Seldom has there been a bigger disconnect between reality and media coverage than in the matter of the NFL and its various scandals and controversies — and how those are impacting the league’s brand and popularity.
Voraciously, sports reporters and broadcasters keep sounding the first notes of the death knell of professional football. Forebodingly, they warn of the sport’s eroding credibility. Ominously, they say that player wrongdoing and commissioner Roger Goodell’s missteps and mismanagement have served to fracture the public trust.
Wrong, all of it.
It turns out the public hardly cares.
You know what football fans trust?
They trust that this is going to be another exciting, unpredictable NFL season, one that fills stadiums, drives TV ratings and has them glued to Sunday’s “Red Zone” like addicts drawn to crack.
They trust once again that America’s irresistible game will lure them to join more fantasy leagues than sanity might allow, to help set new records for merchandise sales and perhaps to parlay a wager or three on their own expertise.
Two years ago it was a massive class-action concussion lawsuit and the ominous specter of health and injury issues that beleaguered the NFL as critics foresaw a withering at the grass-roots level because (supposedly) mamas would no longer let their babies grow up to be quarterbacks.
Just one season ago the league was scandalized by the Ray Rice video and by Adrian Peterson’s hickory stick, yet in the end robust numbers by any measure of a sport’s popularity buoyed the sport.
Now, the 2015 season bears in on us under the continuing embarrassing cloud of “Deflategate,” with Goodell and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ordered back to federal court on Aug. 31 for another round in Brady’s suit to overturn his four-game suspension.
And the season reassuringly will start with or without Brady, and whether or not Goodell has been validated by a court ruling or shamed by the reversal of his punishment — the latter now seeming far more likely.
Either way, the sport, the game, remains so much bigger than whatever men happen to be populating it at the time.
Fans don’t need to trust Goodell to love football any more than most Americans need to adore a sitting president to love their country.
Fans don’t need to approve of the way all players behave because the ones whose actions are condemnable are from the broadest view just weeds in the garden, things to be uprooted. They are a nuisance that temporarily distracts us but ultimately doesn’t spoil the greater joy of what we have grown to behold.
It isn’t so much that none of the scandals and missteps matter; it’s that all them amount to small arrows caroming off the NFL shield and leaving little nicks, not noticeable dents.
King Sport chugs on, always, impervious, indestructible by even its own clumsy hand.
Spygate, Bountygate, Bullygate, Deflategate and whatever gate is next shall be deflected and moved past as a nation of loyal, addicted fans sets sights on the next Sunday or the next season.
Goodell and the NFL have spent a rough few years trying to extricate from image-battering negative headlines and sound bites, and scraping egg off the corporate face.
Come Sundays, though, that egg somehow is transmogrified into a delicious, fluffy omelet to the millions of fans having their hunger sated.
Michael Vick’s fighting dogs, Aaron Hernandez behind bars, the Browns leaving Cleveland, the Redskins nickname, performance-enhancing drugs, Brett’s Favre’s tawdry texts, Stanley Wilson, Eugene Robinson, Barret Robbins, Rae Carruth, et al — nobody and nothing stops the NFL.
It has always been so.
Myopically we think it’s worse now, that athletes are misbehaving more. But, no, it’s only that the ESPN and TMZ-led 24-hour news cycle shines a brighter, constant light. (What, you think Rice invented domestic violence?)
NFL stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 season in a gambling scandal.
Football chugged on then, too. Soon after that stunning embarrassment came the merger of two leagues, the birth of the Super Bowl and then everything took off, football loping past baseball in overall popularity, the NFL growing into the monolith it is today.
This league, its players and its commissioner, seem at times to do so much wrong.
It is the strangest thing, though.
Come Sunday, everything seems all right again.