What does the average person want out of a sporting event? I don’t mean die-hard sports nerds, the kind of people obsessed with Statcast exit velocities, who make NBA greatest-of-all-time arguments wielding measurements like Win Shares and VORP. (In other words, not people like me.) I mean the average human beings whose eyeballs every sports league is fighting for, the Joe Q. Normies who watch “NCIS” and have only seen two movies in a theater in the last five years, both of them Top Gun: Maverick. You know: the mass consumers.
When these people sit down to watch a game, I’m not sure it matters much who wins or loses, who the best-known players are, or even where the teams play. What matters, I think, is the answer to the following question: Does watching this make me think about the outside world in any way? Or can I truly escape everything for an afternoon? The NFL, which kicks off its season Thursday night with a game between the Buffalo Bills and the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, understands that its mastery of escapism is the secret to its incredible, almost overwhelming success. As you consume its product, the league wants you to forget about everything else going on around you, including anything that might be wrong with the NFL itself. On one hand, this attitude can be socially irresponsible and more than a little gross. On the other: Isn’t providing a brief respite sort of the job of entertainment in general? And boy, is the league good at that job. It has made its mission to be all things to all people, like Coca-Cola or Chevrolet. And it has succeeded magnificently.
When you become as massive as the NFL — and it is massive with estimated revenues of $18 billion last year, more than the NBA and Major League Baseball combined — you become something larger than sports: You become an institution. An institution is always going to protect itself first, and the NFL has figured out a reliable way to do that. Over the last few years of seemingly constant controversies, the league has learned that its strategy should not be to deal with those hot-button issues in any sort of systemic manner, but to treat them as temporary public-relations obstacles, which it addresses for a brief period — until, inevitably, everyone gets back to only caring about the football again. Sexual assault among players, concussions, or —God forbid — politics? It’s not that the NFL has completely ignored any of these problems, but that they know their fans are equally eager as the league to move on from them.
It wasn’t long ago that the NFL was smack in the middle of the culture wars. Amid cultural pushback over Colin Kaepernick and other players kneeling for the national anthem, our former president claimed that Kaepernick was the reason “NFL ratings are down massively” (which they weren’t.) And he famously offered advice to executives on how to deal with kneeling players: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.” The combustible situation led to a now-infamous meeting between NFL players, owners, and executives in which 30 grown adults got in a room to try to figure out how to get the president of the United States to stop insulting them. The kneeling controversy — and the blackballing of Kaepernick that preceded it, and really led to it — had dragged the NFL into crisis. And it was only the latest in a string of them, from the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident to Deflategate to CTE.
But having survived all of those intact, NFL has learned not to take any new mess too seriously. After all, there’s always something. At the most recent annual State of the NFL press conference that Goodell hosts the week of the Super Bowl in February, the commissioner stood before a pack of hungry reporters and answered questions about the most pressing controversy of the day: the lack of Black head coaches, exposed by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores’s lawsuit against the league. Goodell deployed his usual strategy: Look grave, be vaguely apologetic, say things like “there is work to do,” and run out the clock. Flores’s lawsuit is ongoing, and the league still has only three Black head coaches (two of which were hired immediately after Flores’s lawsuit), and yet I haven’t heard a single mention of any of this in weeks. The DeShaun Watson fiasco is another recent example. The league attempted to stay out of the negotiations around his punishment, before stepping in at the end to push for his suspension to be extended. (It ended up at 11 games.) This wasn’t because they were following any kind of ethical code, but to make sure they didn’t look like they were enabling him. With their bases covered, everyone could turn their attention to the impending season. And by the time Watson returns, we’ll have moved onto something else.
I’ll confess: I find myself less angry about this than I used to be. I’ve sort of come to terms with the fact that the league can get away with murder, perhaps literally — and that there may be no way to hold it to account. Or at least I’m thinking differently about who’s at fault for this state of affairs. The league is never not fighting off some controversy, and studies show that football kills a shockingly large percentage of the people who play it. And yet not only has the NFL not taken a hit, it’s more powerful than ever. Is that solely the league’s fault? Goodell & Co. made a bet that people like football so much that there is almost nothing that will make them abandon it. They’ve been proven spectacularly right. The on-field product is still undeniably great, Tom Brady is somehow still around at 45, and the vast majority of fans just want something to take the edge off. Football is as American as cold beer and hot dogs. And no one wants to know how hot dogs are made. They just want to eat them.