NFL owners were almost giddy about the state of their game as they departed their fall meetings on Wednesday. So was Commissioner Roger Goodell.
That’s easy to do when TV ratings are up, viewership across all digital media is strong, scoreboards are practically exploding with all the points being scored, and the number of close games through six weeks has been eye-catching.
There’s also the prospect of attracting billionaires from other sports when NFL franchises hit the market now that a cross-ownership ban has been lifted. Going in the other direction, the football billionaires are free to purchase teams in baseball, hockey or basketball that are not located in their NFL areas.
“I will leave you with something that I have said to the owners many times,” Goodell said. “I don’t think there has been a better time to be an NFL fan. The quality of the games and the enjoyment that comes with that, I hear it from the fans all the time — that is No. 1 for them. No. 2 is the access to the games and the way that fans are able to engage with the NFL. There are more platforms and more opportunities to do that. The experience is better because of technology. All of that creates a much better opportunity for our fans to enjoy football and NFL football.
“From our standpoint, we look at this as a great moment for us: the tremendous growth and the tremendous popularity of our game.”
There are storm clouds ahead, though.
The unilateral policy the league put together in May barring players from demonstrating against social and racial injustice on the sideline during the national anthem remains in limbo.
The players’ union and its members fought back against the policy that would allow players to remain in the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but they could not kneel or sit by team benches during the anthem.
And while Goodell correctly cited the strong and widespread community involvement being done by the league and players, the protests haven’t gone away, nor should the players be penalized for expressing their concerns.
Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling during the anthem soon was embraced by many of his peers, hasn’t been with a team since 2016. That comes down to the individual teams, of course, and not the league itself, and it’s uncertain that Kaepernick would return to the field if given the opportunity.
But does anyone truly believe that opportunity might come?
There’s also been a fan and media maelstrom — with complaints by coaches and players, both publicly and privately — about the inconsistency of officiating. When a defensive player admits he let up on a hit to prevent getting a roughing-the-quarterback call, that’s a bad sign. Those defenders have little idea what is a foul anymore.
One week, lowering the helmet to initiate contact, by the offense or the defense, draws a flotilla of yellow flags. Another week, when “incidental contact” is added to the equation, the penalties decrease exponentially.
To its credit, the NFL is trying very hard with its rules to make the game safer. One mechanism for that is consistency with implementation of them.
Another way of keeping players healthier and safer would be by increasing the size of rosters on game day. The Colts went into a recent meeting with the Patriots minus five starters and lost a few more during the defeat.
It’s difficult enough trying to win in Foxborough with a full complement of players. With third-stringers on the field, well, give Indy credit for not getting entirely blown out.
The senseless requirement that seven of the 53 active players be declared inactive on game day can lead to more such inequities. If teams are paying 53 guys, let them all suit up.
Indeed, as we move forward, the union would be wise to seek expanded rosters, and not just for the added salaries. That would help make the game safer, in part because fewer banged-up guys would wind up on the field.
Also ahead, albeit not until 2021, is the expiration of the labor agreement. Already, both sides are building “war chests” for the likely lockout or players’ walkout. Neither the owners nor the players have displayed an inclination for at least preliminary peace talks, if you will.
Then again, why would they at this point, with so many indicators looking so positive?