Here we go again. We’re only a couple of weeks into the new football season and already everyone’s wringing their hands over the state of America’s favorite sport and television’s most important broadcasting product.
The games are uninspired, the ratings are weak, the players are domestic abusers, and the President of the United States is calling for a boycott. This is a major issue for television because football is one of the last places where advertisers can reliably expect men to watch their ads in real time. Football is also one of the remaining rationales that many families give themselves for not cutting the cord (even though most games could be watched live over-the-air).
This is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago when it football was still gaining in popularity and appeared to be television’s bulwark against the encroachments of the digital world. Of course what goes up must come down and it was inevitable that some marginal fans would eventually peel off and move onto the next big fad, but football’s decline has been so precipitous that it can’t all be the fickleness of fans.
Many of the explanations offered this year are the same as they were last year. For example, the Colin Kaepernick National Anthem protest against alleged police racism metastasized to a full-blown political controversy during the off-season when Kaepernick couldn’t land a job, even as a back-up quarterback.
This has put the NFL in the worst possible situation. The (mostly conservative) white men who are the sport’s core base are still furious that football allowed itself to get embroiled in a political correctness controversy in the first place. But black activists and the media keep the controversy alive by alleging that the NFL owners have conspired not to hire the one-time Super Bowl winner because he’s become such a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter issue. No one was happy – and that was even before President Trump has weighed in with his usual brew of grievance, divisiveness and vitriol.
It’s a surprise it took Trump this long to recognize that the anthem boycotters were pushing a hit button. I would guess that he doesn’t even follow football so didn’t appreciate the furor until ESPN’s Jemele Hill’s ESPN called him a racist, which launched a feud with ESPN that spilled over into football itself. Regardless of why he decided to take on the NFL, his comments threaten to cause schisms in America’s one true religion – watching football on Sunday.
But if the National Anthem imbroglio is turning off fans who don’t want to think about politics while they’re watching football, the ongoing revelations about the impact of football-related concussions is turning off fans who worry about the their own personal morality. These fans always knew that football was violent but it wasn’t until players started publicly dying of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that they began to ponder their own complicity in cheering each violent hit. And it didn’t help when Tom Brady’s wife revealed that even he’d suffered concussions, leaving us to contemplate the specter one of the country’s most glamorous athletes not being able to remember his name some day.
It’s not that Americans have suddenly become pacifists, though. The biggest sporting event of the summer (if you can call it that) was the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight, in which millions of Americans paid $90 to watch a retired prizefighter pummel a mixed martial arts fighter who’d never boxed before. Given the gimmicky nature of the pairing no one could claim to be enjoying the “sweet science” of finesse, balance and strategy that supposedly lends a patina of respectability to boxing. Nope, this was straight-up bloodlust.
If anything, football’s problem with violence isn’t that it’s too violent but that its near monopoly on controlled aggression has been broken. For years, Sunday was the one day of the week when working stiffs could get a catharsis by watching other guys brutalize each other on the gridiron. Sure, there was the occasional spinal cord-severing injury that resulted a player becoming a lifelong quadriplegic, but in general, the players reveled in hitting and being hit and the viewers loved it watching. Somehow, having the players wear helmets and pads kept us from feeling bad about the three or four players who needed to be carried off the field each game.
But as any casual view of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead” knows, there’s a lot more violence on entertainment television now than there is in sports. To say nothing about video games or YouTube videos where you can watch an actual, not just a metaphorical, beheading. And social media now enables frustrated guys to channel their rage as Internet trolls when they might have simply spent Sunday afternoons yelling “Yes!” every time someone on the opposing team was knocked unconscious.
Football isn’t going anywhere, but it seems passé compared to basketball. The league’s owners, led by their doofus Commissioner, seem out of touch and concerned only with protecting their investment. Football will probably remain television’s biggest draw for years to come but it also seems to have entered a period of slow decline. Whether that will be good for the soul of America is an open question but it will definitely be bad for television.