Fourth and Long for the NFL
by

Television ratings declined, last season, for the National Football League’s games. This came as a shock to the Lords of the NFL. Ratings are not supposed to decline. The NFL’s ratings never decline. This is a law of nature. The popularity of football is always on the increase even as its presence spreads, with games now being played in London and Mexico City, with other venues under consideration. Football is expanding and inevitable.

So how, then, to account the falloff in the ratings?

Well, the NFL explained, it was an election year. And an unusual one. Perhaps people had been more focused on the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton than they were on, say, a showdown between the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills.

Perhaps.

So expectations were that the ratings would rebound this season. The first televised game of the regular season would feature the New England Patriots, last season’s NFL champions. The Patriots had won the first Super Bowl to require an overtime. Had rallied after being down 28-3 in the third quarter. It was one of the greatest comebacks ever.

So surely people would tune in to watch the Patriots play the Kansas City Chiefs who were no stiffs. The Chiefs were certainly capable of making the playoffs. And possibly even giving the Patriots a game.

So the ratings would be fine.

But they weren’t. They were, in fact, down 13% from last year’s opening game and the worst they had been since 2009.

Could this have been because all those people who had been paying attention to the election last year were now distracted by the immanent publication of Hillary Clinton’s new book, What Happened. Were millions of people who might otherwise have been watching the Chiefs upset the Patriots focused, instead, on the answer to Ms. Clinton’s rhetorical question?

Or… is football losing its grip?

While football is still supreme among sports, those ratings declines are incontestable.

And not only are fewer people watching, there are measurable declines, also, in the number of young people playing. This is true even in, of all places, the state of Alabama where football is a kind of secular religion. Where people will tell you that football isn’t life or death… that it is more important than that. Still, according to the Alabama High School Athletics Association, the number of players there declined by 7% from 2015 to 2016.

Might this be due to the recent reports and studies about the number of concussions suffered by football players — so many that it is more accurate to talk not of “risks,” but certainties. And, then, there is the near undeniable link between these concussions and a degenerative brain condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), evidence of which was found the brains, left for research, of 110 deceased NFL players.

The total sample studied consisted of 111 brains.

One of the players whose brain was studied was Ken Stabler who had been quarterback on some of Bear Bryant’s memorable teams of the 1960s and who is still something of a legend around the state for his swashbuckling character on, and off, the field. People in Alabama still talk about ol’ Snake Stabler who, when he was a pro quarterback, liked to say that he studied the playbook by the light of the jukebox.

Alabama kids who never heard of him are no doubt being told by their parents that if they play football, they risk winding up like Stabler.

Still, concussions have become just a part of the game. Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was concussed in that loss to Kansas City. Usually a player who is concussed sits out at least one game. In its opening game against the usually woeful Jacksonville Jaguars, five players for the Houston Texans were concussed. They will all miss the team’s next game, which will be played on Thursday.

Which leads one to wonder… when did football become a game played on Thursday? The sovereign order of things is: high school games are played on Friday, under the lights; college games are played on Saturday afternoons with cocktails before and after; professional games are played on Sunday, which is one way to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Back in the early seventies, football became a Monday night phenomenon. Which it is, still, today. Though without the old glamour and panache and the epic personality of John Madden.

I watched this season’s inaugural Monday night game and it was… not bad. The New Orleans Saints are always fun to watch with Drew Brees at quarterback, standing up on his tiptoes to see over the linemen and find an open receiver. And this year, the Saints have Adrian Peterson who was, until a knee injury and age slowed him down, one of the finest running backs in the history of the game. He had been traded by the Minnesota Vikings to the Saints. And on this Monday night game, he would be playing in the Vikings’ stadium against his old team.

You had to wonder if age and the injury might not have worn down his brilliance and made him ordinary.

And, then, there was Sam Bradford, quarterback for the Vikings. A Heisman winner at Oklahoma and a disappointment as a pro. But, then, two serious knee injuries might have had something to do with that.

Bradford had a fine game and it was good to watch him perform. Poised, tough, and intelligent. He was a pro, at last. On the other hand, Peterson looked, when he played, like he was over the hill. The Vikings won and for millions of viewers, when the game ended, it was on to the next one. Broncos vs. the Chargers. Seven or eight hours, then, of televised football. Half of those hours, of course, being given over to commercials.

It may be that there is no single reason for the falloff of interest in football. Perhaps, it is just … too much. Of everything. Too many games. Too many injuries. Too much bad behavior by the players. Too much political posturing.

But, then, there is next week and a whole new menu of games, the very least of which will be more engaging than the not-so-instant replay of a book called What Happened.

Geoffrey Norman’s NFL column will run early each week this new season.

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