Every professional sports league has nagging issues to deal with (MLB with stadiums in Oakland and Tampa, the NBA with potential pending labor issues and a competitive balance problem), but to me, the league that has most work to do over the next decade is the NFL. Football has all sorts of problems, none of which have a simple solution, or maybe even a solution at all.
Let's take a look at just some of them:
- The NFL is overleveraged in massive television contracts at the exact moment that industry is undergoing a tectonic shift involving unbundling and cord cutting.
- It's facing a potentially cataclysmic labor battle in the next five years, to the point that the head of the NFLPA is already claiming it's a "virtual certainty" that there will be a strike in 2021.
- The league has actually fallen in the television ratings for the first time in a decade, to levels that are still incredibly high but look disconcertingly unsteady and unstable. (Though, for the millionth time, it's not because of Colin Kaepernick.)
- Speaking of which, the NFL is possibly dealing with a real collusion lawsuit down the line for Kaepernick getting blackballed by the league's owners, some of whom have now admitted that the reason they're not signing him has nothing to do with football.
- The NFL has not, in fact, stopped any of the troubles Kaepernick's protest caused and now actually have more players sitting for the national anthem than ever before, with more every week.
- It's facing a core, existential crisis with head injuries and CTE diagnoses, which have evolved from vague concerns and ominous medical reports to players actively quitting the game in their primes to save their brains. Studies now show that a terrifying 99 percent of deceased NFL players who had donated their brains to science suffered some sort of CTE.
- Thus, the NFL is facing more and more fans finding themselves wrestling with the moral implications of cheering for a sport that might quite literally be killing its players.
Now, you and I and the rest of the world can have a debate about these issues, which side we're on, whether we think the NFL can (or should) do anything about them -- but it's unquestionable that these are major issues. Solving them is an enormous project that would test the mettle of any man or woman in charge. They require creative, inventive thinking, as well as flexibility, a desire for compromise and brinksmanship, and, perhaps more than anything else, a deft hand in the world of public relations, an ability to craft a coherent, unifying message and sell that message to the general public. It's a gargantuan job.
And, according to the Sports Business Journal, the NFL has reportedly decided that that person is, and remains, Roger Goodell.
2024! That's the year of the next total solar eclipse!
This would seem unusual in most other businesses. After all, when Goodell took over as commissioner in 2006, Dr. Bennet Omalu -- tell the truth! -- was only just getting started on his CTE research. NFL ratings had been on an upswing for a decade. The league hadn't missed a single game for a labor dispute in 20 years. It is true that a confluence of issues that the NFL or Goodell could have not anticipated -- an avalanche of CTE diagnoses, a drastically shifting media landscape, increased awareness of social issues in sports and elsewhere, the decrease in the power of appointment television -- all seemed to pop up right around the time Goodell took over. But it is difficult to argue that he has made the problems more manageable. They're all much worse now.
These issues will only multiply in power and influence over the next decade, not to mention all sorts of other problems that will pop up between now and 2024. If Goodell has shown particularly inspired solutions to any of them, no one has seen them yet.
The NFL owners are doubling down, though. The reason they're doubling down, of course, is the reason anyone doubles down: They're on a hot streak, they feel cocky, and they're making fistfuls of money. (Or, yes, Trent, they're showing 11.) The NFL is run by billionaires who would like to become larger billionaires, and while we are busy debating issues of CTE, labor and social justice, they are seeing dollar signs -- and that is all they are seeing. They see that during Goodell's reign, their investments have doubled, tripled. They also see that Goodell takes all the public heat that they don't have to. We should be yelling at owners about Deflategate (they were, after all, the ones who pushed Goodell to pursue the case because they were still so angry about Spygate), about CTE, especially about labor issues, just as much as we yell at Goodell, if not more. But he is their helpful front man. He's getting them paid, he's keeping their names off the cover of The New York Times and he eagerly does their bidding at every opportunity. Why in the world would they not extend his contract for two more presidential terms? If he makes it to 2024, Goodell will be the second-longest serving commissioner after Pete Rozelle. That sounds about right, in terms of influence, for better and for worse.
But times are changing, fast. The problems that Goodell is dealing with -- or flailing with -- remain, and are growing stronger. There was a time three or four years ago that the NFL seemed untouchable, but those days are gone. There is an undeniable lighter buzz to this coming NFL season. The time when the NFL drowned out everything, a fortnight before its first game, is in the past. Football is still the biggest sport in the country. But it is no longer an untouchable juggernaut. You're starting to see some cracks.
The owners don't see those cracks. They just see the cash, and they see Goodell taking the hits so they don't have to. But to assume this will go on forever is shortsighted. The visionary to guide the league through these upcoming crises may not actually exist. If that person does exist, it's probably not Goodell. You can argue Goodell has been the best thing for NFL owners for the past 11 years. But the next 11 are going to be harder. A lot harder. Right now, NFL owners don't want to believe that and are, in fact, actively ignoring it. They won't be able to ignore it for long.
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