Heavy lies the head that wears the crown*, as the constant onslaught of criticism against the NFL proves. Football is so big, so great and so powerful that people make it their mission to find fault with the entire enterprise. To football’s detriment, it doesn’t always make it difficult. But to its success, it’s as popular as ever.
* That’s actually not the Shakespeare line from Henry IV — that begins with "uneasy" — but the other way sounds better which basically means I’m a better writer than Shakespeare.)
Scandal always manages to find pro football because everybody wants to knock the queen bee off the perch. (It’s basically what Mean Girls is about.) Roger Goodell, through some fault of his own, but not all, is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t in regards to almost every decision he makes. This tweet, from Pro Football Talk writer Michael David Smith is a great example:
The consensus seems to be Goodell is a villain for suspending Rice 13% of a season, Manfred a hero for suspending Chapman 19% of a season.
Football can’t win. If it’s not a lawless atmosphere ignored by the league (but one that’s actually on par with the rest of society, if not better) it’s damaging injuries that everybody is shocked — SHOCKED — are the result of using a helmet to crash into moving, 250-pound objects thousands of times. Somehow this all falls on Goodell, who could call the sky blue and immediately see 75 think-pieces on Twitter criticizing his salary.
That comes with the territory and it’s a dangerous territory in which to be. No one stays on top forever. Any student of history, or viewer of The Wire, can tell you that. The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years. Egyptian civilization was about three millennia. The United States isn’t even 250 years old. We’ve seen other sports (horse racing, boxing) prove you can be No. 1 in one decade and a sideshow afterthought the next. Seriously, if you went back to 1927 and told a suited man in a fedora that in 90 years baseball would be the fourth-most popular sport and boxing and horse racing would be once-a-year novelties, you would have been asked if you could spare a dime and politely laughed out of the room.
It seems impossible that football will ever fall from its placement at the apex of the American sports world. There’s no way to imagine that the first Sunday in February won’t always been a national holiday, with one-third of the country sitting around the TV watching the Super Bowl and complaining about the commercials. But things happen. The British Empire never figured it’d become irrelevant either.
In the short term, the league has to patch those up. It was a good move not going to 18 games. Expanding the playoffs by two and only giving one team a bye isn’t bad either. The Thursday games aren’t going anywhere but were a whiff that went against the sport’s best selling point: When your greatest drawing power was exclusivity, having Thursday games that are easy to skip ruins that a bit. The NFL has turned itself from must-see into occasionally-see with TNF.
Still, the sport has come through more scandal than a Nixon White House and emerged stronger. To keep that up, it must anticipate its problems and be more proactive than reactive.
And, for pete’s sake, no more Coldplay at the Super Bowl.