Paradise Lost: why the NFL is slipping.

 

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There is maybe no more famous and duplicated scene in classic television than the ole two sets of eyes hiding in the dark bit. One character, say Daffy Duck, is running from another character, say Bugs Bunny, and seeks refuge in a dark place like a cave. The viewer sees only the whites of Daffy’s eyes dance across a black screen, followed by a sharp exhale marking his relief when he finds he is alone. Shortly after, a second set of eyes enter behind, and some hilarity ensues when Daffy lights a match and finds Bug has been in the cave with him all along.

For many years NFL football was a proverbial “safe space” for Americans. Each Sunday Millions of American men and women sat upon the altar of the recliner, after church of course, and felt the worries of the world fade into the background as they watched the nation’s elite athletes engage in a violent art form. But the sacred bond between viewer and vendor has been shattered. The safe place has been compromised. NFL fans lit a match and discovered the worries of the world have found them in their cave, and they are exiting almost in mass.

Today it was reported that Monday Night Football posted the worst viewership ratings in its history this year. The sporting institution that Dandy Don Meredith drove to the top has fallen on hard times. Other networks and time slots also experienced record lows in viewership this year. This has left pollsters and pundits scrambling. Every shock jock has an explanation as to why college football is experiencing success as its professional counterpart flounders.

The NFL was made great by larger than life, rugged American heroes such as Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Mike Ditka, and Bill Parcells. Since 2011’s collective bargaining agreement’s strict limitations on practice time, the advent of the wide open spread offense, and the rule changes outlawing head to head collisions, the NFL has lost some of that frontiersman grit that made it great. Big hits, two-a-day practices, and so called “smash mouth football” weren’t just some disposable items on the auxiliary of football’s allure. They were core tenets of the game that many NFL viewers learned to play themselves at an early age. These rule and stylistic changes have rendered the on filed product unrecognizable to fans of a bygone era. Ruggedness, desire, grit, determination; these were the things fans loved about football. They seem to be absent from today’s game.

Free agency and the proliferation of NFL players’ salaries have also had an overall negative impact on the game. No one faults NFL players for wanting to get the most money they possibly can. After all, they are quite literally sacrificing their health to play this game. But players now switch teams so frequently that fans scarcely have time to get attached to them. It used to be far more common for a player to retire with the team he was drafted by. This engendered a greater love affair between the fans and the players. Fans love to root for a guy who loves their town, their team. The loyalty has left the game, and as a byproduct so have the fans.

Perhaps the largest contributing factor to this lapse in viewership is NFL players and professional pundits’ insistence to politicize the game. The average NFL viewer doesn’t understand what it is like to deal with police brutality. He doesn’t understand what its like to be subjected to serious, consequential racism. But what he does understand is that wrenching feeling in his gut, that primal rage that rises within him when he sees someone disrespecting his flag. Whether or not kneeling during the anthem is intended to be”disrespectful”, is another discussion for another time. The fact is that the bulk of Americans in the Heartland interpret it that way. Some things are still sacred, even in an era when Americans watch their great institutions devalued and delegitimized daily. That flag remains sacred.

I’m not sure when it happened, but one day many NFL fans found that football no longer served as an escape. Somehow sport and politics got all rolled into one. That’s not to say NFL viewers don’t care about racism, or gay rights, or concussions. They do, they just thought that maybe in this era of national bifurcation, that this one institution may be spared from the fight. They were wrong, they are angry, and their escape, their weekend paradise is now lost.

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