Why We Hate the NFL (But Still Watch)

I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s okay to punch their wife in the face.

I don’t know anyone–even folks who are okay with spanking kids–who think it’s okay to leave a bunch of lashes on a little boy or girl who has disobeyed.

I don’t know anyone who thinks the National Football League has done a great job in handling off the field conduct issues. Sure, it’s complicated. And, to be fair, it may yet be corrected. We’ll see. But the universal opinion is that the Commissioner’s office has so far been woefully inconsistent–if not incompetent or even immoral–in addressing domestic violence and other misdeeds by employees of the league.


Our talking head and sound byte society helps to fuel the rage-filled reaction. Protests, sponsorship rebellion, and sternly worded press releases provide fodder for news organizations (and bloggers). Sports talk shows aren’t even talking about sports. Instead, they sound like the cast of The View, except it’s dudes shouting their opinions over each other instead of women. Everyone’s throwing a big hissy fit.

Then, on Monday night, Thursday night, and especially on Sunday, a funny thing happens…

Everyone still watches the games.

It’s not that we approve of the NFL’s handling of certain situations, and few defend the players being investigated. It’s just that we are willing to overlook it to cheer on our teams. Before you argue that you keep cheering because your team is innocent, hold on just a second.

Rolling Stone reports that since 2000 over 700 players have been arrested. In week one of the 2014 season, 19 of the 32 teams had at least one player suspended. Of the 13 that did not, many have had recent suspensions or heavy fines levied on players. And that’s just the stuff we know about. So your team probably isn’t squeaky clean.

Not that knowing that makes us cheer less. We have a way of suspending judgment between the sidelines. To paraphrase the wise philosopher Taylor Swift, a players gotta play, play, play, play, play, play and the haters are gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate so we as fans are left to just shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off.

Shake it off.

I’m not saying that every player is evil (they’re not). I’m not saying that every team is dirty (they aren’t). I’m not saying there’s nothing good going on in the league (there is). I’m not saying that we should all boycott the whole thing and refuse to support a corrupted league. I’m just saying that for every inconsistency we see in the league’s handling of the situations it faces, we struggle with our own inconsistencies as well.

When all that matters is our team winning, we have a way of turning a blind eye toward, excusing, or compartmentalizing behavior we would never tolerate in any other setting. We may not agree with what someone did, but what does that have to do with kicking field goals or catching passes? Funny, we don’t feel that way about our kids’ teachers or our banker or a doctor. In the case of their impropriety, it makes total sense that they would lose their job. Not so with our sports heroes. What does their personal life have to do with their gig on the field? In sports we tend to separate issues we don’t bother to distinguish between in other areas of life. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it’s true.

The NFL is a $9 billion business. Fans are enamored by the marketing machine it’s become. I’m no different. In the fall, my favorite night of the week is Sunday night. It’s the best four hours of television all week. There are fantasy and pick ’em leagues to keep us engaged even with the teams we don’t care about. Most people have one team they like best, but six or eight they root for. It’s genius, really. You have to give the NFL that.

At some point the narrative is going to shift. The general public, advertisers, and other organizations will call out the inconsistencies, incompetence, and immorality in the league to the point where the league will suffer.

But not yet.

For now, the sternly worded press releases are PR moves by companies that are strategically placed during the week to get read on radio talk shows, but the same company’s ads will still run on Sunday afternoon and the fans will still be tuning in. As for us fans, well, we still watch. Ratings are soaring as high as ever.

There’s a lot going on in the NFL these days, and it’s not an overstatement to call it a crisis or a scandal. But the reaction to the challenges the NFL is facing says as much about the fan base as it does about the league.