NFL's Tumultuous Year Seen As Sports' Top Story Of 2017 By "OTL," USA Today
The "big story of the year begins and ends" with the NFL, as the tumult included the "politics, the dollars and the conflict between the most visible owner and the commissioner, whose new contract became a hill upon which Jerry Jones chose to fight upon” according to ESPN's Bob Ley. ESPN's Ryan Smith said, "This was the year where their dirty laundry got aired out, and that's not something that we've seen" either from ownership or from Commissioner Roger Goodell. Smith: "Going into 2018, they've got to figure out how they're going to change and adapt. That’s always been the thing with the NFL, they've been able to stay their current course and never really have a problem. But now, there are cracks in the armor. We saw a lot of that this year from the way the league is run, from how the ownership interacts with the commissioner, from how the commissioner runs his office." Goodell has had a "lot of staying power, but this was the year when people start to look at the NFL and say the luster's gone a little bit." ESPN's Will Cain admitted the "image of the league is tarnished," but he said he remains a "believer in the National Football League." Cain: "If I were an investor, I would buy into the National Football League. ... Even if it's going downhill, it is the biggest thing going on in sports. The NFL, I think, is going to be fine" ("OTL," ESPN, 12/27). USA TODAY's Tom Schad also noted the "unrest in the NFL" was the top story in sports this year. When President Trump "used an expletive at a September rally to describe NFL players who protest during the national anthem, he turned an already massive sports story into the story of the year." Trump's comments "prompted a major backlash from players (and, in some cases, owners) that rippled across the league and the nation at large." Meanwhile, though Colin Kaepernick has "largely remained out of the public eye over the past year," he "remains a key figure in the movement." That includes filing a "collusion grievance against NFL owners" (USA TODAY, 12/28).
POLITICAL HOT POTATO: ESPN's Jeremy Schaap said the heightened polarization of the NFL brand cannot be brought up "without talking about politics." He said, "They're getting it from both sides. If you're looking at it from the political right perspective, you’re saying, ‘How is the league letting its players disrespect the flag and the anthem?’ If you're looking at it from the political left, you're saying, ‘How is the league allowing players to put their bodies in this kind of danger now?' and 'We’re not going to let our kids play this sport.’ Eventually, that’s going to trickle up to the league itself, and it’s not going to be America’s Game the way it has been for the last half century” (“OTL,” ESPN, 12/27).
OTHER ISSUES ALSO IN PLAY: In DC, Deron Snyder wrote the drop in the NFL's popularity is a "referendum on the league itself." The NFL’s problems "extend far beyond Kaepernick and the aftermath." Waning interest became a "major issue last season and was blamed on the presidential campaign." But viewers who tuned out for political discourse "haven’t returned in the same force, apparently realizing after weaning themselves that they could survive with less pro football." Uneven disciplinary measures "have been a repellent, too, whether issued for domestic abuse, medical marijuana or underinflated footballs." Goodell’s "tone deafness and heavy-handedness form a brutal combination, making his product less attractive to fans of reasonable and rational leadership." However, hubris is the "biggest reason for fewer fans in the stands and in front of TVs." The NFL "clearly considered itself too big to fail" and that growth was "inevitable and revenue was endless." Goodell "was wrong" (WASHINGTON TIMES, 12/26).
LOOKING IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR? With the NFL's ratings on Christmas weekend down from '16 and the NBA's ratings up for their Christmas day games, ESPN's "First Take" asked whether the NBA had overtaken the NFL in popularity. ESPN's Jalen Rose noted the NBA's rise in popularity is "going to continue to happen for a multitude of reasons," including "all of the issues that the NFL has continued to navigate." He added the NBA is a "global sport," noting international stars like Mavericks F Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Bucks F Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Knicks F Kristaps Porzingis (Latvia). Rose: "You can't continue to grow when you're only talking about the United States. That's another glass ceiling that (the NFL) has yet to be able to shatter." However, ESPN's Cain was adamant the NBA "has not surpassed the NFL." Cain: "The NBA has a lot going to it. The main thing it has going for it over the NFL is it has personalities and stars, which amount to soap operas that we love in the offseason as much as we love during the season. The truth of the matter is when it comes to the games and the season, we love the NFL and it's not close. The NBA Finals drew 16 million viewers on average for those games. ... An average NFL game on Week 3 averages 15 million viewers" ("First Take," ESPN, 12/27).