It’s week one of the 2017 NFL seasons, and I’m watching my Baltimore Ravens defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, but I have only one eye in the game. The other is on my Twitter feed and the latest news of Hurricane Irma as it skirts along the west coast of Florida – and I’m writing this column.
Not long ago, I looked forward to a new NFL season like a child waiting for Christmas. After the Super Bowl, I followed everything from offseason workouts to mock drafts, camp competitions, and preseason games, reading the tea leaves of the upcoming season and obsessing over the minutiae of pass routes, defensive schemes, and coaching changes, and debating what they meant with my fellow obsessives.
Of course, I had no personal stake in any of it…but it was fun! I was part of a tribe – a tribe of Ravens fans within the larger tribe of NFL football fans. We had colors and uniforms, and I fit right in when I attended a game and merged into that sea of purple and black winding its way into M&T Bank Stadium. We celebrated when our team won, consoled each other when they lost, and talked a lot of smack to misguided fans of the other 31 teams.
I miss all that. But, try as I might, NFL football just isn’t that exciting to me anymore. Over the past few years, I found myself losing interest in the off-season schedule. I missed games and found myself following major league baseball and the Orioles instead. The thought of planting myself in my easy chair on a Sunday for three football games and all the pre-game and post-game coverage held all the appeal of a trip to the dentist’s chair.
For a while, I thought it was me. Maybe, I told myself, I’m growing out of this. I have a family and responsibilities now. I’m older. I no longer have the bandwidth to devote so much energy and emotion to a game that has no direct impact on my life, my family’s well being, or anything else that really matters. What do I get out of it if the Ravens win another Super Bowl? The team, the players, and the owner make out, to be sure – but what am I so happy about? All l I get is the opportunity to spend money on a Super Bowl champions hat and a t-shirt. I’d rather spend time with my wife and daughter!
And that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story…not by a long shot.
The real problem occurred to me about a week ago as I scrolled past another outraged headline about NFL owners blackballing Colin Kaepernick from the NFL for taking a knee during the National Anthem.
The NFL used to be an escape – not just from politics, but from everyday life. Aside from the occasional histrionics of the losing coach in a postgame press conference, the focus was on the field, and it stayed there. The controversies on the sports page revolved around whether to bench the starting quarterback, not whether he should stand during the National Anthem.
Lately, the NFL has become like that old college girlfriend, the drama queen: the one whose life was an exhausting, never-ending soap opera, a whirlwind of controversy and headaches that inevitably outweighed her looks and how good she was in bed; the one you eventually dumped because she just wasn’t worth it. The NFL has become that drama queen girlfriend.
Headlines are less and less about the game itself and more and more about the peripheral stuff: race relations, sexual assault, political protests, player suspensions, and team mascots. The coverage in the papers and ESPN mirrors news coverage of everything else, right down to the name calling, the anger, and the shouting. And let’s not forget the crony capitalist owners, who blackmail host cities into sweet funding deals for new stadiums lest they pack up, betray their fans, and move to locales where public officials are more willing to pony up taxpayer dollars.
I finally tuned out, and it appears I’m not alone. Ratings for the opening matchup between the Patriots and the Chiefs this Thursday night were down 12% from last year, which was down from the year before that. I haven’t stopped watching entirely, but I’m less likely to carve out a 3-hour slot in my schedule to catch a game. The NFL is no longer appointment TV, and I couldn’t care less about watching ESPN during the week.
It has become nearly impossible to follow NFL football without being asked to take a position or a stand on something – and that something, whatever it is, usually has little to do with the game or the performance of its players on the field. The NFL isn’t at fault for the poisonous political atmosphere we all live in, but Roger Goodell and the owners should temper their response to it far better than they have.
People with political agendas will always find something to be outraged over, but not every outrage is a threat to the NFL’s existence. Not every controversy merits a panicked response and a counterproductive overreaction from the NFL that keeps stories in the headlines longer than they should be.
Sometimes, it’s OK to let the game do the talking.