The NFL is in serious trouble.
It’s in serious trouble because of a problem of its own making — because NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell refused to take a stand. Since 2006, Goodell has earned $212 million in salary from the NFL; meanwhile, he’s done nothing but take the coward’s way out on every issue. Brain damage and concussions? According to Democratic members from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Goodell attempted to pressure the National Institutes of Health to cut funding to a study that was slated to damage the league. Deflategate? Goodell suddenly brought the hammer under public pressure. Ray Rice? Instead of banning him from football or suspending him for a serious amount of time, Goodell suspended him for two games, originally for knocking his girlfriend out in an elevator. Pot use? You’re suspended for a year. Military tributes at games? Goodell made the military pay $700,000 for those tributes.
Goodell, in other words, has been a disaster. But the popularity of football made up for his failings as commissioner.
Until, that is, Goodell simply let the players run roughshod over him with leftist politics. In December 2014, as controversy raged over the killing of black teenager Michael Brown, who punched a police officer, went for his gun, and then charged him before being shot, several of the then-St. Louis Rams went on the field in the fictionalized “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose. The NFL did nothing. Instead, the NFL stated, “We respect and understand the concerns of all individuals who have expressed views on this tragic situation.”
Meanwhile, the NFL threatened to fine players who wore 9/11 memorial cleats (they didn’t follow through). The NFL prevented Dallas Cowboys from wearing stickers honoring police officers.
Then, in late 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee for the national anthem, supposedly to protest police violence. The league did nothing. This year, dozens of players have followed suit. Nothing.
Imagine if Goodell had treated kneeling for the anthem like any other behavior he deemed unacceptable, and banned it. David Stern — a hardcore Democrat — did that after Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stayed on the bench after the national anthem. That was the end of that. But Goodell didn’t. And so the issue percolated.
Then President Trump went directly after the NFL for allowing players to kneel for the anthem, more and more players knelt, and the American people got tired of that nonsense. The result: the NFL’s ratings and popularity have dropped precipitously. According to a new Fox poll, only 46% of voters view the NFL positively, as opposed to 41% who view it negatively. Four years ago, that number was 64% to 19%. Virtually the entire drop has been due to Republicans, whose support has dropped 37%, and independents, whose support has dropped 14%.
And it’s going to be difficult for the NFL to remake its image. When favorability in baseball dropped, it was thanks to steroids and labor issues. Ban the steroids, come to labor agreement, and the public could move on. But the NFL’s unpopularity is baked into the cake now: it’s politics and head injuries. Head injuries are a part of the game and aren’t going to stop; politics are now part of the game, and it’s too late for Goodell to step in. If Goodell were to force players to stand for the anthem, the result would be Democrats disapproving of the NFL. Goodell could have stepped in early. He didn’t, and now the league will pay the price.