You’d think that a retired guy like me would have lots of time to watch sports on TV, and I do. I choose, however, not to give much of that time to professional football.
I used to be a big fan of the National Football League, sitting transfixed in front of my tube for hours on Sundays, and on Monday nights. Hooked by a point-spread system that makes every contest an intriguing proposition, I bet on many of the games and won enough to maintain my interest. I could chat knowledgably about things like the West Coast offense and the Tampa 2 defense. I chuckled at the witticisms of Johnny Madden and wished that Dennis Miller would take his act elsewhere.
I still watch some NFL games but fewer than before, and with less interest. When I watch now I almost always have a newspaper or crossword puzzle close at hand. I don’t think I’ve seen a half-dozen games beginning-to-end all season. There are whole teams of which I can’t identify more than three or four players—or coaches, for that matter. I no longer bet on the games, saving the money for losing on the horses. Call it a reordering of priorities.
It’s no news that I’m not alone in my change of heart. The NFL’s television ratings—the league’s bread and butter in what is basically a made-for-TV sport—have been down for two years now, with about a 9% overall ratings drop this season from last following an almost-identical result in 2016 from 2015. The league still is a TV powerhouse, outdrawing all other programming categories, but added up that’s an almost 20% decline, one that you can bet has rattled boardrooms on Madison Avenue and vicinity.
There are reasons for the slump that have little to do with the game on the field. One is the fractionalizing of the TV audience that’s been in progress for decades. Another is the addition of Thursday- and Sunday-night games in recent years, which may have oversaturated the market. A third is the abandonment of regular TV by people wanting only the sort of quick updates and highlights they can get on their cellphones (I’m told—I don’t use one). Concentrating on one subject for more than a few minutes seems to be beyond many nowadays. That doesn’t seem like a good thing, does it?
Our president, Mr. Trump, takes credit for the trend because of his criticism of some NFL players (read that “black athletes”) for being insufficiently patriotic when they knelt during the playing of the national anthem during some early-season games to protest police brutality toward black suspects. He may have a point, but I suspect that his motive (beyond stirring up his “base”) stemmed mostly from personal pique against the league for rebuffing his team-ownership overtures over the years and embarrassing his old U.S. Football League in the courts in the mid-1980s. For more on the latter subject see Jim Byrne’s book, “The $1 League.”
I’m generally for what Trump is against (and vice versa), so his barbs didn’t affect my thinking. My quarrel is with football itself and how the NFL presents it. Specifically, the league’s mulish insistence on “getting things right” through its endless reviews of game officials’ rulings has ruined the game’s continuity and, often, produces more questions than answers. Further, and more important, recent revelations about football’s physical toll on its players has mixed my admiration of those rugged guys with a big dose of pity. That feeling doesn’t make for happy viewing on a Sunday afternoon.
If you’ve followed my writings you know how I feel about video reviews of field-officials’ calls: I don’t like them. Sports are contested by humans and should be judged by them, period. If mistakes are made, too bad—everyone makes them—and in the long run they balance out.
I know that technology isn’t going away and will forevermore be part of our games, but in its self-importance the NFL has made much too much use of it, abandoning its product to Talmudic discussions of its rules and their microscopic application. Better than any academic experiment the NFL’s multi-angled replays illustrate the elusive nature of truth.
Making this exercise worse is the stupidity of some of those rules. A ball-carrier is awarded a touchdown if the nose of the ball grazes the end line, even if it’s immediately fumbled away, but to score a pass receiver not only must catch the ball securely and come down with it in the end zone but, it seems, take it to the sideline and turn it over to an equipment manager. It’s no wonder that every week some fans go away muttering that their teams were robbed.
Football always has been physically dangerous to its participants—more dangerous, I think, than non-players realize. To best appreciate its level of violence an NFL game must be viewed from the sidelines, where the sounds and the very feeling of its collisions can be experienced up close. The central fact of life in the league is that after the second or third week of a season every player plays injured, and few men escape even a short professional career without permanent damage to at least one bodily part. Add in the extra weight many of today’s players must carry to maintain their positions (300-pounders were all but unknown in the game 30 years ago) and you increase the possibility of heart problems.
And in the last few years, despite the league’s camouflage efforts, the real dangers of head injuries have become clear, upping the ante many fold. Investigations into the subject are just beginning but I think it’s already evident that between a quarter and a third of NFL vets will have cognitive difficulties, i.e., scrambled brains, down the line.
Yes, NFL players are volunteers, and well-paid ones, but one can only shake one’s head at the risks they run in the name of entertainment. That alone is enough to cause a change of channel.