NFL vs. Millennials: Football Struggles to Bridge the Generation Gap

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 26, 2018

Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Desmond King (20) stands next to running back Melvin Gordon (28) while Gordon holds a cell phone on the field after the Chargers defeated the Cleveland Browns 19 to 10 in a game played at the StubHub Center in Carson, CA on Sunday, December 3, 2017. (AP Photo/John Cordes)
John Cordes/Associated Press

Josh Rosen asked his college coaches too many questions. Derrius Guice plays too many video games. Cassius Marsh complained that playing for the Patriots was no fun, and others around the NFL agreed with him.

Sounds like some players have unrealistic job expectations, trouble dealing with authority figures and overdependence on technology. Which, according to all the angry old guys at the gym, is what's wrong with young people these days.

Does that mean football has a millennial problem?

"I would answer that question with a question," one current NFL executive says. "Does the country have a millennial problem?"

Good question. Judging by the size and success of the Millennials are Ruining [insert cultural institution here] subgenre of internet analysis, many industries are struggling to stay in step with the generation of avocado toast, participation trophies and granularized attention spans.

Of course, if you are a typical Bleacher Report reader, you are part of the millennial generation and probably tired of sweeping generalizations and cliches regarding toast, trophies and attention spans. You may also be aware that complaints about disrespectful, entitled young people these days date back at least as far as Socrates. Old fogies have trouble coping with change; it's what makes them fogies. And the NFL sure looks like it's run by them.

But millennials really are more than just another bunch of kids who need to get off the world's lawn, according to experts.

"There's a real reason why they seem like aliens from another planet," according to Bruce Tulgan, author of books like Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials. "They have this prolonged, precocious post-adolescence.

"So 12 is the new 19, but 30 is the new 20."

To clarify: Tulgan is talking about what he calls "second-wave millennials" who came of age after the 2007 stock market crash. Instead of growing up in the booming dot-com era of the late '90s, these millennials grew up in families and communities facing a near-depression.

"Second-wave millennials are like the children of the 1930s," Tulgan says, "except that they learned to think and communicate while being attached to handheld supercomputers and were raised by helicopter parents on steroids."

Second-wave millennials are also mostly native to a world of both ubiquitous social networking and on-demand media. Since childhood, their favorite shows and music were waiting for them to watch, not the other way around. That control over such a major part of their environment changed the way 20-somethings think, according to Lee Caraher, author of books like Millennials & Management.

"Think about people growing up with the ability to shift time," Caraher says. "And then they get into the work environment, and you cannot shift time. That's the biggest challenge."

The two-wave generational theory explains why the NFL may just now be facing a new type of player: First-wave millennials are approaching 40 and starting to get coaching and front-office jobs, but the latest batch of young people these days is very different from those entering the workforce even a decade ago.

And the football world has taken notice.

"We've seen things completely change and kids completely change over the last 10 years," says Derek Jones, assistant coach at Duke University and author of Always Play to Win, a collection of commonsense bits of on- and off-field advice.

Jones says that the rise of social networking has made local celebrities out of top high school football players, turning the whole recruiting process upside down. Recruits now get scholarship offers in ninth or 10th grade. They don't want to visit campuses for workouts because they know they don't have to.

"Kids are up-front now: They're not going to come visit without an offer," Jones says. "You couldn't have thought of a kid saying that six or seven years ago."

Caraher sees the same phenomenon all the time in industry. "We hear the question in interviews, 'Why should I work here?'" she says. "I couldn't imagine anyone saying that before!"

Top college football recruits who have been coddled and courted and built massive Twitter/Instagram followings often face culture shock when they arrive on campus as just another freshman at the bottom of the depth chart. "It's like you're performing for a crowd in high school," Jones says. "Then you enter a program, and you have to conform."

Many of those fawned-over high school freshmen eventually become NFL players. That means the league is full of egomaniacal monsters who expect the world served to them in a bread bowl, right?

Not necessarily.

"I don't think football has changed that much," Jones says. "We still live in a world where the coach's voice is the final voice.

"Ultimately, we have control of what they want: playing time. No one wants to sacrifice their playing time for being a smarty-pants."

Are Bill Belichick's days of being able to run things his way endangered?
Are Bill Belichick's days of being able to run things his way endangered?Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Football, in other words, weeds out young people with stereotypical "bad millennial" habits early. Unlike industry, there's no expectation of flex scheduling or working from home. Gassers and benching remain effective disciplinary tools that aren't available to your average tech company. And a freshman or rookie who arrives thinking he has nothing new to learn usually gets straightened out in his first drill against a senior or veteran.

"Ultimately, on the field, there will be a physical confrontation with a winner and a loser, even in practice," the NFL exec says. "That eliminates entitlement and false perceptions of expectations. Mommy and Daddy's rubbing of the back isn't there."

Those remarks make it sound a little like the NFL and college programs remain in the strict command-and-control, my-way-or-the-highway mode. To a degree, that's true: A coach cannot ask for a straw poll before going for a fourth down or explain the rationale behind every drill to a player who likes the drills he found on YouTube better. But it's also an oversimplification.

Just as millennials don't all arrive for work expecting foosball tables, smoothies and six-figure salaries, NFL decision-makers are not just a bunch of stodgy old folks who base their leadership techniques on World War II movies and Bear Bryant stories. Many read and study about ways to bridge the generation gap. And not every veteran coach longs for the good old days.

Eagles wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer, for example, has no problem with players who ask more questions than they did in decades past. "They are more inquisitive, because they do have more access to information," he says. "In high school and college, they are searching for those answers because they haven't had much experience."

Josh Rosen's millennial attitude was considered a detriment by some heading into the draft.
Josh Rosen's millennial attitude was considered a detriment by some heading into the draft.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

Brewer echoes Tulgan's advice for dealing with those pesky, persistent "why" questions.

"Why is a question that they cannot get answered by a handheld supercomputer," Tulgan says. "For the lessons of wisdom and experience, they have to go to a person. When they ask questions, it's almost a way of demonstrating respect. They're saying it's your turn to talk!"

But what about the legendary egocentric, ultra-entitled millennial attitude, with its focus on personal branding instead of the greater good of the team?

"Everybody had those personalities," Brewer says. "But the social media gets that aspect of their personalities out there a little bit quicker.

"I find it very refreshing. It helps you deal with them, be with them, coach them."

Brewer, it should be noted, coached Randy Moss in college, so he knows that football players were doing their own thing long before anyone tweeted about it.

We're all now living in this media-saturated world. Personal branding isn't just for 20-somethings: I do it, the authors I'm quoting do it, even NFL coaches and execs who want to rise through the ranks do it. Second-wave millennials just do it naturally and unrepentantly.

Technology has changed all of us in other ways as well. "I don't buy into the whole story that millennials have no attention span because none of us have an attention span anymore," Caraher says.

Research has also proved that few of us ever had the attention span for two-hour meetings or lectures in the first place. Successful corporations are changing how they structure the work day—shorter meetings, more frequent breaks, more interaction—not because new employees are lazy and stupid but because the old ways never really worked all that well.

Smart adaptation to millennial players, on a team-by-team basis, may already be creating some competitive advantages. The Eagles won the Super Bowl while valuing player self-expression, taking a collaborative approach to decision making, welcoming feedback from players and retaining some of the next-gen teaching and training techniques Chip Kelly introduced.

But that doesn't mean the grim, hierarchical Patriots are doomed, even if they slough off a fringe player like Marsh now and then.

Experts like Tulgan and Caraher outline a series of guidelines to help management in all industries adapt to millennials. Managers must make schedules and expectations clear before employees even arrive for work, set and reinforce high standards for workplace behavior and provide forums for feedback so employees feel respected and listened to, even if few suggestions are ever implemented.

That sounds a little like The Patriots Way. It also sounds like Management 101. "It's always been good management," Caraher says. "It has nothing to do with millennials."

Good management is more important now than it might have been 20 years ago, when more of the workforce was hard-wired from an early age to work within a hierarchy. That even applies to football. A team can opt for more freedom (Eagles) or more structure (Patriots); it can't afford to build its whole philosophy around the command-and-control model. That leads to problems like, say, a college coach butting heads with his NFL-caliber quarterback, resulting to a string of losing seasons for a major program.

"Unnecessary problems occur that didn't have to," when an industry fails to adapt, according to Tulgan. "Problems get out of control that should have been solved. Resources are squandered. People play their roles suboptimally. High performers think about leaving. Low performers try to stay."

In NFL terms, that means good free agents departing, prospects failing to develop, locker room divisions turning into major problems and coaches valuing and retaining the wrong players for the wrong reasons.

"You recruit for talent, potential, teamwork and attitude," Caraher says. "Then, help that person become the professional they have to become."

Will Derrius Guice's video game habits affect his on-field ones?
Will Derrius Guice's video game habits affect his on-field ones?Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/Associated Press

The problem for some NFL and NCAA decision-makers may be figuring out what a "good attitude" looks like in second-wave millennials. Teams will adjust in different ways. But not adjusting at all and passing on every quarterback who grew up in a nice house or running back obsessed with Fortnite isn't a viable option.

If the NFL as a whole really has a millennial problem, it's more optical than actual. The NFL just looks uninviting from the outside to many 20-somethings. Its marijuana policy sounds like something from the Watergate era. The "anonymous scouts" we hear so much from before every draft sound angry that every prospect didn't grow up baling hay on grandpappy's ranch. Let's not even get into politics. This is a league that just legalized dancing, for heaven's sake, 33 years after the original Footloose.

The NFL isn't as hidebound as it looks and sounds. It can only help the television ratings and demographics if the league projects an image that is a little more forward-thinking and business casual. After all, millennials aren't going away anytime soon, as employees or customers. And when they are replaced by today's high schoolers…watch out.

"It's not going to get any better," Caraher says. "Generation Z is even worse!"