Nearly everyone either is or knows a rabid football fan. You know the type: They own a jacket, bedspread, winter hat and umbrella featuring the logo of their favorite NFL team.
But with the growing fad of players taking a knee during the National Anthem prior to a game, things aren’t looking so rosy. Many fans are tuning out and turning off the games. Through Week 5 of this season the average TV audience was down 7 percent from the previous season, according to Nielsen. Game attendance (those who show up to a stadium to watch a contest) is down a whopping 18 percent.
The decrease could be caused by natural disasters requiring the attention of would-be game viewers, but we also might be witnessing the last gasp of the NFL, whose players of yore were tougher and grittier than the dirt they played on.
Today’s politics-infused players are more like civil rights activists who play football in their spare time. And average fans are growing tired of watching their sports heroes use their position on Sunday afternoon’s TV schedule to make political statements.
I know I am.
I’m especially sick of hearing the pre- and post-game reports regarding how a team handles the singing of the anthem. We have enough politics Monday through Saturday. Sunday should be a day of rest, both from work and the world. The average guy and gal tune in to escape politics and other real-life concerns. They want to see spectacular plays, not protests. They want action, not debate. They may agree with the players kneeling to bring attention to the Black Lives Matter protests, but that doesn’t mean they want those protests to invade their Sunday-afternoon respite.
The Nielsen ratings aren’t the only evidence of the NFL’s decline due to the on-field protests. According to a Rasmussen poll Oct. 2-3, 32 percent of American adults said they are less likely to watch a game because of the protests. That’s a sizable chunk of the viewership, and NFL owners are right to be concerned.
It’s the latest in what appears to be a downward spiral for the league. The stadiums – many of which are taxpayer-funded, by the way – may be flashy and over-the-top, but things are not alright in NFLand.
Former players’ brain scans show chronic traumatic encephalopathy caused by repeated head trauma; the trusted college farm system is in upheaval over whether to pay athletes, and of course the controversy surrounding kneeling during the National Anthem isn’t helping matters.
I would think protesters would use their position to protest something within their own sphere of knowledge and influence – like their league’s handling of CTE. But of course they won’t do that because it could put their employers out of business and jeopardize their own livelihoods. Protesting the police in far-off locales is much safer, especially for their weekly paychecks, which are dependent on everyone still believing the average NFL player isn’t going to suffer from CTE in his old age.
Also, I’ve never understood how kneeling during the National Anthem had anything to do with black people being killed by unfit cops. What made former San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick associate the flag and anthem with bad cops? I can understand kneeling or turning one’s back on the nation’s flag if the federal government had a policy of only arresting black people and letting white people go free, but what does a city cop in Ferguson or Chicago have to do with the federal symbols? It’s incongruous. Kaepernick should have joined a protest march in Ferguson or any of the cities where questionable police tactics have been used. Leave the flag and anthem out of a local issue.
But politics-fatigued fans have reason to celebrate. Major League Baseball’s postseason is at hand and the match-ups are dandy. Forget about football and tune in to America’s greatest pastime, which is (so far) free from protests and focused 100 percent on the escapism of sport.
Football’s recent fumbles may be the opening baseball has needed for some time.
Football’s domination of the network airwaves is something baseball used to have and should aspire to once again. Many people don’t get the fancy cable channels, which seem to be the sole purveyors of MLB games during the season. When I was a kid, baseball games could be seen on over-the-air stations. No costly upper-tier cable package was required, as it is today.
Luckily, most of baseball’s postseason is broadcast over-the-air on Fox and, if they are wise, MLB overseers will take advantage of the NFL’s woes and restore America’s pastime to the public airwaves for 2018’s regular-season play.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.