With two preseason games left to be played, the jumbo jet that is the National Football League regular season is taxiing on the runway. The NFL is all that is left of national culture in the United States; it is the only thing you can talk about with just about anyone in any American city; it is the paste, however thin, that sticks Americans together; it also remains the foundation of broadcast television.
That's why last year an unexpected significant loss of viewers at the beginning of the season caused wails of lamentation in corporate boardrooms across the country. The unspoken fear was that if interest in the NFL disintegrated then capitalism itself couldn't be far behind.
Many explanations for the ratings drop were floated -- the presidential election, the splintering of consciousness due to smartphones, and, my choice, for the first time in years (decades?) most of the games were plain old lousy -- before the plutocrats who guide the NFL settled on ailing San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the scapegoat.
Kaepernick started kneeling last year during the national anthem to protest institutional racism and show support for Black Lives Matter. His protest was picked up by players throughout the league before petering out by November. Viewership had started to pick back up by then. So the NFL, in a fit of "magical thinking," conveniently tarred Kaepernick and his un-American protest the root cause of the problem.
Since then Kaepenick has severed his relationship with the 49ers. A big story of the off-season was his inability to secure employment. A blacklist was obviously at work. Talk to any fan -- even if s/he dislikes Kaepernick --and s/he will tell you the same thing: He is good enough to start for most teams. The Denver Broncos could likely return to the Super Bowl with Kap at QB. If a wheeler-dealer like Broncos GM John Elway passed on Kaepernick the only meaningful explanation is that the league is enforcing a blacklist.
The problem for the NFL, as Ken Belson explored the other day in "Kaepernick’s Protest Cascades Into Protests Over His Job Situation," is that, post-Charlottesville, Kaepernick's protest of last season has reappeared this preseason and it is broader and better organized among the players:
On Monday, in the largest on-field demonstration yet, a dozen Cleveland Browns players knelt during the national anthem, while several other players stood next to them in solidarity. In contrast to last season, when Kaepernick and a handful of black players refused to stand during the anthem, the group included white players.
Goodell has insisted that the league’s 32 teams are not banning Kaepernick. But the issue has put Goodell in the awkward position of defending owners and coaches who have twisted themselves in knots defending their decision not to sign Kaepernick, a quarterback who, unlike the two dozen or so who have been signed so far this year, has led a team to a Super Bowl.
From Baltimore to Miami to Seattle, teams in need of starting or backup quarterbacks signed players with either little experience or a mixed track record, and had to explain, often awkwardly, why they had passed over Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March. The Dolphins even coaxed Jay Cutler out of retirement.
Kaepernick and the anthem-kneeling dispute that he inspired are just the latest in a series of headaches for Goodell and the N.F.L., which is in the spotlight again for its handling of players who are accused of domestic violence, for its handling of concussions and for its harsh stand against the use of marijuana, which some players contend is a safer alternative to the highly addictive painkillers that teams dispense.
The continuing debate over whether players should or should not stand for the national anthem, though, is perhaps the most explosive issue facing the N.F.L., which celebrates patriotism and military service like no other league. The anthem-kneeling that Kaepernick inspired has divided fans like few other issues and has shown signs of chipping away at the league’s bottom line.
Television ratings at every one of the league’s network partners fell last year for the first time, and while the reasons for the decline are complicated — including the presidential election and the absence of recognizable stars like Peyton Manning — some fans said they had stopped watching the N.F.L. because Kaepernick and other players knelt during the anthem.
As the controversy continues into its second year, more fans who look to sports for a diversion from politics could turn away as the season progresses.I think the idea that TVs were turned off because a barely visible player or two took a knee or raised a fist during the national anthem is pure bullshit; to believe that, you are basically making a ultra-nationalist political statement.
The reality is that the games were no good; that, and people are gradually abandoning broadcast television.
Who knows why the early season match-ups were so poor. If teams figure out new offensive schemes this year, or Marshawn Lynch has a big comeback with the Raiders, or any of a dozen captivating storylines, people will tune in. The NFL remains the most powerful opiate in our opioid nation.