The NFL may have an image problem
When analysing the high profile cases of Aaron Hernandez, Jim Irsay, Ray Rice and the accusation of league wide collusion against Colin Kaepernick after the national anthem protest controversy, one could argue the NFL is no longer viewed as it once was. Said examples, coupled with the number of former players coming forward to claim damages under the NFL’s concussion settlement, have unquestionably hurt ‘America’s Game’, and brought the league into disrepute (at least in the eyes of the casual fan). Although the NFL has made a habit of surviving controversy it has done so without it ever effecting the league’s bottom line. Though viewing figures recovered in 2018, they were at a historical low in 2017 , and it is the NBA, not the NFL, that is the fastest growing professional sports league in North America; with the former projected to surpass the latter in revenue by 2029 (fortune.com).
But are said controversies really to blame?
Sharing is caring, or words to that effect. Yet in the NFL, which operates a hard cap, players are rarely able to achieve the goals that are set in their heavily incentivised contracts. Because of this, and the growing perception of the sport being too violent (high profile figures such as Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre have all been vocal in not allowing their kids to play football), those chasing guaranteed dollars are rarely criticised for lacking ambition, or indeed loyalty by both the fans and media alike. After all, why put you or your child’s body through such punishment in the hope of playing for an annual salary of just $860,000 for 3.3 years (the NFL’s median salary in 2018 and league career average respectively), when Boston University found evidence of CTE in 99% of former NFL Players? The short answer is……..you wouldn’t. If you were chasing future sports stardom both the NBA and MLB are more attractive propositions and far better positioned to appeal to kids and their families for all of the above reasons.
Then there is the issue of cultural perception, race and representation. The fallout from the national anthem protests and the ensuing legal fight between Kaepernick and the NFL not only divided the football community, but America as a whole. Consequently, the league has come to mirror the current administration in the hearts and minds of so many, and said fallout has unquestionably hurt the NFL attract, and indeed retain, the type of fan who is perceived to be ‘socially conscious’ and against Trump’s presidency. Indeed, outside of middle America the symbolic nature of the sport as it relates to representing America is still very much of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ variety and a far cry from reality. In 2014 players from Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and non-white Hispanic communities accounted for 72% of all active roster spots, and that figure is unlikely to have changed in 2019. Yet does this figure reflect the number of non-white coaches, general managers and owners? Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that particular question; with the latter acting as a perfect segue to the looming problem of one Robert K. Kraft.
Traumatic brain injury, domestic violence and racial inequality? Yes. But prostitution and human trafficking are two terms the NFL has yet had the pleasure of being associated with. Nevertheless, on the 22nd February one of the more bizarre and shocking stories was about to emerge; the much loved owner of the most successful NFL franchise in recent memory was to face misdemenour charges for ‘soliciting another to commit prostitution’, a charge that stemmed from a human trafficking investigation in South Florida. This from a man known for his class and vast acts of kindness; reflected in his charity work, and campaign for social justice reform in recent months, is not what Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s Executive Vice President of communications and public affairs, was employed to tackle. Amidst facing the type of high profile issues mentioned in this article the league is likely to come down hard on Mr. Kraft (no pun intended). After all, Roger Goodell is no stranger to punishing the Boston native, fining the Patriots and stripping them of draft picks for their role in 2007’s ‘spy gate’ scandal, and later fighting them all the way to court to uphold Tom Brady’s ban for his perceived role in 2014’s ‘deflate gate’ controversy.
So just what will the NFL do with Mr.Kraft to appease public opinion and help restore trust? He will almost certainly face a lengthy ban and fine. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was banned for six games and fined $500,000 in 2014 when he plead guilty to driving whilst intoxicated. Thus, expect at the very least, the same punishment, though in reality the NFL are likely to be far less forgiving; irrespective of whether Mr. Kraft is found guilty in a court of law. One question that has to be asked is whether he will be forced into selling the Patriots. The NBA was commended for forcing Donald Sterling into selling the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 for making racist comments, and the NFL similarly ‘guided’ former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson into selling the franchise when allegations of sexual misconduct at the work place surfaced in 2017. However, as much as the NFL would love to force Mr. Kraft out of the league to gain much needed moral cachet, it is unlikely to do so due to his case coming under the leagues’s Personal Conduct Policy. In reality, expect a season long ban, a record fine and the Patriots to be stripped of opening the NFL season on Thursday Night Football. J