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HOW HAS THE NFL, ONCE REVILED, BECOME BIGGER THAN LIFE?
Somehow, the embattled Roger Goodell has steered a league through existential crises and a pandemic and positioned it as a TV-and-gambling-fueled behemoth that serves as an economic engine for America
This might be a question for Malcolm Gladwell and a room of yin-and-yang highbrows, because I’m not sure Roger Goodell can answer it. That is: How exactly did the NFL get here anyway, to a place of prosperity and influence in the universe where it is arguably bigger than American life itself, where it blows away Hollywood as our most prominent entertainment source, where it extracts $113 billion from media companies to broadcast games through 2033? Where it shows the epidemiological community how COVID-19 can be managed without a catastrophic disruption yet allows maskless mobs into stadiums, where the most valuable team is worth $7 billion and seven others are worth at least $4 billion, and where it convinces Congress not to probe how it climbed into financial bed with a grimy gambling industry?
After all, wasn’t the NFL supposed to be an endangered blob a few years ago, no longer suitable for a refined 21st century life, banished by now to a cancellation portal by the culture vultures? Remember when Goodell was a scoundrel under siege, when the vaunted league shield was rusting, when pro football seemed doomed to a spiral of life-and-death brain trauma, Colin Kaepernick/woke strife, old-white-male ownership hubris and a pervasive tone-deafness incapable of evolution?
Well, the freefall never happened. Instead, Goodell and the owners found their equilibrium, developed a bedrock shell and — with profound urgency — became a pro-vaccination force at a time when America desperately needs leadership on COVID-19 and ominously named variants. By surviving and thriving in a pandemic and keeping its domain protected, the league is positioned for long-term success as an economic engine for a country moving warily into the unknown.
It no longer is enough to say the NFL Is King. It is Who We Are, for better or worse, prepared to guide hundreds of millions this season to TV sets, streaming devices, stadium seats and betting platforms. For evidence, just look at the list of 15 top-rated shows so far in 2021 — the NFL occupies all but one spot, politely pausing for the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which slipped in at No. 6, and reducing the Tokyo Olympics to an afterthought while pushing “Oprah with Meghan & Harry’’ out of the top 20. Super Bowl LV, two conference title games and two divisional playoff games drew a collective 248 million viewers. For perspective, consider the U.S. population is 331 million.
And while not all of those people are gambling on NFL games, more than 50 million will bet an estimated $12 billion now that wagering is legal in 26 states and the District of Columbia, a surge the NFL is enabling by entering into partnerships with seven sportsbooks. It’s a strut of shame for a league that formerly viewed the gambling industry as a disease, such a threat to competitive integrity that Goodell declared, “We oppose legalized sports gambling, and I don’t anticipate us changing that going forward at all.’’ It took only a 2018 Supreme Court ruling for the league to realize how it could cash in, potential scandals be damned. In that sense, Thursday night was a landmark moment, with a tight game draining to the final seconds, with the league’s foremost conversation piece, 44-year-old Tom Brady, throwing four touchdown passes and leading his 49th career game-winning drive against the star-crossed Dallas Cowboys, who took solace from Dak Prescott’s brilliant, 403-yard passing performance in his first game since his ankle shattered last October. Wasn’t it just like the NFL, to command the national attention span for three hours on opening night?
“Amazing, that’s what sports is all about,’’ said Brady, praising Prescott after Tampa Bay’s 31-29 victory. “They push us to understand who we are and what our character is all about.’’
Then, on cue, at midnight in Florida, the American treasure said hi to his parents and his kids on TV. “Daddy loves you,’’ he said.
In a way, this was a triumph for the NFL’s new commitment to tantalizing America’s legions of gamblers — some casual, others problematic — which meant NBC play-by-play voice Al Michaels no longer had to tip-toe over point-spread references. “We’re in a brave new world of sorts. I’ve always had fun by being the guy who could play a little bit of the rascal role because the perception of the fan was that the league didn’t want any references to gambling,” he said in a conference call. “So what I would do through the years is I would come in the back door, sometimes I would come in the side door, and now I guess they’re allowing me to come in the front door, which is not as much fun as doing it subtly.”
Said Goodell, trying to explain it all: “The gaming — it’s another way for people to engage. Fantasy football became a crazy thing and that’s a form of this in some ways. Which is another way for people to engage; they will watch a game to the end because they’re watching a fantasy player. I think this is another extension of that. People will have another reason to watch football. It might bring a broader fan base who says, ‘you know what? I love that element of that.’ And now they learn more about football.”
Ugh. What the league cannot forget — or its broadcast partners, in their greedy zeal to capitalize on the gambling bonanza — is that many more people refrain from betting than those who partake. But Goodell knows how to play both sides of a public-relations obstacle like no commissioner in sports history. He is proud of the NFL’s vaccination rate among players — 93.5 percent — to the point the league’s chief medical officer is urging the CDC and Biden administration to take notes as “a unique opportunity’’ to “model out’’ of the pandemic. The hypocricy is painful — Goodell doesn’t care that stadiums are packed with maskless throngs, such as the 65,000 in Tampa for the season opener. They were greeted by Buccaneers owner Bryan Glazer, who said before the game, “Seven months ago, we made NFL history. There was one thing missing: All of you. Welcome back to Raymond James Stadium.”
Is there not a double standard here? Players have to be vaccinated; fans don’t — in the name of recouping billions in lost 2020 in-stadium revenues. “We and our clubs are in daily and regular conversations with local and state authorities, but as we sit here right now, we don’t anticipate any reduction in capacity this year,” NFL executive Peter O’Reilly said. “We really feel good about where we stand, given the vaccination rates across the country, and feel as though we will be able to move through the season. Obviously, we don’t take anything for granted; we work closely on all of our protocols, working with and under the guidance of those state and local authorities. As we sit here today, all 30 stadiums are able to be at full capacity and that’s how we expect to go through the season in lockstep with those local and state authorities.”
The league could enforce a mandate for fans to show proof of vaccination to enter stadiums. But only the Las Vegas Raiders, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks have adopted that policy. Sunday night, NBC returns to the $6 billion COVID oven called SoFi Stadium, where 70,000 fans will ignore a Los Angeles County mask mandate under a translucent roof that nullifies any notion of an outdoor venue. Such a game shouldn’t happen in a medically diligent world, but the NFL is only responsible when its pockets are fed. In this case, a broadcast network has no interest in addressing COVID when 25 million are watching and when partners Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, FanFuel, MGM and WynnBet are waiting for action.
Said the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, trying to justify the large crowds: “We already have enough data to say that vaccinated people are not transmitting in a way that leads to widespread outbreaks because we're not seeing the kind of outbreaks we saw last year. Vaccines were designed to prevent serious illness, hospitalization and death, and they're doing a terrific job both inside and outside the NFL.’’
There will be outbreaks — in team camps where the likes of Carson Wentz and Kirk Cousins are anti-vaxxers, and in the stands where the nation’s vaccine divide is evident. But the NFL gained public credibility in safely completing 256 regular-season games and an entire postseason without needing an NBA-type Bubble. Football is an outdoor sport, not that the Delta variant cares. “The NFL proved things that I don't think people thought we could do," Goodell told the Los Angeles Times, mentioning how the league didn’t need a secret plan last year for a 10-game regular season that would have delayed the Super Bowl.
It’s a daunting challenge, yet the same was said last year, when Goodell and the owners were called out as racist in a video that included several top Black players, including Patrick Mahomes. How did the NFL survive that crisis — by getting in front of it. “We we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter,’’ Goodell said in his own video.
We don’t need Malcolm Gladwell to draw the conclusion. Simply, America loves pro football so much that it is willing to overlook the foibles of the men in charge. And when that romance is fed every week — and by Brady and Prescott in the season debut — it’s obvious the shield is made of Teflon.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.