By DERON SNYDER
Books can’t be judged solely by their covers and news articles can’t be judged solely by their headlines.
But the fact is we consume far more titles than actual articles, only occasionally taking the time to click or read further.
A prime example occurred last week when a slew of headlines proclaimed that a Baltimore Ravens official attributed lagging attendance to kneel-downs during the national anthem. Here’s a sampling from assorted media outlets:
“Ravens president believes player protests to blame for empty seats”
“Ravens say protests ‘surely’ have led to no-shows”
“Ravens president blames empty seats on anthem protests”
A quick take of those captions makes the matter seem cut-and-dried. But Ravens president Dick Cass didn’t declare that players’ actions were a one-size-fits-all answer to Baltimore’s lagging attendance.
In a 650-word letter to season-ticket holders, Cass spent 290 words on the controversary – specifically, Ravens players who knelt before their game in London in September. But he also acknowledged it wasn’t the sole cause.
“There are a number of reasons for the no-shows, but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor,” Cass wrote.
I suppose this is news because it runs counter to the NFL’s company line. Commissioner Roger Goodell largely has dismissed any links between attendance/TV ratings and protests during the national anthem. Cass simply admitted the obvious, that players kneeling has been “an emotional and divisive issue.
“We know that hurt some of you,” he wrote. “Others saw it differently and welcomed the dialogue that followed. Others bluntly told us to keep statements and protests out of the game. There are some of you who have stayed away from our games.”
Making this a black-and-white issue is too easy, not to mention overly simplistic and extremely lazy. Despite best efforts from the White House and factions interested in a culture war, the NFL’s stature isn’t a referendum on who does what during the national anthem.
The drop in popularity is a referendum on the league itself.
Most of the folks I know who claim to be boycotting the NFL have done so because Colin Kaepernick was blackballed, not because other players followed his lead. These are lifelong NFL fans turned off by the league’s callous response to a player’s just cause.
However, the NFL’s problems extend far beyond Kaepernick and the aftermath.
Waning interest became a major issue last season and was blamed on the presidential campaign. But viewers who tuned out for debates and punditry haven’t returned in the same force, apparently realizing after weaning themselves that they could survive with less pro football.
In that regard, the NFL is suffering like lots of other entertainment entities, fighting for an audience that’s easily distracted by a growing number of options. Ratings are down for just about everything and millions of households have “cut the cord” in a mass exodus from pay television.
None of those structural shits in media consumption are within the league’s control, but plenty of blame for the NFL’s challenges can be placed at Goodell & Co.’s feet.
Their historical response to concussions and the long-term effects has been less than endearing. Some fans lost respect for a league that showed such indifference, at best, or disregard, at worst, toward player safety. Other fans have a harder time enjoying the game because they’ve grown uneasy with the players’ tradeoff.
Uneven disciplinary measures have been a repellent, too, whether issued for domestic abuse, medical marijuana or under-inflated footballs. Goodell’s tone deafness and heavy-handedness form a brutal combination, making his product less attractive to fans of reasonable and rational leadership.
But hubris is the biggest reason for fewer fans in the stands and in front of TVs.
The NFL clearly considered itself too big to fail. Growth was inevitable and revenue was endless. Goodell thought he was Luther Vandross singing “Never too much, never too much, never too much.”
He was wrong.
Thursday Night Football pushed the NFL into oversaturation, foisting dreary matchups like Colts-Broncos (Dec. 14) and Bills-Jets (Nov.2) on a national audience. A full slate of games for Monday and Sunday nights was enough of a crapshoot. Adding another night, trying to predict attractive contests without knowing how injuries or unexpected performances would come into play, was greedy and short-sighted.
As a result, NFL games on TV have become nothing special. At the same time, more televised games to watch from the comfort of high-def homes, reminds fans that attending in person is a less-enjoyable experience.
Undoubtedly, Cass was correct in identifying player protests as a factor in dwindling interest.
But there are too many other causes to concentrate on just one.