Sports Commentary: The NFL faces unprecedented backlash
The NFL has a problem. It’s not that television ratings have dropped 11 percent, nor is it that the presidential debates and baseball playoffs registered record audiences against primetime football. It’s that for the first time in a long time, the NFL is receiving serious backlash from both players and teams. The league isn’t concerned, but they should be.
Player safety is heralded as one of the NFL’s major aims year after year, yet recent events have led players to see the NFL as nothing more than a bottom-line business. Last May, a Congressional report found that the NFL backed out of an agreement to provide $16 million to a major concussions study being performed at Boston University. The NFL unsuccessfully tried to redirect the money and remove the lead researcher before pulling back what was previously described as an “unrestricted gift.”
“Our investigation has shown that while the NFL had been publicly proclaiming its role as funder and accelerator of important research, it was privately attempting to influence that research,” the report states. Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost.
The NFL has also received criticism for its on-field handling of concussions. The league enlisted independent certified athletic trainers (“ATC Spotters”) beginning in 2011, who have the job of recognizing concussions and stopping play when one may have occurred.
The spotter program’s inefficiencies are most often highlighted with a play in which Rams’ quarterback Case Keenum’s head was bounced on the turf. Under the current rules, Keenum, who remained on his hands and knees after the hit, should have been removed for showing concussion-like symptoms, but instead remained in the game. Keenum was never tested for a concussion.
Despite the potential for the greatest risk of injury between the four major U.S. sports, the NFL is the only league that doesn’t fully guarantee contracts. The NFL rakes in about $3 billion more than the MLB and $7 billion more than the NBA, yet pays their players only 47 percent of their total revenue, 4 percent less than what the NBA pays their players. MLB guarantees all contracts and has no restrictions on what teams can pay players, whereas most NFL players can be released and owed nothing.
According to players, the NFL’s inability to protect players and provide a semblance of job security show that the league “couldn’t care less.” Take Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman.
“If you can increase their bottom line, they’ll love you,” Sherman said. “If you’re not making them money they’re going to find somebody else.”
Resentment from players is nothing new for the NFL, but pushback from teams is almost unprecedented.
After the NFL announced that they would be disallowing team social media accounts from releasing in-stadium content during games, the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles promptly mocked the league by tweeting instant highlights using plastic toy players.
The Pittsburgh Steelers organization has begged for clarification on what quantifies a legal touchdown celebration. Wide Receiver Antonio Brown has been flagged routinely for celebrations that have been deemed “sexually suggestive or can otherwise be construed as being in poor taste,” but there is no consistency in how these calls are made throughout the league.
It’s time for the NFL to actually care about their players. Football is inherently dangerous, but the injuries that result can be properly treated if the player’s health is put above team success and league prosperity. Additionally, teams poking fun at the Twitter rule is a strong deviation for a league that preaches deference to the shield. The NFL needs to protect and unshackle the players because, after all, they are what makes the league their money. Let them have fun, but keep them safe.