Networks, fans unmoved by numerous embarrassments
Football is governed by a lot of elaborate rules, but as its proprietors have discovered time and again, there’s no penalty for arrogance. So it’s hard not to laugh at the outpouring of righteous indignation unleashed in response to a blown call by replacement officials during this week’s “Monday Night Football” game, handing victory to the Seattle Seahawks. Surely, pundits howled, this will force an end to the National Football League’s lockout of seasoned referees. Fans need only boycott games to vent their frustration. Good luck with that. The NFL may well be moved to resolve the current situation sooner in the wake of Monday’s missteps. Yet the scales are so heavily tipped in favor of major sports right now — and especially football — that such a blip represents little more than the controversy-infused version of the West Coast offense. In other words, this too shall pass. The staggering increase in sports rights fees — including a jump of more than 70% for the NFL in its latest round of TV deals — underscores the size of the barrel over which the leagues have the networks. Moreover, it’s been demonstrated time and again that scandals merely add zest to the stew. After all, pro football only plays games Sundays, Mondays and the occasional Thursday. Nothing keeps a sport in the headlines — and fuels ESPN’s money-gobbling machinery, as well as sportstalk radio — like some fresh outrage giving analysts something to chew over. Sure, Monday’s scab is still fresh, especially for Green Bay Packers fans, prompting sportswriters like the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke (whose memory seldom seems much longer than last night’s game) to suggest the NFL has damaged its product and “pushed the league’s integrity to the brink.” Puh-leeze. Such conclusions ignore history, and how quickly wounds to the sporting body heal. College football weathered a season of appalling off-field news — none worse than the child-molestation case against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky — and rebounded with nary a scratch. As for the NFL, reports exposed a bounty system in New Orleans for sidelining opponents; there’s been a lawsuit filed by former players suffering debilitating effects from their collision-filled careers; and the billionaire owners locked out the millionaire players, creating an unseemly squabble of the privileged few while the rest of the nation (indeed, the world) struggles to recover from a recession. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is clearly mindful of bad public relations, but based on that track record they might as well replace him with Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, as in “What, me worry?” Besides, there’s a reason the league and NCAA refer to the networks carrying their product as “broadcast partners.” Beyond the occasional hard-hitting story from HBO’s “Real Sports” or ESPN’s morning “enterprise journalism” show “Outside the Lines” (and how many people watch those, relative to the games?), most sports coverage on TV falls squarely in the win-loss category. Nor do fans exhibit much of an appetite for the airing of dirty laundry, usually responding to negative news about a favorite team — such as NCAA rules infractions — by attacking the newspaper that dared unearth it. “Until you stop spending money, they won’t care,” syndicated sportsradio host Jim Rome told his audience, even as he inevitably devoted scads of time to rehashing Monday’s events, which was as predictable as everything else surrounding all the Tuesday-morning quarterbacking. Rome rightly zeroed in on the bottom line: As long as fans keep dutifully watching, neither the league nor the TV networks need harbor serious concerns about lingering ill effects. In fact, after making that remark, Rome featured a hilariously indignant caller who urged fans attending Green Bay’s next game to remain outside the stadium until after kickoff. So pay for tickets and parking, then skip part of the game? Wow, that ought to bring the league to its knees in no time. Viewed that way, the distinction between major sports and meth dealers is purely cosmetic. Once hooked, there’s almost no way to wean the poor junkies off the stuff. And the TV world, which longs to foster such loyalty for its shows, couldn’t be more envious. And that’s not just piling on.