I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, for both college and the pros. I grew up in Atlanta on Steve Bartkowski and Herschel Walker and having my heart broken (although this year’s Super Bowl was probably the biggest sports heartbreak of my life). But there’s something to fall weekends when you can just on turn on the TV and watch a game between two teams you don’t care about that is unique and special.
This year, we’re seeing a bit more controversy though. NFL ratings are down significantly. There’s a lot of blame being thrown around and a lot of it is being thrown at politics, particularly the recent trend of black players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police misconduct.
First of all, I don’t think that’s the reason for the NFL’s ratings drop. It is probably a reason, but not the reason. Ratings had been going up for a long time but weren’t going to rise forever. There is a growing concern about the damage the game does to players’ bodies and minds, particularly with regard to CTE. That is the one thing that really gives me pause. The dominance of certain teams — Alabama in the college ranks, New England in the pros — has turned some people off. The Falcons were the closest thing we’ve had to a Cinderella in recent year and, come on, even this lifelong Falcons fan has to admit they weren’t going to capture America’s hearts. Some people say the quality of play is down, but I’m not convinced.
But, second of all … I do think politics are a problem for the NFL. It’s very easy for the elites in our society to forget, but players kneeling during the national anthem bothers people. Politics being injected into the NFL bothers people. It may not seem like a big deal when you’re inside the political bubble. But, for most people in this country, sports is a place where we can be passionate, angry, elated, dejected or thrilled without having to worry about politics. While watching the Super Bowl last year, I shared my excitement and then my devastation with Falcons fans of all political stripes. That’s the beauty of the thing. As Doug Mataconis likes to post every year:
Today was the last Sunday without NFL Football until February 11, 2018! pic.twitter.com/vKAVFCwF41
— Doug Mataconis (@dmataconis) September 4, 2017
We’re tired of politics in everything. We’re tired of it in our movies — witness the drop in this year’s box office. We’re tired of it in awards shows — notice the plunging ratings. And we’re tired of it in our sports. Politics infests our lives in too many ways and many of us just wanted a damned break.
It’s not that I’m not sympathetic. I do think these players have a point. I will never understand how enraging it must be to see cops caught on video gunning down unarmed black people only to be acquitted. Yeah, some of those shootings turns out to be justified (e.g, Michael Brown). But not all of them. And every time it happens, the media starts going through the dead man’s past to find any black mark that can retroactively justify his death. It is a relentless and maddening rhythm. So … I’m not going to begrudge them their small non-violent protest. I’m not going to tell them to just shut up and play football.
But protest comes at a price. There is always a price to pay for social activism. And that price may be falling ratings and a lot less money. I suspect Kaepernick et al. are fine with the price being paid if it brings attention to the issue. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a price or be all surprised when the bill comes due.