A few weekends ago, at a seersucker-in-November southern horse-racing event I attended with some lovely and friendly people who will nevertheless be the first ones taken out when the revolution comes, a family friend, an older white man, asked me what I, the one sportswriter he knew, thought of the kneeling NFL players. I told him that while I stand for the anthem myself, I supported the players’ right to express themselves politically and encouraged him to worry less about the kneeling and more about what the players were trying to say. He snorted and said he was done with the NFL until “they stand their ass up.” We then drank some bourbon and found something else to talk about.
Later on, I spoke with another family friend, one with long hair and a big bushy beard and an anarchic spirit (he whispered “Fuck all these Trump people” to me with a winking smile). I had just returned from the World Series and told him in February I’d be heading to the Super Bowl. “I don’t know how you can watch that,” he said. “Just jingoistic military bullshit.” He asked me if I would let my sons play, or if I worried it would “smash their brains.” We then drank some more bourbon and found something else to talk about.
There was a time, not long ago, when the NFL was the most unifying public institution we had. No matter your political or demographic persuasion, the one thing you could find to talk about with someone was football. Richard Nixon and Hunter S. Thompson bonded over football, for crying out loud. Over the decades, the Super Bowl grew into the ultimate American spectacle, the last event that everyone in the country watched together, whether you cared about the game, the commercials, the point spread, or just Left Shark. You couldn’t avoid the NFL if you wanted to. Most didn’t.
Now, suddenly, the league that was once for everyone seems to be in crisis. Worse, it has no natural constituency. Liberals think it’s dangerous, classist, totalitarian, and cruel. Conservatives think it’s pandering, too “politically correct.” A lot of this is attributable, like so much else, to the president. Dozens of players were protesting the first two weeks of the season, but no one seemed to care … until Trump’s weekend tweetstorm from his golf club back in September. But the fact that we’re even framing this in political terms — the idea that a game in which people throw a ball and tackle each other has somehow become another thing for us all to yell at each other about from our ideological corners — is a large part of the problem. You can no longer watch the NFL without thinking of everything swirling around it off the field. The bigger problem for the league is: So many people just aren’t watching at all.
Television ratings have been down for the past several years, with this year’s down 5.7 percent. Why? Part of it is just the shrinking of all TV audiences — broadcasters once thought that live sports were one thing people would continue to tune in for in an age of streaming and cord cutting, but that doesn’t mean sports are immune.
The larger problem is that the NFL, like many empires before it, got too large, too cocky, and too ambitious, and it overreached. One of the main reasons NFL ratings have always been so high is a simple one: NFL teams play only 16 regular-season games a year, traditionally on one designated day a week. This has turned games into must-see events, appointment programming: It makes each game feel special. And for a 16-game season to compete with an 82-game season or a 162-game season, it has to feel special: For the NFL to outearn its rival sports, each game has to bring in many times more TV revenue. Which is one reason why, with television networks so desperate for a ratings goose, the NFL added a Thursday-night game (much against players’ wishes), hoping it would become another must-see marquee event (and allowing beleaguered networks CBS and NBC to fill a night on their schedule). This is increasingly turning out to be a disastrous decision. The games do not have cachet. And because Thursday-night teams are always playing on short rest, their play is choppy and disorganized, the players exhausted. This makes the games ugly to watch, a terrible advertisement for the product. And, perhaps worst of all, it oversaturates the market. The more days you add to the schedule, the less special the games seem. Which means fewer people watch them.
Quality of play is not just a connoisseur’s complaint. The NFL has always been slow to react to issues of player safety, but in recent years, it has instituted a series of cosmetic changes meant to address growing discontent. These changes have arguably failed on both fronts: They’ve made the game less fun to watch, and they’re probably not keeping anyone safer. There is now a “concussion protocol,” in which a player thought to have a concussion is kept out of the game until he can pass a series of tests, which sounds positive until you remember that most doctors say the real danger of CTE for players comes not from the traumatic events but “subconcussive” hits — damage that becomes much worse over time than what the “big hits” cause. This is also the case with “targeting,” a penalty that has evolved over the years and now punishes helmet-to-helmet hits and leads to ejections. But, again, the real danger still comes from the fundamental pounding that football players sustain over years of play. So these targeting penalties probably don’t make any difference, and they’ve taken out some of the violence that many fans respond viscerally to. The NFL, once again, can’t win for losing. People are mad at it for the toll the game takes on the players’ brains, but people are also mad at it because the ways it has tried to address the issue have made the games less kinetic and compelling.
Compounding the problem — and the frustrations of NFL owners — has been the ascendancy of the NBA. Whereas the NFL felt like the sport that best fit the cultural spirit of the past decades of American life, it’s the NBA that reflects the future. All at once, the NBA has one of its greatest-ever teams (the Golden State Warriors), led by an inner-sanctum future Hall of Famer (Kevin Durant) and the league’s most beloved player (Stephen Curry); it has perhaps the best player since Michael Jordan (LeBron James), who also happens to be one of the most vital, globalist brand-called-me icons of our time; and it has a freewheeling, deeply pleasant style of play that is both an evolution of decades of on-court style and irresistible to watch. Perhaps more important, it has actively embraced the personalities, and the power, of its players, from the goofy man-child Twitter giddiness of 76ers star Joel Embiid to the Euro-charm of the Knicks’ own Kristaps Porzingis to an unprecedented spate of political activism culminating in the still-surreal spectacle of LeBron calling President Trump “U bum” on Twitter (which actually shut Trump up; he hasn’t talked about the NBA since). The NBA is vibrant and organic and alive; the NFL feels both toxic and bathed in amber. The league won’t even let the players take their helmets off to celebrate; how much could we possibly be expected to care about these people?
A few weeks ago, sportscaster Bob Costas told a group of students at the University of Maryland that “the reality is that this game destroys people’s brains” and that “the whole thing could collapse like a house of cards if people actually begin connecting the dots.” Costas is a smart man, and more than that, he is a survivor: One of the skills of his career has been understanding which way the winds are blowing and adjusting accordingly. For the past several years, he was the host of the pregame show for the most-watched NFL game every week, Football Night in America. He left the show this year and has been speaking out against the NFL ever since. For the past few years, it was reasonable to wonder whether defending the NFL was going to put you on the wrong side of history. It is becoming increasingly clear that that history is nigh.
*This article appears in the November 27, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.