The NFL hype machine is in full swing, firing on all cylinders and cranked up to its highest volume. The league needs this Super Bowl to do well- or at least keep pace with recent editions. The NFL is in a panic right now because the news has been littered with stories over the past year about sagging ratings, a lagging fan base and flagging interest in the game that has dominated American culture like no other sport in our history.
Imagine the power of a league that has an entire day of the week dedicated to it for a full five months of the year. Imagine the power of a league that has effectively co-opted the imagery of the national military so effectively that the armed services actually pays for the privilege of staging celebratory spectacles on their fields of play with a sharp eye on recruiting young men to sign up. The NFL has become an institution that is too powerful and pervasive to sustain without actually producing anything tangible. And it is perfectly natural that this is happening. So the freak-out over the softening of Nielsen ratings should really stop.
It is not a crisis when an American business peaks and then begins to slowly retreat- particularly when that business continues to generate billions and billions of dollars every year. In that sense, the NFL is following in the footsteps of General Motors, U.S. Steel and IBM- all businesses that actually did produce products and not just entertainment. But because the owners of the franchises are in it for the money their half empty stadiums certainly feel like a crisis to them. That is truly their problem and not ours.
The nation has other things on its mind right now. And maybe the “opiate of the masses” influence that NFL football has had on America has started to wane on its own. On many levels we are outgrowing our juvenile obsession with this game and the rituals surrounding it. Those who seem to think that the NFL has an entitlement to the attention of 80% of American men and 35% of American women every single year are missing the bigger picture. Our culture is awake to so much more now. It is no wonder that politics spilled over onto their beloved NFL shield since they decided to use that shield as a symbol of patriotism after the September 11th attacks. When you decide to drape yourselves in all of that symbolism it is only a matter of time before you have to carry some of the responsibility that comes along with it.
Of course the league was ill-suited and ill-prepared to deal with it and fumbled all over themselves trying to come to grips with the fact that the men playing the game are human beings and not chess pieces, robots or slaves. But don’t believe the hype: the ratings of the league were sagging long before the protests erupted and the owners exposed themselves to be largely an outfit of corrupt, disconnected, entitled and arrogant old white men. It’s fine if that is what you are but some people see that in action and lose a little enthusiasm for celebrating you. The truth is their greed got the better of them years ago and Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks rang the alarm on the impending decline of the NFL. He made the simple point that they were on television too much- that it wasn’t the nature of the beast to be on TV three nights a week when it was already struggling to maintain two nights. But greed is a bitch and that is where the decline started- not when my main man Kap decided to use his platform to ask that unarmed black men stop being killed by police.
And the game itself has changed too. Those of us who have loved the game since we were kids know that it is very different now. The risks are greater because human evolution and human engineering has made it so. The size and speed of the men we are producing now are simply ill-suited to a game where colliding at top speed is required. That particular activity is unwise at best, insane at worst and happens hundreds of times every game. It simply cannot be avoided. Many men like myself loved football so much that we played it for as long as we could- which is typically until the game stops loving us back- but have tried to steer our sons toward other interests for that very reason.
So for all of these reasons, American culture is drifting away from its decades long NFL obsession and frankly we are better for it. But the NFL isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’ll just have to adjust to a little less Tom Brady worship and Aaron Rogers celebration than we have grown accustomed to. We’ll need to adjust to a time when the NFL is not the center of the American universe- but it shares that space with many other things. Hopefully those things will be more substantive and actually be of importance to our own lives and not just be the drug we choose to stay high on all the time.