The NFL has a complicated relationship with its fans.
Every issue in the NFL is not just news, but big news. National news. There is no such thing as a small locker room scrape without the 24-hour news cycle grinding it up and exhausting every angle the story has to offer, upside-down and inside-out.
With so much interest in the sport, there is bound to be a difference of opinion. Heck, even issues of racism in the NFL have people taking different sides. The NFL has gotten too big, with a fanbase too diverse and too invested in the product to let anything slip by unnoticed or ignored.
How can the NFL be all things to all people? How can the NFL cater to such an enormous fanbase, while still staying true to its loyal core?
It can't. It shouldn't even try.
And yet, the NFL does try. The league does try to cater to all the fans, not just in America but around the world, in a never-ending effort to grow the game. It's a noble venture. Unwinnable, but noble nonetheless. In some ways—and equally as noble—the fans are helping grow the game as well, not just by their collective interest, but also by their involvement.
An Enormous Audience
Over the last generation, the NFL has become the most popular sport in America by leaps and bounds. Last season, 108.7 million people in this country watched the Super Bowl, a number that has risen more than 25 percent in the last quarter-century.
To put that number in perspective, the highest rating for any part of the World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals, Masters and Daytona 500 totaled 107.76 million viewers.
Factoring in the crossover audience, while accounting for the more niche support of MLS, UFC, tennis and others, it's safe to say the NFL has more viewers than every professional sport in America…combined.
The Public Relations Battle
In September, amid one of many national public relations scandals the NFL has faced this year, Commissioner Roger Goodell told a Washington, D.C. radio station, "If we are offending one person, we need to be listening and making sure that we're doing the right things to try to address that."
That quote, via NFL.com, was in reference to the Redskins name change, but it could have been for anything. Goodell clearly stated his league must be cognizant of the concerns of every single fan, a number that is growing by the week.
It's impossible to appease everyone, and yet in a year with some of the worst headlines in the history of the league, the interest has not wavered. In fact, it has grown.
Look at what the NFL has had to deal with in the past calendar year.
• Aaron Hernandez, a star tight end for the league's signature franchise of this generation, was arrested on murder charges. Hernandez's detainment was one of more than 50 arrests involving NFL players this calendar year.
• We are nearing the one-year anniversary of Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide that shocked the NFL community last winter. Belcher shot his girlfriend, the mother of his child, nine times before driving to the Kansas City Chiefs' facility and shooting himself in front of team officials.
• This offseason, the NFL settled a contentious lawsuit with former players over injuries sustained while playing the game, many of which relate to head injuries that have led to long-term medical issues or even death. The league paid millions of dollars in the lawsuit, yet maintained no legal culpability.
• Speaking of maintaining no culpability, the team name "Redskins" still exists.
• Most recently, the public relations gurus have taken their talents to South Beach, as the latest story in the NFL that could warrant an unqualified apology from the commissioner has to do with the situation brewing in Miami. Bullying.
Bullying in Society, Football & Media
There are few topics in our culture as important to parents as bullying. I was bullied as a kid and I'll be damned sure my kids don't have to deal with the same kind of nonsense that I did. There are millions upon millions of people in this country—many of whom are NFL fans—who learned about the bullying situation between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin and unilaterally equated it to everyday life.
Bullying is bad. Bullies are bad. This is all bad.
The thing is, schoolyard bullying is completely different from what we have seen in the NFL, and it's impossible to discuss the topic in a professional football context without imparting some necessary perspective. Sadly, all the intricacies of the situation got lost when some people in the sports world came to the defense of bullying.
Damon Bruce of KNBR in San Francisco didn't just come to the defense of the bullies in the NFL, he became one himself last week after telling people that "all of this, all of the world of sports, especially the sport of football, has a setting. It's set to men."
Bruce has been justifiably lampooned up and down the Internet for his misogynistic comments about women in sports. I'm rarely one to scream a person should be fired, but, frankly, it's amazing that after a day to prepare for an apology Bruce led his follow-up conversation with, "If sports were a newborn baby coming back from the hospital, would that baby be a boy or a girl?"
Bruce had 20 hours to prepare a response to the fervor of his initial comments and that was the best he could come up with? If people wanted him fired, it should have been for his inability to deviate from a terrible script, not just his vapid hatred of women in his sandbox. But I digress.
In normal, human, non-neanderthal, -meathead, -jock-rock-on-repeat society—the real world, if you pardon the expression—nobody likes a bully. But in the NFL, bullies get things done. The game is about exerting force over an opponent to achieve the goal of victory, so being a bully is, to some, a positive personality trait. Sometimes, those who cover the NFL—or any sport, for that matter—have a tendency to assimilate to the same moral code of those they cover.
The sport I cover is more important, therefore I am more important.
It happens all across our industry and it adeptly echoes the earlier point of what the NFL is and what, perhaps, the NFL should be.
The Culture of Popularity
The NFL is so popular that the latitude given to other sports no longer applies.
The NFL has cheerleaders, but they stay as far away from the action on the field as possible. Could you imagine the backlash the NFL would get if a "down girl" pranced across the field before every snap of the ball or change in possession?
But that happens in combat sports between rounds and their inclusion has never been a national story. Why? Because those sports have niche audiences accustomed to a certain culture that other, more popular sports, wouldn't dare attempt.
Why do you think the NFL has an entire month dedicated to breast cancer awareness, but doesn't do the same for other ailments? (Both prostate cancer and lung cancer are recognized in November, by the way.)
The NFL promotes breast cancer awareness because a lot of women—including the commissioner's mother—have been stricken with breast cancer. The money raised, more than the awareness, helps thousands of people in need.
But let's not be naïve. The league also promotes breast cancer awareness because a huge part of the NFL audience—nearly half of those 108 million who watch the Super Bowl—are women. Every single person who watches the Super Bowl had a mother, or a wife or a girlfriend or a sister or a daughter.
If sports are set to men, there sure is a lot of focus on marketing to women.
It's not just the female audience, though. The NFL honors those who serve our country in the military in November because the brave men and women who dedicate their lives to doing so deserve all the honors we can give them.
But let's not be naïve. The league also honors those who serve our country because people often equate football to war, and football players to soldiers. That's Branding: 101.
ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio wrote an entire book about how football explains America, using multiple and repeated correlations to war, combat vernacular and military parlance. Honoring the military creates an indelible link to that mentality—to America.
The NFL doesn't just honor America. The NFL is America.
The NFL Is America
Don't take my word for it. Take Jeff Scurran's word. He is a successful high school football coach in America who recently wrote an op-ed for Peter King's MMQB.com. In part:
Football has become the last bastion of discipline. Every good football coach knows you can be the greatest mind in the world when it comes to strategy, but if you don’t train your troops, it’s all a waste. In football, we are training the troops. We are teaching kids traits desired by many professions, including the military.
Let's back up. This article was written in response to a widely held suggestion that football is too violent, and that head injuries sustained at all levels are making more and more people wonder if the world of sports might be safer without tackle football.
[W]e can’t take toughness out of football. Toughness is valued in our society, particularly when people display it in the proper venue. Every family endures tough times, every business goes through tough cycles, and our country values toughness in its leaders. The culture surrounding this “toughness factor” is attractive in all areas of society, particularly to military and business leaders. And since we love having tough hombres around, progress in changing this will be slow. There are no easy answers, for sure.
This is essentially the same remark that Bruce made, albeit with a little more tact. Scurran flat-out ignored women in his article comparing football too all his favorite things about American society, while Bruce flat-out told them to go away.
Suggesting that football is the "last bastion of discipline" is akin to suggesting that women, by omission, lack discipline.
To equate that "toughness is valued in our society" with playing football is to suggest that women cannot be tough.
Both of these points, for that matter, also apply to men and boys who do not play football. Men and boys can lack discipline and toughness, too.
And you know what, that mentality would be fine…if the NFL wasn't so dang popular.
If most football fans felt the way that Bruce or Scurran—that women and guys who aren't "tough" have no place in football, sports or, by proxy, society—there wouldn't be a problem. The NFL would have a far smaller audience, but there wouldn't be a problem.
The Brain Game
The problem arrives when one looks at the simple mathematics of the NFL fanbase. Women like sports, including football. Men who don't play football for a living still enjoy the game. We're allowed to be sensitive and still like the action of a football contest.
It's just, well, it all gets a little bit confusing when all those public relations disasters get mixed in with all the gridiron goodness.
It becomes even more confusing with the talk of bullying. See, if we know head injuries in football can cause brains to malfunction, potentially leading to depression or mental disease and we know that bullying can cause depression as well, the issue is bigger than telling the players to toughen up. Even in the NFL.
That sentiment is not just shared by people who love the game, but also those who have never played it. With the increase in research to head injuries and the impact even minor collisions can have on someone's life, the mantra of being 'tough' rings a tad hollow.
Drew Brees recently told USA Today that he doesn't want his kids playing football until they are teenagers. "At a certain age, I think it's appropriate," Brees said. "I think you can be too young to go out there and strap on a helmet."
Other parents seem to agree.
Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth has a piece asking if parents should let their kids play football. The numbers suggest more and more parents are saying "no."
A recent Marist College poll found that roughly one in three Americans say that knowing about the damage concussions cause would make them less likely to allow their sons to play football. Earlier this year, a Washington Post survey of more than 500 NFL retirees found that less than half would recommend that children play. According to the National Sports Goods Association, tackle football participation has dropped 11 percent between 2011 and now. The National Federation of State High School Associations reports decreasing football participation numbers since 2008-2009. And according to ESPN's "Outside the Lines," Pop Warner—the nation's largest youth football program—saw participation drop 9.5 percent between 2010 and '12. Even President Obama has expressed doubts about letting his hypothetical son play the sport.
The Justification Process
How can those of us who love to watch the sport every Sunday (and Saturday with college players who aren't even getting paid to potentially destroy their bodies) justify doing so while being so adamantly against letting our kids play it?
If we know the risks and see what it's doing to the players, why do we still tune in and help set record ratings?
Simply put, because football is awesome. The game is fast and rough and skillful and strategic and dramatic and absolutely made for television.
The NFL has everything a sports fan could ask for wrapped up in an explosion-fueled, fun-filled, filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience extravaganza.
There is a lot to love about the NFL product, and calling out the things that are wrong with it—from bullying to head trauma to, sadly, murder—does not make someone less of a fan. Trying to make the game safer, both physically and psychologically, doesn't make someone too sensitive or feminine. It means he or she cares about the game. Isn't that what a real fan does?
The NFL has had a rough year, and it's weathered horrendous storms because so many people care about the game and the well-being of its players, not in spite of that.
With the growth of the game comes fans who care about more than wins and losses—more than which team is tougher on any given Sunday. The game has become bigger than that.
Some might say the game has become too big, or at least too good for its own good. Come to think of it, that might be the best thing for it.