The National Football League is worth more than 60 billion dollars, and stands as by far the most successful of any major U.S. sport. But make no mistake, despite its unparalleled success, the NFL is deeply flawed, and is at this point close to broken. Put simply, nobody knows what a catch is; head injuries are not only ruining careers, but also lives; and we have referees using index cards to make game-altering (if not season-altering) decisions.
Let’s begin with the source of many of the league’s problems: Commissioner Roger Goodell. Among the four major U.S. sports leagues, it’s the NFL that has the worst chief executive. Sure, he has overseen unparalleled growth in terms of revenue and viewership, but during that time he has failed miserably in a number of high-profile incidents. Moreover, although viewership remains strong, the NFL’s ratings have started to decline in the past couple of years.
Goodell stresses player safety, yet he and the league have yet to establish any consistency when it comes to officiating dangerous plays. An egregious example came when the NFL decided to suspend Carolina Panthers linebacker, Thomas Davis, for two games for a dangerous hit. Davis, it’s true, deserved the suspension for the hit, but the hit occurred during a play. Conversely, just a few weeks ago one of the league’s most recognizable stars, Rob Gronkowski, intentionally threw his body weight onto the head of Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White (sending the rookie into concussion protocol), and yet, Gronkowski received only a one-game ban for his actions. Here, as elsewhere, there was a distinct lack of consistency in the league’s response.
Both hits certainly deserved suspensions, and it can be argued that Gronkowski deserved a longer suspension than Davis, but yet again the NFL failed because they fallen short of establishing any semblance of consistency in their rulings.
Players don’t know what actions will get them suspended and fined — and, just as importantly, what actions won’t. Thus, players do whatever they want knowing there’s no more than a 50/50 shot they will be punished for their actions.
Speaking of the concussion protocol, it has turned out to be little more than a feeble attempt to quell fears about head injuries. Like everything else, inconsistency plagues the concussion protocol, and given the nature of head injuries, that inconsistency is dangerous and negligent. The worst example of the protocol’s failure came a couple weeks ago when Tom Savage suffered a clear head injury but was allowed back on the field right away. Considering the biggest threat to the NFL’s very existence is concussions and CTE, it’s shocking to see such carelessness when it comes to such obvious head injuries.
Moving past all the inconsistencies, it’s time to focus on the outdated way officiating is approached. This is a professional sports league, making billions of dollars, yet the best the league can do when it comes to measuring downs is two random dudes and a chain. It’s hard to believe that as 2017 comes to a close we don’t have the technology needed to replace a chain. Instead, we have referees using index cards to figure out crucial down conversions.
The clunky chain system isn’t even the most egregious aspect of the NFL’s approach to rule enforcement. Does anybody have a legitimate answer as to what a catch is? It seems to vary from week to week in the NFL, and considering that half of football is just a game of catch, this is wildly problematic. It goes well beyond the controversial Jesse James non-catch ruling. The NFL hasn’t struggled with the problem for years, and frankly, it’s embarrassing.
None of this is to say that I hate the NFL or that I think the league needs to be done away with. I love watching the game and there are few better things in this world than watching a good NFL game, but at the same time, this isn’t the league I fell in love with when I first started watching as a child. The NFL is on a volatile path, and it’s about time somebody stepped up and addressed the issues that are starting to tarnish the brand.