Despite months of bad publicity for the league’s historically poor handling of domestic violence and a scandal over the alleged under-inflating of footballs (commonly known as “Deflate-Gate”), which has cast a shadow over New England Patriots versus Seattle Seahawks match-up, the NFL doesn’t appear to have lost much of its luster with the general public.
“The NFL is Teflon because the game is still the game. It is the one sport that doesn’t suffer from a crisis of over production. It smartly changed rules a couple of years ago to keep — most of — its star quarterbacks upright for a full season,” Edge of Sports writer Dave Zirin told msnbc. “It is perfect for television because of how the camera makes every pass an exercise in quickened breath as the camera races off the frame to see what is going to take place.”
Pro football also stands out as a sport that has true parity — from year to year several teams have a legitimate shot at an appearance or victory in the Super Bowl.
Prior to this past season, the NFL’s handling of player safety, and concussions in particular, had been the most highly publicized black mark on the league’s reputation, but a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has shown that the issue has not significantly altered the public’s perception of football or the NFL in a seriously detrimental way. While four in 10 parents may now think twice about letting their own child play football, the potential for professional players to sustain life-threatening injuries has not diminished fan fervor in the slightest.
At a State of the League press conference on Friday, embattled NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell trumpeted a 25% drop in concussions and established the new position of chief medical officer. Goodell, who has survived persistent criticism from pundits and players, as well as calls for his resignation, acknowledged that this past season was “very tough.”
“It has been a year of humility and learning,” Goodell told reporters, adding, “We’ve all done a lot of soul searching starting with yours truly.”
However, moments later, in a terse exchange with CNN reporter Rachel Nichols, Goodell was anything but chastened. When Nichols raised concerns about a potential “conflict of interest” in the investigation of “Deflate-Gate” — Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and others have raised questions about Goodell’s friendship with Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft — Goodell snapped and accused Nichols of making “assumptions.”
“I think we have done an excellent job of bringing outside consults in, somebody has to pay them. Rachel, unless you’re volunteering, which I don’t think you are, we will do that,” Goodell said.
Goodell also spent much of his Q&A awkwardly avoiding the words “domestic violence” as much as possible, using phrases like “these issues” or “those issues” to describe the topic, which dominated the national conversation about pro football for much of the fall. During that period, Goodell was the de facto face of the NFL, along with a player who had once been one of the bright lights of the league — former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Rice’s February 2014 domestic assault on this then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator shook up the NFL status quo because it was caught on camera. Football fans could not avoid disturbing images of Rice dragging an apparently unconscious Palmer from an elevator. Nevertheless, Goodell initially suspended Rice for a mere two games for his actions. In September, more footage of the encounter was revealed, and video footage showing Rice’s knockout blow to Palmer forced the NFL for the first time in years to embrace some serious accountability with regards to violence against women.
According to a recent profile in GQ, “Over and over, Goodell revealed himself to be an out-of-touch CEO who seemed uninterested in the facts of the case.” Later, he admitted there was a lot he needed to learn about domestic violence, and claimed to not have been told the whole story of what occurred in the elevator when he met privately with Rice and Palmer following the incident, which the couple disputes.
Still, even at the height of the Rice controversy, women clad in his jerseys rallied to his defense and some broadcasters suggested that perhaps Palmer might have provoked the attack. Rice’s behavior, much like Tom Brady’s widely ridiculed press conference on “Deflate-Gate,” have served as little more than bumps in the road for the NFL brand.
An independent investigation led by no less than a former director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, cleared the NFL of all wrongdoing in the Rice case. Meanwhile, Brady and his coach Bill Belichick won’t face any kind of punishment for “Deflate-Gate” until long after the Super Bowl — if at all. And if the game even remotely lives up the hype surrounding it, it should only increase the stature of pro football.
For the last decade or more, football has easily supplanted baseball as our national pastime, and surpassed basketball in terms of its hipness. Its broadcasts routinely dominate the ratings among all quadrants. Nothing unites the races, genders and ages like all-American football. And few American enterprises are as profitable.Advertising during Super Bowl XLIX will cost an estimated $150,000 per second, and the game is expected to draw a record 113 million viewers. The NFL earned at least $1 billion in profits last season, and there is no sign that its value is going to decrease anytime soon. And yet there is among many football fans what Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins describes as a “queasy” feeling lately.
“We have grown to love the NFL up to this point because — amid natural complications and foibles — it can show humanity at its strongest, highest and fastest and with its highest pain threshold,” wrote Jenkins in a recent op-ed. “But when the game and the people who run it start showing humanity at its very worst — reckless disregard for others, prioritizing profit over people — then the audience begins to ask, ‘Is watching this game making us feel better or worse?’”
On Super Bowl Sunday for just a few hours it will likely be the former. We should expect to see the league’s two best teams are evenly matched and stocked with both rising and established stars in what promises to be an athletic showdown for the ages. But after the game is played, it’s unclear what new demons the league will be forced to confront inside and outside of its locker rooms — and whether Goodell will be able to keep hanging onto his job.
Still, American football will undoubtedly survive no matter who is on the field or at the helm.