Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 1, 2015

A Super Sunday For The Pats, But The NFL’s Problems Remain

So we come to Super Bowl Sunday; the annual reminder, as if one were needed, that in this country there are sports, and then there is the NFL. It’s been a bad year for Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league; one that Goodell himself characterized as “tough” in his annual state-of-the-league address on Friday while adding “we’ve all done a lot of soul-searching, starting with yours truly.” Yet one would scarcely know that this past week. There was the usual absurdity of Media Day, the breathless and excessive analysis of the two teams, and all of the usual overblown hype.

There was also a ready willingness on the part of any number of businesses to shell out $4.5 million for 30 seconds of advertising time on NBC this evening. Most of all there was every indication that when the ratings are announced fans in record numbers will have tuned into the telecast, making Super Sunday once again an unofficial holiday from coast to coast. Those fans will include long-time followers of the NFL, fans of Katy Perry (yes, there actually are such people), and millions upon millions whose knowledge of the game would lead them to guess that the “read option” has something to do with deciding whether to open a book.

The intensity and the excess will only grow next year, when the game celebrates its 50th anniversary. One can look forward to gauzy retrospectives and any number of “greatest of” lists, as if it were possible to fairly compare the quality of individual achievements in any sport over the course of half a century. Let the odds-making begin now on which Super Bowl will be judged the finest of the first half-hundred contests.

One was reminded of just how much this title tilt and the league in which it is played have changed in the moments before Super Bowl XLXIX began Sunday evening. NBC showed a photograph of the coin toss before the first contest. At the time that game was called the First AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a designation slightly less grandiose and considerably less marketable. The photo showed two co-captains each from the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs huddled around the referee at midfield of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The image of the old photograph was replaced by a live shot of the sea of players, honorary captains, officials and cameramen at midfield of University of Phoenix Stadium. That first game failed to sell out. In the days after the NFC and AFC title games two weeks ago it was reported that a Seahawks or Patriots fan desperate to see the game live might find a “bargain” deal of an end zone seat in the stadium’s highest reaches for around $2,000 on the ticket resale market; travel and lodging definitely not included.

Amid the hoopla and the hype it’s easy to forget all of the things that made this such a tough year for Goodell and the NFL. America’s premier sports league is a $10 billion enterprise. With the full support of all 32 owners the Commissioner has set a goal of increasing that to a whopping $25 billion over the next decade and a half. But the ridiculously rich men who have grown richer still off the public’s love of football would be foolish to think that the NFL’s steadily rising revenues are automatically destined to grow forever.

This year the NFL’s image was tarnished by a report that condemned an atmosphere that fostered rampant bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room. That paled next to the firestorm around the league’s personal conduct policy. While former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice became the poster boy for that issue, at times during the season it seemed like not a week could go by without some player on some team being arrested on charges of domestic abuse. For its part, the NFL Players Association has fought the new policy, arguing that any changes should have been collectively bargained. The NFLPA is obligated to protect the interests of its members. But Executive Director DeMaurice Smith walks a delicate line in which he must avoid any appearance of shielding serial abusers.

At once a fundamental part of football’s visceral appeal while also the greatest long-term threat to the NFL’s continued popularity and financial success is the game’s violence. The league agreed to a $765 million settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by former players who argued they had been neither insufficiently informed of nor protected against the long-term impact of repeated concussions. The good news is that the number of concussions declined this year. The bad news is that they still occur on a regular basis, and there are any number of active players who sadly stand a frightening chance of living disabled and foreshortened lives because of their willingness to be modern-day gladiators. Saturday night’s announcement that Junior Seau was among this year’s Hall of Fame inductees only served to remind. The great linebacker committed suicide three years ago. After his death an examination of his brain showed evidence of CTE, a progressive degenerative condition common in individuals with repeated head injury.

For all of the NFL’s phenomenal success and popularity, its future is anything but certain. Of course on Sunday in Glendale, that was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. Seattle rallied from touchdown deficits twice in the first half, including an 80-yard drive in the final half-minute. The Seahawks took the lead with a field goal on their opening drive of the second half, and then scored again on their next possession.

But just as Wilson and Seattle looked in control, Brady and the Patriots rallied late.  The Patriots took the lead with just over 2 minutes remaining, but Wilson seemed poised to lead the decisive final drive.  That was until New England’s rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted a Wilson pass at the goal line with less than 20 seconds remaining, cementing the 4th Super Bowl for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

As exciting as the game was, once the confetti is cleaned up, and before the interminable buildup to Super Bowl 50 gets underway (next year’s official logo eschews roman numerals, apparently “L” wasn’t sufficiently imposing), Goodell, the owners, the NFLPA and everyone else with a stake in the league’s success would do well to resume that soul-searching; and consider how best to address problems instead of hoping they just go away. Otherwise in time it will not just be the footballs, but the NFL itself that starts to deflate.

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