We may actually be witnessing the beginning of the end of the sports entertainment dominance of NFL football. It’s not due to the attitudes, the salaries, or the protests of the players. It’s not directly due to ticket prices or hero worship or the criminal misconduct that seems to accompany celebrity. The greatest current threat to the NFL is one single rule.
“With each questionable flag that’s thrown, die-hard NFL fans see the one thing they actually fear the most: the loss of the integrity of the game.”
In the off-season preceding the 2018–2019 NFL season, the league decided to increase the scope and impact of the rules protecting quarterbacks from damage sustained during sacks or immediately following the release of a pass. According to the new rule, the “unsportsmanlike conduct” offense of “roughing the passer” now includes both driving the quarterback forcefully into the ground and landing on top of the quarterback with the tackler’s full body weight.
This new expansion of the rule, when combined with the existing “hands to the head” rules, facemask rules, “leading with the helmet” rules, “helmet to helmet” rules, and “low hit on a quarterback” rules, make it very difficult to determine the legal means for effectively tackling a quarterback. Many players have expressed this very real concern, but through three weeks, the league has unflinchingly stood their ground without offering much clarification.
The rules intended to protect quarterbacks from unnecessary injury have been specific, justified, and grounded in real-world examples, but also cumulative. Extensive problems with concussions like those suffered by former quarterback Troy Aikman led to the rules protecting the quarterback from blows to the head. Jim McMahon was injured after being driven into the ground with unnecessary force. Joe Theismann and Tom Brady suffered leg injuries due to low hits. Over the years, rules to protect against each of these situations have added up.
Last year, Aaron Rodgers’s season was essentially ended in Week 6 after Anthony Barr landed on him, breaking his collarbone. The loss of Rodgers stunned the league and is widely accepted as having cost the Packers a playoff berth for the first time in over a decade. The league has long recognized that quarterbacks are often the stars and the faces of their franchises, and their absence not only decreases the competitive ability of their teams, but causes a notable decline in fan interest for the duration of the injury.
To avoid the loss of revenue, loss of interest, and general injury to players, the league has been desperately scrambling for a solution that protects against such injuries. The problem is that they now find themselves facing a double-edged sword. The very fan interest the league was bent on preserving is now waning due to frustration with the excessive interruption to the game and the game-changing nature of the calls made against defenses struggling to remain competitive.
After just three weeks of regular season play in the NFL, there have already been several dozen “roughing the passer” penalties levied. This has happened despite an obviously earnest attempt on the part of NFL defenders to avoid hitting quarterbacks with unnecessary force. Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews is at the center of the controversial rule, having been penalized for “roughing the passer” in each of the past three weeks. Common consensus among fans, analysts and many in the league is that Matthews was actually guilty of the foul in Week 1, but that the Weeks 2 and 3 calls were unwarranted.
The NFL Has Faced More Serious Issues and Survived
The Colin Kaepernick controversy regarding his decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem before football games in protest of racial inequality by law enforcement has far-reaching social impact. At the least, it’s an important discussion that must be had and that is receiving a significant amount of attention both from supporters and from detractors. Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick in their new advertising campaign has only stoked the flames.
Sure, there were some folks who vowed to never watch NFL football again when Kaepernick and some like-minded players started kneeling during the anthem. Sure, there have been some folks burning their Nike gear at home. Sure, medical concerns like the effects of steroids and the tragedy of CTE actually endanger lives. The harsh reality, though, is that none of these issues has hit the NFL hard enough where it hurts to do irreparable damage.
The Unfortunate Truth About What Really Matters to the NFL
So how can this simple, singular rule that only applies to one situation inside a sport have a more catastrophic effect on a massive industry than an entire social movement? Because it’s football fans who watch football.
A football game is entertainment. People buy tickets, buy merchandise, and tune in to broadcasts to be entertained by the game itself. Regardless of the broader implications of racial inequality, CTE, and celebrity misbehavior, they don’t catastrophically effect fans’ enjoyment of the 60 game-time minutes. Fans will spend all week complaining and arguing about the broader issues upon which football touches, but they’ll still tune in or show up to the stadium on Sundays. The fans pay the bills, and, despite what we may wish or claim, those broader issues don’t keep many from watching the games.
This week, even though the population outside of NFL fandom probably couldn’t care less (and would more than likely be in favor of greater protections for players if they did), I’ve heard more actual NFL fans express honest and deeply-felt disappointment with the game itself. The new, overly strict application of the “roughing the passer” rules have made the game nearly unwatchable, many of them claim.
They see it as a sign that the NFL has strayed too far from the game that the fans love to watch. They see it as a disconnection and as a betrayal. The league has taken a stand against the wishes of the fans, and, currently, they are maintaining their unpopular decision with uncharacteristic stubbornness. With each questionable flag that’s thrown, die-hard NFL fans see the threat they actually fear the most: the loss of the integrity of the game.
That’s the one thing that has the power to break football.
Can’t They Just Reverse It?
Perhaps even more concerning for those who want to see the sport survive is that the NFL’s current position will be difficult to reverse. They have unwisely left the rule too subjective to allow it to be effectively adjusted in a manner that will satisfy fans. Officials can reduce the number of times they make such calls and can internally scale back their sensitivity to such fouls, but the residual inconsistency will only cause more frustration for confused fans who’ll feel unable to predict what is and is not a legal tackle.
Meanwhile, the league still faces outside pressures to reduce player injuries and to provide players with better physical protection. A rollback of the rule or even a decrease in the sensitivity to potentially injurious hits could now be seen by the public at large as a willingness by the league to endanger its employees for the sake of better entertainment, a perception that could be very detrimental to the more caring social image the league has been working so hard to cultivate recently.
By going a step too far in one direction, the league has failed to maintain that very precarious balance between pandering to the larger public and retaining their meal-ticket fans. The “roughing the passer” calls made over the past three weeks may have painted them into a corner from which they cannot emerge without scuffing one surface or another. If they ease up on the calls now, they risk being seen by the general public as re-embracing villainous insensitivity. If they hold the current line, they risk a loss of revenue due to an exodus of fans.
There appears to be no “right answer” at this point. The best I think the league can probably do for themselves at this point is to take a step backward on the player protection front. It will open them up to broader criticism, but it will also ensure their survival. Football fans will keep the league afloat as long as they’re being entertained, and the best way to entertain them is to “let the players play the game.”