concerns about the long-term viability of the sport itself. While it is ludicrous to blame the many bad choices that Hernandez made in life all on CTE, I have no doubt that even more parents will think long and hard before even allowing their sons to play tackle football.
The concussion issue is typical of our super politically correct era. Trying to deal with a very legitimate problem has had unintended consequences due to the nature of human beings to react emotionally and to take advantage of a situation when they know they will be protected from criticism.
When I coached in high school, I was stunned by the complete change in culture and the nature of play which the concussion problem had created, both for good and bad, in a relatively short period of time. While no one wants players, especially in high school, to get hurt, there was NO doubt that some of them used the issue as a crutch, and that blocking and tackling suffered dramatically.
As an avid watcher of the sport at all levels, I actually agree with Trump’s comments that the game is not the same. At the lower levels it often resembles a weird combination of track and basketball. That reality is slowly making its way to the NFL, especially since more wide-open play and higher scoring is generally good for highlight reels and TV ratings.
There is no doubt that football and the NFL are going to be vastly different in the coming years. My guess is that while some of those changes are for the good, neither the sport nor the league will hold the same lofty place in our culture as they enjoy today.
After all, as the old saying goes, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” though I doubt that whoever originally said that had any idea of the potential impact of concussions.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[image via dean bertoncelj / Shutterstock.com]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.