All hail the NFL, the omnipotent powerhouse of professional sports leagues. Super Bowl weekend is the NFL’s Mardi Gras, wedding anniversary and class reunion all rolled into one, a celebration of everything and everyone involved in the game.
But there’s a problem.
Television ratings-wise, this season has humbled a league that normally wields a golden touch and prints money each Sunday afternoon. New polling from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News shows a deterioration of the league’s core audience. How bad could it be? Well, consider these numbers:
-- The number of adults who say they closely follow the NFL has dropped 9 percent since 2014.
-- Only 51 percent of men aged 18 to 49 closely follow the league.
-- Four years ago, 75 percent of those men closely followed the NFL.
The supposed reasons aren’t hard to pinpoint. The pro game has become static and at times downright boring, especially when compared to the top levels of college football. Publicity caused by players using national-anthem protests to bring awareness to civil rights injustices has turned off a segment of the NFL’s traditional fan base. And then there’s the debate over CTE — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — and the future of the game itself.
That’s the biggest problem of all.
After their deaths, more than 100 former NFL players have now been diagnosed with CTE; in most cases, scientists believe it was caused by repetitive concussions suffered during practices and games. Research now shows that CTE risks extend to players in college and high school, which has created a gigantic health and public-relations crisis for those who believe a game built on controlled violence is safe to play.
On Friday, Emily Kelly, wife of former NFL player Rob Kelly, penned an op-ed for The New York Times (“I’m the wife of a former NFL player. Football destroyed his mind”) that describes her husband’s suffering from what she’s sure are severe CTE symptoms. Between high school, college and the NFL, she estimates her husband played football for 20 years.
She wrote, “Professional football is a brutal sport, he knew that. But he loved it anyway. And he accepted the risks of bruises and broken bones. What he didn’t know was that along with a battered body can come a battered mind …
“I don’t think the public has any idea how widespread this problem truly is.”
Come Sunday evening, order a pizza, make some guacamole and pick a team to root for, Patriots or Eagles. Enjoy the game — if you’re one of those who still watch.