The National Football League has endured several days of terrible publicity, stemming from its serialized mishandling of the domestic violence case involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Yet those in media circles wondering about what sort of lingering damage this might do to what is by far the U.S.’s most popular and profitable sport are poor students of history.
As Variety’s David Cohen details in a timely look at the NFL’s powerful hold on TV networks, the league is such a cash-generating dynamo broadcasters have tripped over themselves throwing money at it. And the Rice situation hardly represents the first blot on pro football’s reputation, with past transgressions – such as Michael Vick’s role in a dog-fighting ring – having done nothing to diminish its appeal.
Rice’s case has involved several story lines, all of them bad for the NFL. They range from a male-dominated league that doesn’t recognize the seriousness of domestic abuse to another instance of these institutions protecting stars above all else.
Even so, that seems less fundamentally threatening to pro football than the recent scandal that should have shaken the NFL’s stranglehold on the sports/media landscape: The league’s apparent indifference to the destructive effect playing football has had on the health of players. “Fundamentally,” by the way, because the longterm consequences associated with playing are directly related to what happens on the field, as opposed to the shadow cast by bad behavior away from it.
Yet the NFL machine rolls on, and its influence over football’s “media partners” is such that ESPN rather conspicuously backed out of its role in presenting “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” a documentary aired on PBS’ “Frontline” last year, which compared football’s hierarchy to Big Tobacco in the 1960s.
Just prior to that broadcast, the NFL agreed to a $765-million settlement with former players claiming brain damage as a consequence of their collision-filled careers. Still, if the thought of one-time gridiron heroes being permanently impaired, crippled or committing suicide has dampened the viewing experience for fans, it’s certainly not evident in the record ratings early-season games have delivered.
To be fair, ESPN – which has often struggled with stories relating to wider societal issues – has exhibited more backbone this time around, with host Keith Olbermann particularly forceful in calling for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation. That’s notable, if only because of the network’s track record kowtowing to the league, including its decision to cancel the football-themed drama “Playmakers” a decade ago.
Olbermann was back pounding the drums Tuesday, hammering the NFL for the “imbecility” of its investigation, if Goodell wasn’t outright lying about not having seen the video.
Just to put these observations in context, I say this as a football fan (more college than the pros) that enjoys seeing a good clean hit, even though — based on the neurological research — I wouldn’t necessarily want a son of mine on the receiving end of one.
Therein lies a small taste of the hypocrisy that has made the NFL’s unimpeded gravy train possible. Because while the media love a good controversy and compelling video – a big reason why the Rice story topped newscasts throughout the day Tuesday – history shows committed fans generally don’t want to be bothered for long by conversations that distract from won-loss records.
Viewed that way, the marathon coverage and legitimate indignation unleashed by TMZ’s inside-the-elevator footage of Rice’s brutal assault began to feel like an excuse for cable news to run those grainy, disturbing images – over and over again. Because although it’s true the story has “crossed over to major non-sports news,” as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow put it, none of that promises to produce the kind of backlash team owners would feel the most, which is in their wallets.
So while there’s an old joke about denial not being a river in Egypt, when it comes to pro football, denial isn’t just a mental condition exhibited by the league, but its fans as well, who have, in essence, inoculated the NFL against its own stupidity and tone-deafness.
Until that changes – and don’t hold your breath – all the bad publicity in the world won’t be enough to throw the NFL for a loss.