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The Day the NFL Jumped the Shark

Coke doesn’t tell you to drink Pepsi. Ford does not tell you to drive GM. Nike does not tell you to wear Reebok.

But the NFL tells the majority of its fans to spend their Sundays doing something else. Surely this business model finds few imitators.

Sunday, September 24, 2017, marked an important date in NFL history. As December 28, 1958, ushered in the era of professional football supremacy in this country, September 24, 2017, signaled its decline. Back then, Commissioner Bert Bell wept in the corner of the locker room–he knew what the Colts-Giants game meant. Yesterday, if Commissioner Roger Goodell possessed more awareness, he, too, would have wept. After hundreds of players took a knee or took a pass on “The Star Spangled Banner,” hundreds of thousands of fans took a knee on Sunday football. Many of those viewers never return.

The league looks all-in on its protesting players politicizing a sport that traditionally transcends partisan rancor and division.

Houston Texans owner Robert McNair calls Donald Trump’s comments calling for owners to fire players who disrespect the national anthem “divisive.” He says nothing about the divisiveness of disrespecting the national anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell cites Trump’s “lack of respect.” He says nothing, thirteen months in, about the “lack of respect” shown to the American flag by hundreds of players in his league. Bears chairman George McCaskey obliquely refers to players bringing “unity” before pointing to a “divisive political situation.” He imagines the “divisive political situation” as one involving leaders noticing players disrespecting the country rather than the players disrespecting the country.

The league’s bigwigs not only seem oblivious to why fans no longer watch, but contribute to the exodus from man caves, living rooms, and bars. They want you to imagine players sitting for the national anthem as a neutral, innocuous act but a president criticizing those players as beyond the pale. But fans of football who remain fans of America do not fall for the Jedi Mind Trick.

Even for fans disgusted by the ungracious displays of disrespect aimed at the United States by men made rich by it, clicking away proves more difficult than making a 61-yard field goal with no time left, which Philadelphia Eagles kicker Jake Elliot did to end the New York Giants game on Sunday. Tom Brady engineered yet another fourth-quarter comeback to lead the New England Patriots over the Houston Texans. In an almost eerie repeat of the end of Super Bowl 34, Golden Tate fell inches shy of the goal line as the game clock neared its closing ticks to thwart a comeback by the Detroit Lions against the Atlanta Falcons. Aaron Rodgers engineered an overtime win after engineering a regulation comeback to lead the Green Bay Packers over the luckless Cincinnati Bengals. The homedog Chicago Bears upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime.

Sunday’s on-field action was not good. It was amazing.

Perhaps fans who clicked off after the myriad national anthem protests missed out. The NFL missed out more. The league needs fans to thrive. The NFL specializes in arrogantly alienating them. Neither concussions on the gridiron nor Ray Rice concussing his wife in an elevator killed the NFL. The contempt shown the country slowly bleeds the league of its base. With ratings down dramatically from a season ago, when ratings were down dramatically, and several teams play to half-empty houses, the league faces a crisis. Rather than enforce a separation of sport and state, the NFL’s owners and commissioner double-down on the politics, alienating large swaths of its audience in the process.

Schlitz rules the package-store cooler no more. Howard Johnsons no longer ranks as the go-to spot for travelers to rest. Kids do not know what Atari means let alone play it religiously. But the NFL thinks it forever sits on the throne of American sports. Baseball once harbored similar thoughts.

“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

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