NFL needs better leadership at top

Football fans are voting with their fingers – the ones that control their TV remotes. Television viewership for National Football League games is down by a startling 12 percent so far this season, a figure league officials – including hapless commissioner Roger Goodell – are scrambling to explain.

Is it because of mishandled punishments like the one meted out to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over a dubious allegation of underinflated footballs? Brady’s four-game suspension robbed would-be viewers of the chance to watch one of the league’s biggest names, while creating hard feelings among New England fans.

Is it because of the league’s double-standard about punishing serious off-the-field transgressions, such as domestic violence and drunken driving? The ever-lengthening list of arrests of NFL players makes for grim reading, heightening the impression that the league tolerates people who can’t control their tempers or impulses – as long as they can tackle or run with a football.

Is it because of the spreading pregame protests by such players as the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, who kneels during the National Anthem as a way of protesting social injustice in America? His actions have inflamed a vocal segment of the league’s fan base, which slings potshots at players and the league on social media.

Is it because of bitterness over behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the club of rich owners, such as the scheme that pushed the underachieving Rams back to Los Angeles, souring an entire region of football viewers in the Central Time Zone?

Is it because games simply aren’t much fun to watch? Even devoted fans were turned off by the 6-6 overtime tie between the Seahawks and the Cardinals, which occurred because kickers on both teams missed field goal attempts. The game was played before a prime time audience on a Sunday night, Oct. 23. Prime time game viewership has fallen especially steeply, by the way, down about 21 percent.

Is it because Americans are growing disenchanted with the violence that often sees players carried off the field on medical carts? President Obama has said he wouldn’t encourage his sons, if he had any, to play competitive football because of the risk of injury. He and many others have called attention to the league’s epidemic of brain injuries.

Is it because Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sucked the air out of the football audience, which came to expect more drama from the campaign trail than from the football field? There’s usually an election year effect on football ratings, but not a double-digit effect.

Is it because viewers are increasingly weaning themselves from expensive paid television packages that NFL teams have milked so lucratively?

Or is it simply because people have begun to find better things to do with their time than sit in front of a screen, passively watching football, for hours at a time?

To be sure, professional football remains America’s most popular sport. In-stadium attendance remains strong – in the range of 97 percent of all available tickets. Fans in New England, Dallas, Denver, Seattle and elsewhere are still fanatically faithful to their franchises.

But if you, like Roger Goodell, are banking on the league’s continuing growth and prosperity, the trends are worrisome. Not that you would know it to hear him talk.

The league has problems and they seem to be getting worse. It will need stronger leadership than Mr. Goodell has displayed to address them.

Until then, more fans are likely to walk away from the couch on Sundays.

The Providence Journal

Providence, R.I.