The unsolvable conundrum of the NFL

It is no secret that the NFL has problems. Whether you keep up with the sports world or not, you have undoubtedly been made aware of the numerous atrocities that have been committed by the vaunted playing staff of the National Football League. On a weekly basis, the league’s most prominent players perform deplorable acts of violence, displaying a blatant disregard for both the law and the safety of others. Since the end of the off-season, five weeks ago, there have been a sickening five reports of domestic abuse, one indictment for child abuse, two for aggravated assault, and two more DUI charges, all of which involve employees of the NFL.

One would think that this widespread trend of horrific off-the-field behavior is the extent of the league’s trouble, but actually it is just the beginning. These incidents have exposed inexplicable flaws in the league’s player conduct policy, brought into serious question the morals of those at the top of the food chain, and irreparably sullied the already lousy reputation of commissioner Roger Goodell. It all started with the handling of the Ray Rice incident.

You know the story. The TMZ video of the all-pro running back, dragging his wife out of an elevator unconscious, the initial two-game suspension, the subsequent public outrage, the proposed amendment of the league’s domestic violence policy, the brutal and sickening tape released again by TMZ, and Rice’s ensuing banishment from the league.

The truly disgraceful thing is what it took for Goodell to finally settle on a punishment that fit the crime that Ray Rice had confessed to committing back in August. Every single one of Goodell’s decisions was influenced primarily by a desire to run a more profitable business. It is that simple. The ludicrous two-game suspension was instituted so that Goodell could keep one of the league’s star running-backs on the field, and keep selling tickets and jerseys. The proposed amendment to the league’s domestic violence policy was only set in motion after leading sponsors threatened to cut ties with the NFL. Rice’s ultimate and just punishment was a result of the release of a tape that was obtained and sent viral by a celebrity-stalking news outlet before it was even obtained by one of the most powerful organizations in the country, the NFL.

It was not that they could not get their hands on the tape. Instead, it was that either Goodell did not want to get his hands on the tape, or saw the tape and did not want to reveal its content to the public. Why? Simple answer. Money. He wanted to try whatever he could to ensure that the product that the league was putting on the field was the best it could be. He wanted TV ratings to continue to soar, and keep the turnstiles humming in Baltimore. I guarantee that had Ray Rice been a third string running back struggling to make the final cut on the Jacksonville Jaguars roster, he would have been booted out of the league the moment that his transgressions became known.

This attitude is not limited to the Rice situation. It is certainly the most publicized example of a blatant effort to minimize the repercussions of player’s off-field conduct, but the league’s official policy on off-the-field incidents is even more atrocious. According to current NFL rules, when a player commits an extracurricular transgression, it is the responsibility of the team that employs him, not the league office, to decide his punishment.

This is preposterous on a multitude of levels, but most harmfully, it takes the decision out of the hands of supposedly impartial judges and puts it into the hands of the most partial judges of all.  The league’s emphasis on money over morals is clearly evident. Teams are unlikely to make the decision to willfully take key players off the field and thus lessen their chances for success. They end up trying as hard as they can to shove these type of infringements under the rug and let their players just keep playing football.

However, what really makes this problem unsolvable does not have to do with the structure of the league, it lies with us; the fans. No matter how horrific the behavior of its players, no matter how terribly and how unethically the league is run, and no matter how long these two despicable trends continue for, we will still watch NFL football.

On the weekend of September 7th, 2014, over a quarter of a billion people, more than three quarters of the entire population of the United States, tuned in to watch the National Football League kick off its season. That is a shade higher than the viewership at this time last year, before this issue had come to the fore.

Apparently the moral questions surrounding the NFL has not hurt the viewership and money is flowing as ever  into the NFL’s pockets. Money governs the way that the NFL thinks, and until their revenue stream from TV contracts and ticket sales take a significant hit, those running the league have no incentive to change the current system.

Fantasy football is still one of the internet’s most popular games, people still plan their entire weeks around watching football on Sundays, and cities still live and die by the performance of their respective teams. Until this is no longer the case, nothing in the NFL will change. And if current trends are anything to go by, this will be the case for a long long time to come.


Image Courtesy: Keith Allison (…), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic | Flickr