The NFL is in a state of crisis. It has seen its ratings drop, faced pressure from the President of the United States over protests and has lost sponsorships. Even though the NFL season only runs from August-February, the media circus runs year round.
The NFL scouting combine is in full swing with draft eligible players showcasing their speed, strength and athleticism. The event is an excellent tool for General Managers to evaluate talent and acts a primer for fans to begin identifying future stars.
It is a vacuum for the NFL to put on its Sunday best. It is also a ratings bonanza.
This is what makes the initial exclusion of Shaquem Griffin from the combine so confounding. Shaquem, whose brother Shaquill WAS invited to the combine, was born with amniotic band syndrome resulting in his left hand being amputated when he was four. In college, Shaquem led an undefeated UCF team to victory as the Defensive MVP of the 2018 Peach Bowl.
It is understandable to exclude a player from the combine who doesn’t possess the skills to play in the NFL however this isn’t the case.
Amidst pressure from outside sources, the NFL ultimately decided to invite him to the event. He went on to amaze scouts and fans alike. He ran the 40 yard dash, a signature of the combine, in a record 4.38 seconds for a linebacker. He also managed to bench press 225 pounds an impressive 20 times using a prosthetic after it was suggested by the media that 5 reps would be impressive.
Perhaps the inability to recognize star potential, a challenge for executives in all sports, is part of why the NFL is seeing a ratings decline. Maybe it’s the NFL’s unwillingness to provide its athletes with a platform that has something to do with it.
There are many reasons the NFL is struggling with its ratings, but they are not simply due to nationally polarizing anthem protests.
Ratings are to blame for ties recently being severed between the NFL and one of its primary sponsors, Papa John’s Pizza. Papa John’s blamed their poor pizza sales on the ratings decline of the NFL and attributed the NFL’s ratings decrease on the NFL not taking a strong enough stance against anthem protests.
While there have been no direct anthem protests in the NBA, comparisons can be made between social activism in the NBA and NFL, though it can be argued that the NBA provides its athletes with a better platform to be outspoken.
LeBron James has been outspoken about his disdain for Donald Trump and has drawn the ire of Fox News host Laura Ingraham who told him to “shut up and dribble”. It is clear that when the face of a sport speaks out in favor of change, it is not to the detriment of the league. Reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors outright declined an invite to the White House; the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles accepted theirs. Despite the stance of several NBA players, The NBA has the #1 rating across the four major sports, while the NFL ranks #3.
So what is plaguing the NFL, a league that was recently the powerhouse of American professional sports? The NFL is an entity that turned a single game, the Superbowl, into something that about is so much more than the sport itself. Perhaps it has nothing to do with politics and more to do with the health and wellness of its athletes.
Two major enemies of the NFL are Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and violence.
While diagnostics are still unavailable on a living subject, the amount of information available on CTE is profound. Undisputable links have been made between concussions, CTE and violence. Unfortunately, the dubious area in which the NFL is #1 is regarding the amount of concussions its athletes suffer. Compound the potential for increased violence among CTE sufferers with the fact that an NFL team is comprised of 53 men as opposed to 15 in the NBA and the potential for incidents is increased by 350%. Regardless of the numbers, you need not look far to find such an incident.
On March 3rd, Oakland Raiders linebacker Aldon Smith was named as a suspect in a domestic violence case involving his fiancée. This is the latest issue in a string of arrests for Smith that includes DUI’s and a weapons charge. He has since checked into a rehab facility prior to being questioned by the police.
Aldon Smith is not alone in terms of being arrested. According to www.nflarrest.com, nearly 5% of all current NFL players have been arrested. While this is lower than the USA arrest rate (a frightening thought in itself), the way the NFL handles player discipline, is largely inconsistent. Current Cincinnati Bengals player, Adam “Pacman” Jones has been arrested 10 times over the course of his career, including four times for assault and continues to play in the league.
The NFL has an incredible product. While the majority of it stems from the quality of its players, the portion that is curated for the public is vital. However, with 1700 players, the NFL remains a Petri dish for breeding controversy. Events will systematically occur and an overworked PR department will spring to action. Amidst the current social climate, where domestic violence and abuse are at the forefront, the NFL has to improve its image. Considering the state of flux that the NFL sees itself in, an opportunity for a feel good story should be jumped at, especially when they control the narrative. The fact that they could barely recognize what they had in front of them might best represent the NFL’s current struggles.