The NFL's Popularity Problem Is a Familiar One

If you haven't noticed, this NFL season has been about as entertaining as a toddler's birthday party. Inexperienced players, bad coaching, injuries, a lack of star power, and an erratic commissioner are among the issues that have conspired to make America's richest sport's league all but unwatchable. In watching this unfold, I've noticed that many of the root causes of the NFL's recent problems are strikingly similar to those causing the current plight of our national economy and political system.

Professional Football used to be a free market. Sure, the game has certain rules necessary for fair play, but so does a free market economy. In the past, fans knew that the best 22 players would take the field for their favorite team each week and compete within that set of rules. Over the years, however, the commissioner (government) has burdened the game (economy) with an unrelenting barrage of new rules, revisions, and fines. Many of the new rules favor quarterbacks (too big to fail) and scoring in general (Wall Street). The League's new salary structure favors cheap, unskilled (rookie) labor over established veterans. Instead of letting the game's free market decide if the league should be geared toward offense or defense and then ebb and flow over time as coaches and players adjust, the commissioner decided it's in everybody's best interest if scoring goes up as high as possible and the most important players when it comes to scoring points get protected even if it means basic fundamentals and the ability to get through more than three plays without a penalty flag goes straight out the window.

Can anyone explain what constitutes a catch in today's NFL? Ruling on a catch used to be like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote regarding obscenity, "I'll know it when I see it." The current explanation in the 2016 NFL Rulebook includes 6 paragraphs and over 200 words. Beyond the catch rule, there are now a litany of new penalties surrounding the way players tackle, hit, block, and conduct themselves on the field. You can't tackle receivers unless they're defenseless, then you can only tackle them a certain way. You can block, just don't block from behind, from the side, or  below the waist. You can tackle a quarterback, just not too high, or too low, or anywhere near his head. Did you manage to score a touchdown? Great! Just don't coordinate your celebration with a teammate, celebrate near an opponent, or celebrate too long. Don't wear anything that's not league-sponsor approved and if you're thinking of supporting a childhood cancer patient by writing a Bible verse on your eye black, don't even go there.

While some of the rule changes have no doubt improved player safety, so much of the intervention of the league office seems rooted in nothing other than exerting control. Instead of letting each team regulate their players' behavior, the league office wants to make sure everyone conforms to one polished image. Gone are the days where teams had a personality matching their coach, their city, their star players, or like most things cultural, a combination of many influences. Fans are tired of rooting for indistinguishable teams made up boring, unmarketable players. It's impossible to market a team or an individual player well when they've been forced to act alike by an uptight commissioner.

Modern stadiums are completely sterile and corporate-focused even though they're largely funded with taxpayer money. Beyond the on-field rules of conduct, the League has chosen to enforce rules for off-field conduct as well. Of course, much like our national government, the League likes to pick winners and losers by doling out punishment based solely on their perception of public opinion rather than any defined legal or moral code. The League has ignored damning evidence of domestic violence involving well-known players (Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown) while gleefully pouring time and effort into punishing teams (New England Patriots) and players (Tom Brady) that don't instantly submit to a decree of wrongdoing (Deflategate) even if it's based on nothing. The League's hypocrisy in this manner is obvious to anyone who's watching and eerily similar to the way government seeks to apply punishment to some (Edward Snowden), but not others (Hillary Clinton) even when they've committed the same crime.

The result of all this onerous regulation, intervention, and meddling in what was once a relatively free market sport is a vastly inferior product. Sure the league has grown immensely over the last 15 years and made billions in profit, but who has benefited from this? Players? Fans? The cities that pay for new stadiums? The sole benefactors have been the League itself, the commissioner, and the owners, i.e. the elites. Much like our current bubble economy, just because the stock market is at an all-time high, doesn't mean that the output or the outlook is any better than it was when this uptrend began.

All of the NFL's money and power has flowed in one direction and I think fans inherently know this and as the product in front of their eyes has gotten worse and worse, they've realized how deeply frustrated it makes them feel to have put so much time and effort into something without anything in return except asking for more. As a result, I think many fans have become more willing to turn away altogether and sink their time, money, and energy into other endeavors. Similarly, many people are fed up being told how great the United States economy and system of government is because when they look at their bank statement or the candidates being foisted up them they are asking themselves, if this is the best our country can do, why should I even bother tuning in?