Can’t lose for trying

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Media folks have asserted over and over again a variation on the theme that the NFL has suffered through a series of PR nightmares over the past year. Indeed, ever since the crumbling of the bountygate punishments, the mishandling of the referee lockout (including the infamous “fail mary” play), the ugly behavior in the Miami Dolphins locker room that came to light in 2013 and then, of course, the weighty issues that came to the fore over the past year, the NFL has embodied a paradox. It is by, by many measures, the most successful entertainment venture in America today. And it seems to be defined by a retrograde macho culture, gratuitously penurious practices and, to top it off, is presided over by a buffoon (who’s reportedly making $44 million a year). On Mike and Mike this morning, Lester Munson spoke with the guys about Tom Brady’s options, including legal recourse as well as appeals within the NFL itself and the pros and cons of each course of action for the Patriots’ signal caller. For Munson, one clear “plus” for Brady would be the possibility that Commissioner Goodell would have to testify. Given what an embarrassment his testimony was during the Ray Rice appeal last fall, Munson thought Brady could expect a similar boost. On top of all the bad publicity the NFL has endured in recent years, for its leader to be viewed as an obvious liability would seem to be a serious threat to the well-being of the enterprise itself.

And yet.

None of the above controversies, nor the increasing evidence that the commissioner is ill-equipped to lead, has hurt the NFL in any way that matters. The money is rolling in, TV ratings are as robust as ever and the sport has, perhaps, never been more culturally relevant. I was in an airport when the Wells report on deflategate dropped last Wednesday. Every single monitor in the terminal, whether tuned to ESPN or CNN, featured wall-to-wall coverage on the controversy, which went on for hours. The Ray Rice case prompted what was arguably the most intensive discussion of violence against women ever to take place in American media. Adrian Peterson’s abuse of his children resulted in similar attention. Everything the NFL does seems to matter.

This isn’t intended as a “see-how-great-the-NFL-is” post. It’s just a reminder that for all the discussion about what a PR nightmare the NFL has allegedly suffered through, there has been no larger consequence to the sport, other than to reinforce how much it drives the news. In other words, recent events haven’t been a PR nightmare at all, in any way that matters. David Goldblatt, the great British soccer writer, says that English “football” has become has as prominent as it has because it draws on cultural energies from at least four popular realms – 1) it has something of a religious appeal in the intensity of the attachment it cultivates; 2) it energizes crowds the way great live concerts do 3) it provides entertainment akin to the theater, 4) and it resembles “soap opera” in its presentation of a “multi-character, multi-layered narrative of a season.”

Much the same could be said of American football. And when properly understood, as a phenomenon with meaning and moment far beyond the outcome of the games themselves, it becomes evident that every new controversy flattens into another installment in a captivating drama that delivers us from our generally undramatic lives. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything inherent in our brand of football that makes it so. It’s just the phenomenon that currently occupies that unique cultural space.

None of this means that Roger Goodell’s job is safe. Indeed, he could easily be replaced. But I suspect that, at some level, the black hat he now wears only adds to the frisson that makes the league so appealing to so many. And more broadly, every new controversy only further incentivizes media organizations – sports and otherwise – to keep giving the NFL what it ultimately wants: publicity. In this context, “bad” has no meaning.

By their nature, popular fashions, of course, wax and wane. Just because the NFL is super popular now doesn’t mean it always will be. What won’t hurt the sport, though, are the kinds of controversies it has recently been embroiled in.

Indeed, only one clear threat looms on the horizon – the long-term health consequences of playing the sport, about which we will learn more and more about in the years ahead. But at least for the time being, bashed in brains seem to merit no more attention than a few deflated footballs.

 

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