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Downward Spiral

A fan’s notes on the decline of the NFL

When the pregame show after the first pregame show ended, there were of course commercials. After that, nearly one hundred million Americans watched a quill pen being dipped into an inkwell. The camera pulled back to reveal the arm and powdered wig of the man holding the pen; his hand protrudes from a voluminous sleeve that seems to terminate in some kind of avant-garde doily. String tones and a lone plonking horn on the soundtrack set a properly capital-H Historical tone. We are already hearing voiceover, plummy and rounded and fakey. A wider shot reveals a pewter mug at the edge of the desk, with a half dozen other quills sticking floofily out of it. The bewigged man with the avant-garde sleeves signs his name and the date: Th. Jefferson, June 1776.

It was almost time for the football game.

A record 97.5 million people were watching Fox TV that night, February 3, 2008, to see the last and most important game of the NFL season, between the New York Giants and the undefeated New England Patriots. But first, to what we might as well imagine was their moderate-to-great surprise, they were watching this. The millions looked on as, in the next sequence, actors done up in inexpensive-looking Founding Father finery materialize like jowly ghosts in the interior of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and deliver themselves of famous historical quotes to a camera tracking left to right. The lighting is gauzy, and a snare drum rum-dummy-dums under all of it.

“The tree of liberty is watered with the blood of patriots and tyrants both,” the man playing Thomas Jefferson says. The actor’s hair is in a severe middle part, and seen straight on he is thickish and pale and looks like a bartender in a Coen Brothers film. This concluded the Spectral Founder portion of the segment, which ran for six-and-a-half minutes in all, and promptly gave way to something even stranger. The image dissolves to NFL Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, in a full denim ensemble and what appears be a camouflage kufi, and he solemnly recites the first words of the Declaration of Independence. Only then did the broadcast of Super Bowl XLII reach the ninety-second mark.

It improbably got weirder still from there, like, Peyton Manning grimly intoning eighteenth-century prose through his pipe-organ sinuses weird. But the most important thing to note here is that this was all real—at least in the sense that the NFL’s self-dramatizing rites of civic belonging are now a real and autonomous part of our bedrock national saga. Less grandiosely, I guess, this was real in the sense that anything that happens on TV in America is automatically real.

The reality of all this is worth reiterating mostly because the sheer absurdity of it would otherwise be overwhelming. There was former commissioner Paul Tagliabue honking out his lines while standing at attention by the Jefferson Memorial; there was Giants defensive end Michael Strahan—well before his rebranding as a happy-talk daytime TV host—barking out the word “rectitude” while surrounded by firemen at Ground Zero. This was really on television, where millions of Americans who mostly wanted to watch a football game could see it. Something similar had happened in years before and has happened in years since. Fox started doing this with Super Bowl XXXVI, which was played five months after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Three years after those 97 million or so viewers watched Tedy Bruschi, Jack Kemp, Steve Largent, Roger Staubach, and Marie Tillman (the widow of Pat Tillman) do their best with their assigned chunks of the Declaration before Super Bowl XLII, another record viewership—111 million, this time for the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV—was treated to an iteration that began with former secretary of state Colin Powell and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell striding gravely through the National Archives.

This is not only real, but in the broader context of the NFL—the biggest, richest, and most luridly batshit sports league the world has ever seen—it is even something like normal.

Blood, Soil, and Pigskin

Not normal by any standard except for the one that prevails in the NFL, admittedly, but that’s the one we’re talking about here. We are talking about the NFL, which is to say that we are talking about a league that increasingly sees itself as presenting not only the most popular American sport—which football demonstrably is, at least going by television ratings and profits—but the most American American sport.

The sport’s elephantine self-regard plays out in ways big and small—and in ways that transcend the obvious patriotic signifiers that the NFL grafts to every available surface of its exhaustively branded viewing experience. It’s not just the booming fighter jet flyovers or the deployment of American flags visible from space when it’s time for the national anthem, although there is all that. It’s the bombastic anthem rituals—and the sidelong glances cast during that anthem to make sure that everyone around is revering the anthem appropriately. Some of that is the result of Colin Kaepernick’s quiet and quite probably career-ending anthem-based act of protest, but the NFL’s dedication to its specific and strange vision of conformity predated Kaepernick’s political awakening. The NFL is selective and self-serving and alternately priggish and thuggish in how it goes about maintaining its strange brand, but it is always singular. Every mania of our broader moment, from those grandiose delusions to the million points of cheesy graft, is reflected in the NFL itself. In retrospect, it was inevitable that the NFL would come into conflict with President Trump—when it comes to honking overdetermined proxies for Maximum America, there can be only one.

It’s America’s game all right, and if the NFL is dying, it is for the most American of reasons—because it is rotten with corruption, and it can’t come up with any other way it would rather be.

So there are the flyovers and the performative patriotism, but there is also the fact that the NFL was, for years, secretly billing the Pentagon for all those color guards and Hometown Hero promotions. And it’s maybe especially the fact that the commissioner’s office expressed shocked dismay upon the exposure last year of all of this and contritely returned a small percentage of the money the teams had received.

To a culture that’s addicted to spectacle and inured to dishonesty, the NFL delivers bulk loads of both: the pyrotechnically performative God-and-country stuff and the greasy profit-seeking, the stilted recitation of the Declaration of Independence before a football game and then the batshit branded hijinks that follow at the commercial breaks. There isn’t much distance, in broadcast time or pure blank weirdness, between those patriotic fife-and-drum montages and the ads in which a lone Budweiser Clydesdale convinces a small businessman not to commit suicide or a man eating Doritos is comically rocked in the nuts by a snack-minded Corgi or whatever. America, as the poet said, is hard to see. But in watching the NFL, at the baroque phase on what appears to be the back end of its zenith, we can see a reflection of the nation at something like the same point.

The NFL is financially healthy and also pretty luridly out of its mind, increasingly given to grandiose delusion and stubborn denial and spasms of executive sadism. And lately, it’s declining—in ways that are obvious for even casual viewers and evident during an average Sunday’s slate of games and in ways that the league might not fully feel for generations.

It’s America’s game all right, and if the NFL is sick, if it is even perhaps dying, it is for the most American of reasons—because it is increasingly ragged and rotten with corruption, and because it can’t quite come up with any other way that it would rather be.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Impunity

There is a door that opens while watching a bad NFL game on TV, a gateway into something very much like an out-of-body experience. It’s not an especially desirable out-of-body experience, to be sure, but there’s something about being subjected to a NFL game at its worst that grants even the most devout fans the opportunity to see how football looks to people who absolutely hate football. Witness enough off-tackle plunges for one-yard gains, then watch as they are negated by offsetting penalties, and something reveals itself, even to those of us who enjoy the game.

It is not pretty. The grunting, juddering, anti-flow of the broader game, the rote brutality and steak-headed backwardness of the action at the play-by-play level, the sudden blundering intrusion of all those honking commercials—for achingly sincere domestic macro-pilsners, for strapping trucks and their loud and swaggering drive-train warranties, for extremely emotional insurance companies and also weirdly ironic insurance companies—at every stoppage of play. In the most basic sense this is just what the average NFL game is, but more worrying for the lords of the league, it is also a description of what is an objectively not-great television show—one with the queasy pacing of rush-hour traffic, the jarring violence of a car accident, and the fuddy legalism of traffic court, and that somehow manages to be three hours long.

For people who don’t like watching the NFL, every excruciating moment of every game looks like this. For those of us who enjoy it, against or despite our better political and aesthetic judgment, that description only fits the worst shitshow jackpot: muddy punt-offs in Cleveland, for example, or the groggy Sunday morning games that the NFL has lately played in front of rustling, uninterested crowds at London’s Wembley Stadium as part of its stalled attempt to open international markets.

In recent years, though, the games resembling out-of-body experiences have become worryingly common. The sudden glut of ultra-shitty games probably isn’t the greatest long-term problem facing the sport, but it’s also the most obvious and inescapable challenge to all the solemn covenant-pageantry of the NFL; it’s hard to civically sanctify the experience of being bored.

Not every game can be a classic, of course, or even competitive. But the palpable decline in game quality, week by week and 12-9 game by 12-9 game, is neither incidental nor accidental but happening seemingly by design—the natural result of teams taking cheap-out shortcuts in constructing their rosters, and a high-volume and highly conservative coaching style that emphasizes an empty efficiency over any of the unpredictabilities that make games worth watching.

Put another way, the specific nature of the league’s declining ratings is a reflection of the limited appeal of spending three hours watching quarterbacks rack up four-yard completions. As The Ringer’s Kevin Clark points out, the absolute number of people watching NFL games hasn’t declined, but those viewers are watching for increasingly brief periods of time. “Fans are tuning in and then tuning out,” Clark writes. “If that doesn’t scare the league, then nothing will.”

Gladiators on the Make

Here’s the thing, though: the NFL not only doesn’t seem scared, it doesn’t seem to care at all. It’s broadly understood that NFL football is not terribly good at the moment. If you credit the lamentations of the anonymous front-office-types who tend to pop up in stories complaining, always complaining, about how unprepared today’s college players are for the pro game or the dearth of NFL-ready quarterbacks available through the NFL draft, the near future does not look great, either. Factor in a steady decline in youth football participation that extends back to the first stories about the link between football and brain injuries (such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) more than a decade ago and it’s tough to feel great about the long-term outlook.

Rich television deals ensure that profitability is locked in for the foreseeable future, and ratings are only slightly off their old Olympian standard. But the NFL currently feels very much like a league in decline—the league seems in a real way to have lost interest in football, or in trying to stop the league’s broader skid. There are and will always be bad teams, but the NFL in 2017 is remarkable for the number of teams that appear not even to be trying to compete. This includes not just teams embarking on variously forward-thinking tank schemes to gain advantageous position in upcoming drafts, or the roughly equal number of teams that are plainly institutionally incompetent. The ones that stand out most dramatically are those that are plainly not trying to do anything but bump along the bottoms of their divisions and collect their share of the $39.6 billion in television revenues that the league’s thirty-two teams will divide between 2014 and 2022.

NFL owners are fundamentally unaccountable even to their team’s fans, and that means that they’re free to do whatever they want.

Fans will put up with a lot, but such overt and unapologetic indifference is an insult that’s hard to ignore. The NFL has always prioritized the profits of the men who own the league’s teams above any other end and has only rarely bothered to conceal that fact. In its simultaneously sincere and delirious self-performance, the NFL rhymes perfectly both with our Trump-y moment and the man himself, from its valorizing of not just money but greed, its blank devotion to bigness, its endless capacity to take offense at every outrage against itself, by “anti-football” doctors revealing the damage the game does to the people who play it, to the kneeling Kaepernick. It makes sense that Trump once owned a football team of his own, the New Jersey Generals of the short-lived USFL; it’s a nice Trumpian touch that the USFL only realized a modest financial return when Trump and his fellow team owners negotiated a buyout at the expense of their far richer NFL counterparts. That the same NFL owners who donated more than any other sports executives to Trump’s inauguration celebration, according to FEC filings, recoil righteously from Kaepernick vulgarly “politicizing” their American Sunday tradition is, mostly, unsurprising. That Trump, in a characteristically beefy ad-lib at a late-September rally for Alabama Senator Luther Strange, said he would “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’” was, in retrospect, probably inevitable. That he kept mashing away at that (popular) sentiment whenever his poll numbers turned down in the months afterward spoke not just to Trump’s well-documented animal shamelessness but also to the risks of the NFL’s long, strange campaign against its players.

It’s not quite sufficient to say that the NFL is an owners’ league. It absolutely is, in the sense that every decision the league makes is made to advance the financial interests and flatter the various vanities of the owners. But, on a more mundane level, the league’s current deemphasizing of the game of football in favor of oafish executive theater—the protean expansion of the league’s metastatic rulebook, the endless rounds of stern but vague disciplinary action that issue from the commissioner’s office—is more than the owners dictating the way that their sport is overseen and organized. It is the owners making the league more explicitly about them: not just what they want, but what they do.

From a fan’s perspective, this is a bad choice for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that the people playing football in today’s NFL are stronger and faster than any people who have ever played the game before and that the owners are interchangeable soft pink guys whiffing on high-fives in their luxury boxes. Those are the bosses, though, and so the league’s appeal to fans is increasingly less about strength than power—less about the physical geniuses tossing or catching forty-yard lasers than the proper management and, where necessary, punishment of those players. The fantasy the league sells is less about the vicarious experience of a superhuman specimen like Odell Beckham Jr. than the vicarious experience of controlling such a specimen—whether on a fantasy team or through taking a hard line in real-world salary negotiations.

It’s possible to see this collective will-to-power as part of a slick and subtle bit of anti-labor propagandizing on the part of a caste whose most deeply held ideal has always been paying players as little as possible. But it’s just as easy to see it as a simple failure of imagination by rich men who have come to believe that they are more important and more interesting than the strange, violent, astonishing game on which this is all leveraged. Again, you may detect a Trumpian echo to all this.

© Corey Presha

The Bosses Barrel Downfield

A certain significant subset of NFL fans plainly has no problem with owners taking a high- and heavy-handed approach to the league’s labor relations and disciplinary enforcement. The relationship between the league’s owners and its players—who are, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, both the league’s labor force and its product—has been characterized by enmity and aggression for generations, and remains notably lopsided. For a certain part of the league’s fan-base, this reflexive authoritarianism is more feature than bug.

The formal expression of that authoritarianism might have changed through the years, but its underlying substance is as unyielding as, well, the language of the Declaration of Independence. Where Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm told NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw, “You guys are cattle, and we’re the ranchers,” in 1987, today’s owners prefer the involuted Trumpian rhetoric of outrage and redress. “We signed a shitty [labor] deal last time,” Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers, told his peers at the NFL’s annual owners meeting in 2010, exhorting them toward a 2011 lockout that lasted for 132 days. “And we’re going to stick together and take back our league and fucking do something about it.” Documents later revealed that, in the season before Richardson and his fellow owners succeeded in reducing the share of league revenues devoted to player salaries from 50 to 47 percent, the Panthers showed an operating profit of $78.7 million. They went 2-14 that year.

Some of the NFL’s current crisis of mediocrity can be attributed to the league’s owners standing on their debauched principles to the detriment of the teams they put on the field. The Houston Texans, for instance, began the 2017 season without star offensive tackle Duane Brown in large part because they refused to guarantee his salary for this season. But, strange as that decision is when considered on its own dubious merits, it’s neither new nor remotely unique to the NFL. While we can probably assume that owners would rather win games than lose them, they will only put themselves out so far to that end.

Why? Well, because they don’t have to. NFL owners are fundamentally unaccountable even to their team’s fans, and that means that they’re free to do whatever they want. And so they do: the Rams and Chargers ditched St. Louis and San Diego, respectively, for Los Angeles, where they now lose games in front of a smattering of apathetic fans in a city that never seemed especially enthused about bringing even one team to town. Here, too, we can readily document the warping effect of all this compounding unaccountability in anemic ticket sales. In-person game attendance represents a small and decreasing portion of how teams make money—and despite that trend, Rams owner Stan Kroenke saw his team’s valuation double immediately upon making the move; the franchise’s last winning season was in 2003, but they are now the sixth-most valuable team in the league.

This summer, though, NFL owners showed off their ability to do whatever they want by deciding, in a soft sort of blackball, not to do something they didn’t want to do. And that was sign Colin Kaepernick.

Anyone But Kaepernick

Kaepernick, of course, has been a symbol of athletic and celebrity protest against police killings of black Americans for more than a year. But in terms of the NFL’s oligarchic structure, he represents something broader—the notion that players possess not just their own voices but their own dissenting opinions in the debate over the administration of apartheid-style justice in America. To paraphrase Schramm’s simile, it was like awakening on your ranch to hear your cattle not only talking, but loudly plotting your overthrow.

So the obvious solution for the NFL cartel was to transform an accomplished quarterback into a league-wide pariah. Consider the surreal course of Kaepernick’s off-season. In late July, the Baltimore Ravens signed a quarterback out of an arena football league that exists a notch below the actual Arena Football League. David Olson spent four years as a backup at Stanford and never threw a pass in an actual game; he graduated and transferred to Clemson, where he spent one season with the team as a graduate student and completed one of the three passes he attempted. This is the sort of thing that happens at the end of July when teams need extra arms in training camp, and as it turned out, Olson only lasted three days with the Ravens. On the last day of July, they released him and signed a similarly obscure quarterback named Josh Woodrum. The Sporting News headline for the transaction—“Ravens waive David Olson, sign another QB who isn’t Colin Kaepernick”—succinctly tells the story of why any of this was even briefly and tenuously news.

The obvious solution for the NFL cartel was to transform an accomplished quarterback into a league-wide pariah.

By that point in the offseason, the league’s all-but-official omerta on the hiring of Kaepernick had long since exited its plausible deniability stage. Kaepernick had, after an early career flirtation with stardom upon taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, settled in as a middling NFL quarterback. This looks like fainter praise than it is; only a couple dozen people on earth can capably play football’s most important position at the highest level, and while Kaepernick was at the lower end of that group, his production and his game tape both suggest that he was indeed in it.

Given that the NFL has thirty-two teams, and given that Kaepernick was coming off a solid season, it remains hard to understand his unemployment as anything but the result of the understated protest he began staging on NFL sidelines in 2016. When NFL teams rolled out the honor guard and an American flag the size of a football field for the national anthem, Kaepernick sat. He did this for a while without anyone noticing; when reporter Steve Wyche eventually did take note of the gesture and asked him why, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street.”

Kaepernick then decided to kneel during the anthem and was later joined in this protest by players throughout the league; police unions and owners issued the statements you’d expect, and the usual sports media wind machines roared at jet-engine volume. At the end of the season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers and became a free agent. Well into the new NFL season, he still was.

“He’s a really good football player,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Kaepernick right before his team signed Olson. “I believe he’s a really good person. It all depends on a lot of things. It depends on Colin first of all and what’s his passion, what’s his priority, what’s [sic] he want to do.” This was less of a mystery than Harbaugh seemed to think. Kaepernick was both clear about his desire and readiness to play in the NFL and consistent in his determination to use his public role in the service of social activism. And while Kaepernick reportedly planned to end his anthem protest in 2017, he has remained active on social justice issues as a donor and an advocate. “I don’t think it’s different for us than any other team,” Harbaugh concluded.

It’s hard to argue with that last bit. The Ravens, and every other team, have found excuses not to sign Kaepernick; the Seattle Seahawks were the only team that invited him to compete for a backup job. It says something about how the league went about performing its slow-motion blackballing of Kaepernick that Harbaugh’s perfectly circular comment qualifies as an unusually forthright statement. Owners were dismissive; those same anonymous front-office types offered quotes framing Kaepernick as an enemy of the state at worst and a “distraction” at best. The Seahawks, for their part, explained their decision to bring in an inferior player after working out Kaepernick by more or less saying Kaepernick was too good to be a backup. Overall, it was a lot of work to avoid speaking aloud something that was otherwise quite easy to grasp—the NFL’s owners are not going to do anything but what they want to do.

Sudden Death

In the grand scheme of the NFL, the unjustified unemployment of a mid-tier quarterback wouldn’t seem to be a terribly significant story. It’s not really a new one. Chris Kluwe was a solid punter for the Minnesota Vikings until his activism in favor of gay rights drew criticism from his coaches. When the Vikings let him go in 2013 he spoke out against his homophobic coaches; he hasn’t worked in the NFL since. Kerry Rhodes was an above-average NFL starting safety for eight seasons, but never even got a tryout with a NFL team after a man claiming to be his ex-boyfriend outed him on a gossip site. (For whatever it’s worth, Rhodes, who’s now a successful film actor, was married to Australian actress Nicky Whelan this spring.)

But the confluence of a number of factors worked to turn Kaepernick and his protest into the target of an inquisition unlike any prior crusade in NFL history. The nature of Kaepernick’s grievances and the pointed symbolism of his protest; the broader spirit of unease in the country and the specific impunities of the NFL and its corporate culture; the strangeness of seeing a player in the most popular and theatrically authority-positive league take such a stance—any one of these things, by itself, would have been enough to attract notice, and probably enough to seal Kaepernick’s fate. But taken together, they created that strangest of NFL spectacles: a league-wide backlash against Kaepernick as a thought criminal. This was no small irony, of course, for a sport that had appointed itself the televisual guardian of the very idea of American independence. As is often the case with the NFL, the tangle of hypocrisies and contradictions and weird umbrage unravels cleanly when you remember that this is all mostly about power. For the NFL’s most powerful people, being seen to be in charge isn’t everything—it’s the only thing.

And, for better or worse, they’re still very much in charge. But Kaepernick’s protest and banishment, more than any of the NFL’s other indicators of decline, point to divergent futures for the league. On the one hand, there is the nascent movement of protest among African American players that Kaepernick left behind, which is modest but expanding despite the disapproval of the league elite—indeed, there was no small tremor of discontent within that elite when the early weeks of the NFL season saw white players joining the national anthem protests. Meanwhile, the NFLPA, long the most ineffectual union in pro sports, has lately shown at least a rhetorical disposition to organize another work stoppage around the expiration of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021. In a league as change-averse as the NFL, even these vague stirrings qualify as progress.

And on the other hand, there is all that familiar unaccountability. The NFL that we have serves its owners much better than it serves anyone else, and those owners’ refusal to budge from their feather-bedding management style has clearly done the league a great deal of harm in a number of areas, from the way the league’s long-running quest for parity has settled into sludgy, shrugging mediocrity to protecting the safety of their players and the long-term viability of the league. The owners aren’t likely to recognize any of this, of course, until the flailing status quo starts costing them money. But that inability or unwillingness to reckon with the NFL’s increasingly untenable present becomes more risky by the day.

There’s a new pomposity—to say nothing of a perverse and short-sighted shamelessness—to the league as it wheels past its peak, but the NFL remains fundamentally what it has long been. The league has been retrograde and proudly plutocratic for as long as it has existed, and it’s hard to picture a future in which its owners act like anything but who and what they are. It’s more difficult, though, to imagine a future for the NFL that looks like the present. The league’s signature corruptions have unmistakably diminished both the quality of the games and the broader health of the sport; things just can’t go on this way. It does not take a fighter jet flyover to be reminded of how discomfitingly well this feeling lines up with our broader American moment.

It couldn’t be any other way. As the league’s patriotic play-acting so stridently reminds us, football is a uniquely American game, in ways that both flatter and put the lie to a number of treasured national myths. But after its decadent zenith, the league is showing signs of a very particular and very particularly American kind of decline. In the ways that blank greed and unaccountability have warped and weakened both the league and the sport itself, we can see a funhouse refraction of what corruption does to societies. In both cases, rich men’s self-serving smallness and single-minded dedication to their own narrow interests have put a broader future at direct and dire risk. In both the NFL and the similarly beleaguered American republic, change has never seemed more urgent or necessary, or more difficult to bring to pass. And in both venues of bloated, wobbling patriotic spectacle, the last and greatest reason for hope is the certainty that a present that so poorly serves so many cannot also be the future.