NFL’s Blah Season may Foreshadow a Long Decline

The thrill is gone from the NFL this season. Too many games -- and teams -- are boring and inconsequential. Few players stand out. Injuries determine outcomes more often than not. Games are sloppily played and marred by penalties, replays and endless commercial breaks. Add in suspensions, concussions and bad behavior on and off the field and you have a league in crisis. Reports of long-term brain trauma have interjected a moral component into viewing, accentuating the violence and making games hard to watch for many. Now some players feel it’s their right to use NFL games to promote racial politics. Must-see TV it isn’t.

Ratings reflect the malaise, down over 10 percent on average from last year, double that for Monday night games. Numerous causes are to blame, but the triggering event this season was the national anthem protests started by Colin Kaepernick, the $114 million quarterback who said he wouldn’t “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The people without color he’s smearing make up about 80 percent of the NFL’s audience.

League officials and corporate media have no problem with whites being smeared, but they’re deathly afraid of offending Black Lives Matter or of appearing to side against black players. Thus, they deny the protests have had any effect. Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters last week that the “dramatic decrease” in primetime ratings is basically a mystery, though he’s sure it’s not from the protests. “We don’t think that’s a factor and neither do our network partners,” Goodell said.

Being more PC than their news brethren, sports media had no trouble manufacturing a more acceptable explanation. It’s the election, stupid. The public is simply too engrossed in the Trump-Hillary show to watch football, which makes the ratings drop basically Trump’s fault since nobody is turning off a football game to watch Hillary Clinton.

A Yahoo/YouGov poll quickly put the lie to the election-not-protests meme, however. Of viewers watching less NFL this season, 40 percent blamed the anthem protests while just 17 percent said the election played a role. The poll received little attention from the media since the truth was already quarantined down the memory hole and wouldn’t matter anyway.

For me, the protests served as a catalyst to reevaluate my relationship with the NFL. When I saw Saints and Falcons players walk onto the field before a recent Monday night game, join hands and form a circle to protest whatever they thought they were protesting—and it sure wasn’t their average salary of $5 million a year -- I decided that whenever racial politics precedes a sporting event, I’m turning the channel, be it the NFL or NBA.

That’s no doubt going to limit my sports viewing. Black activism is surging, and the media are both intimidated and complicit. Everybody’s taking a knee.

The protests come as the public awakens to the unavoidable risks of repetitive brain trauma. While the anthem protests have already grown tiresome and meaningless, brain damage poses an existential threat to football that may be insurmountable.

Parents will probably be the final arbiters, Many are growing reluctant to allow their boys to play. Some propose legal limits on the age of players, which would end football as we know it. Leagues from Pop Warner through high school and college may be just a class action lawsuit or two away from pulling the plug on a sport they cannot defend in court.

Ironically, the NFL has spent millions coaxing female fans to overcome their natural reluctance to violence in sports. About a third of the NFL's audience is women, and there are signs that number already is slipping due at least in part to continual cases of player domestic abuse. Head trauma issues are likely to accelerate the exodus.

These transformations can happen quickly, as the NFL is surely aware. Losing viewers at this point may become contagious and irreversible. That’s why the anthem protests must be causing more anxiety than Goodell is letting on. The last thing you want is to give customers with pre-existing second thoughts an incentive to stop patronizing your product.

To make matters even worse, the NFL's demographics don’t look good. A largely colorless fan base is rapidly aging (a whopping 71% is over 35), and youth and Hispanics are largely indifferent to the sport. Combine that with the head trauma problem and the image of a death spiral begins to take shape, much like the one that ensnared boxing and brought it low.

Maybe this forgettable season is a turning point for the NFL— the year it all began to go south.

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