Let us all stipulate that this has not been a good decade for the NFL, which has been so riddled with controversy and scandal that it had no choice but to relax the rules restricting flamboyant touchdown celebrations.
Don’t see the connection?
Don’t kid yourself. The decision this season to allow players to have a little more fun in the end zone was a subtle indicator that commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL’s owners were finally starting to recognize that they were losing touch with both their players and their fans.
The signs since then have not been subtle at all.
The only surprise is that it took so long for the league to grasp that arrogance is not a virtue … and it took so long for the fans to figure out they were being taken for granted.
The NFL barely blinked when it was shamed by its inadequate — and some would say unconscionable — response to the long-term danger of concussions. It tiptoed around the issue of domestic abuse until the damning Ray Rice elevator videos left no choice but to take the problem seriously. It survived a playoff cheating scandal in which the cheating team (the New England Patriots) still was allowed to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
In each case, the league took some reactive measures and continued to reap huge profits and giant increases in franchise values. Apparently, the product was so attractive that the industry could survive just about anything.
That’s probably still true, but events of the past 14 months have certainly punctured the NFL’s aura of economic invincibility.
What started out as a quiet protest by a struggling former Super Bowl quarterback put Goodell and the owners in the middle of a damaging controversy that was inflamed by the president of the United States and defied the efforts of the greatest public relations machine in American professional sports.
Goodell, caught between the players and a large chunk of the fan base, did his best to walk a fine line between allowing Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest to expand and mollifying angry customers who largely viewed it as a league-condoned display of disrespect for our military. But there was no way to win this one.
Throw in the widely held suspicion that Kaepernick has been the victim of an ownership conspiracy to keep him unemployed, the series of injuries to some of the sport’s biggest stars and an obvious decline in the quality of play on the field this season, and it’s starting to look like the NFL has been hit by a perfect storm of fan discontent.
The backlash hasn’t yet shown up in the league’s attendance figures because almost all NFL tickets are sold before the season begins, but it has been obvious in the stands and in the television ratings.
In the middle of all this, Goodell’s future as commissioner was briefly called into question when powerful Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently threatened to sue the league to force a full ownership vote on Goodell’s new compensation package.
Anyone who believes all this chaos portends a long-term crisis, however, should consider that the owners are about to give Goodell a five-year contract extension that could pay him as much as $200 million over that period if he achieves all incentive levels. His current annual compensation is close to $40 million, which equals almost a quarter of the salary cap for each NFL team.
They can’t be that worried.
This all will pass and the NFL will continue to print money because we fans have a short attention span and a tremendous hunger for the entertainment provided by professional sports. That was true after the large fan exodus that shook Major League Baseball after the damaging labor war of 1994-1995. It will be true this time.
We won’t know for sure until the season-ticket renewal forms go out next spring, but there was a significant bump in the ratings for Sunday night’s nationally televised game between the Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles and the season is inching closer to the playoffs.
Oh, and don’t forget all the entertaining end zone antics.