The Super Bowl is the single biggest thing in sports in the United States and grew beyond that to become a part of Americana, our unofficial national holiday. Scandal and controversy such as the league has endured this season, and even this week, are nothing new. They have bounced off this sport’s shield for decades and hardly left a dent as pro football chugs on as the country’s most popular game by a lot.
Don’t we get it by now?
Nothing tops — or stops — the colossus that is the NFL.
It is logical to think the weight of ongoing blemishes and embarrassments would weaken trust in the league, fray at its popularity and darken its future, but there is ample evidence the NFL’s popularity is, if anything, on an upswing. For example, the previous four Super Bowls in a row all have topped a national TV rating of 46 — the first-time that has happened since the 1982-85 seasons.
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Sunday’s New England Patriots-Seattle Seahawks game in Glendale, Arizona, the 49th Super Bowl, is expected to be the most-watched TV show in history, attracting a projected 115 million U.S. viewers, along with those in 180 other countries.
The money this league and its teams make from TV, merchandise, sponsorship/advertising and ticket revenues continue to set records.
Advertisers paid $4.5 million for a 30-second TV ad during Sunday’s game. Tickets were selling on the secondary market for more than $8,000. An estimated $3.8 billion will be bet on the game.
The backdrop of economic buoyancy is despite the league enduring what a somber commissioner Roger Goodell called a year of “humility and learning” at his annual state-of-the-NFL media session Friday. He also called it “a tough year for me personally.” The league has even engaged former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart as a consultant on public-relations matters. And if Goodell isn’t concerned about weakened credibility, why did he mention the word “integrity” dozens of times in his Friday remarks?
Yet, even as all that is wrong outrages us — and this past season reached a sad crescendo on that — we still watch and cheer, as if the lure of it is beyond our control. Gambling and fantasy football might add to our interest, but that interest would be there anyway.
Ongoing controversies won’t convince a real fan to give up on football any more than years and years of losing will convince a real fan to give up on his team. Addicts need help to quit. Football fans have zero desire to.
History has taught us that.
But the lesson bears a reminder after the NFL’s worst year ever, in terms of image hits, continued right into Super Bowl Week with “Deflategate,” the allegation that the Patriots improperly used under-inflated footballs to gain an advantage, spawning a continuing investigation. This of course comes after a season rocked by the infamous, awful Ray Rice video depicting domestic violence, and also by the news linking Adrian Peterson to child abuse (among other headline-making player arrests).
The latest gut punches to the NFL’s integrity saw both star running backs being suspended and found Goodell under siege.
We don’t want real life, though.
We want the ultimate reality TV we get Sundays in three-hour doses.
In real life, opening arguments this past week began in the murder trial of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who otherwise would be playing Sunday.
But do you think that has stopped a single viewer from watching this Super Bowl?
The reality not considered nearly enough is that the NFL isn’t any worse today. Players are not misbehaving any more. It’s just that we see more. We know more. The 24-hour news cycle shines a continuous spotlight on what once was hidden.
Do you honestly believe no Ray Rice episodes ever happened in the 1970s? Or the ’50s?
They were hidden in the dark then. But even the controversies that were not tend to get forgotten or relegated to footnotes.
Packers star running back Paul Hornung and Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 season for gambling on NFL games — imagine that today? — but you rarely see that even making a list of the league’s biggest controversies. Why? First because they were not disproportionately magnified by that 24-hour news cycle and by the Internet and social media. But mostly because they bounced off the shield, and the game moved on.
For the same reason, it is hardly known or recalled that a prominent starting quarterback of an early Super Bowl was being interrogated by federal authorities about a possible gambling connection the week of the Big Game. It was the Chiefs’ Len Dawson in 1969.
Imagine Tom Brady involved in a similar probe now?
The game chugs on, impervious, unstoppable, even when the spotlight is searing and has no off switch. Even when the controversy shadows the flagship Super Bowl.
Bengals running back Stanley Wilson misses the Super Bowl of the 1988 season because he has a cocaine relapse and is found in a hotel bathroom. Falcons defensive back Eugene Robinson is arrested for soliciting a prostitute on the eve of the 1998 Super Bowl. A year later, the Ravens’ Ray Lewis is implicated in a double murder. In 2002, the Raiders’ Barret Robbins goes AWOL in Mexico and misses the Big Game. In 2007, the Patriots’ “Spygate” scandal hounds the team right through Super Sunday.
All of this was a big deal. All of it hurt the teams involved. But none of it stuck to the shield.
The NFL over the years has weathered too many other controversies to count. They bob to the mind in a random, chaotic parade:
Michael Vick’s fighting dogs … concussions and health/safety issues … the Dolphins’ “Bullygate” scandal … the Browns leaving Cleveland and the Colts leaving Baltimore … the Saints’ “Bountygate” … the referee lockout of 2012 … performance-enhancing drugs … the Redskins nickname … the Vikings’ party boat … allegations against Ben Roethlisberger … Plaxico Burress and the gun … Donte’ Stallworth’s DUI manslaughter … Brett Favre’s tawdry texts … Rae Carruth … Leonard Little … A 49ers owner forced out over legal issues.
All manner of controversy has bounced off the shield.
Sometimes even the wrongdoing of former players would do retroactive harm to that brand. Thinking O.J. Simpson. Thinking Lawrence Taylor.
Sometimes the controversies later seem small and silly. Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Joe Namath and Suzy Kolber. Anybody remember “deer-antler spray”?
The NFL cuts through all of it, big and small, like a mighty ocean liner gliding across ripples.
The legions of loyal fans along for the ride abide all of the imperfections and wayward players because it is football, and nothing else is like football.
Author Eric Simons, in his book The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, thinks the attraction is visceral.
“You can look at the testosterone of male fans, and it’s not just adrenaline,” he says. “Your testosterone goes up when your team wins, and down when they lose.”
The fans keep coming back even through the losses, though.
Through the controversies, too.