A lot has been said and written about the declining viewership of the NFL. I even wrote about an aspect of it last year. While scrolling my Twitter timeline the other night, I came across this exchange:
It’s a really good point on one of the probable reasons the NFL is encountering a headwind unlike any other its had to weather before. The league has depended on and perpetuated facelessness and systematic replaceability for (most of) its players for decades. (An aside: the “most of” is a discussion unto itself.)
But now athletes, or anyone really, don’t have to go through traditional channels to have their perspective disseminated to the masses. There’s never been more access to the players, and many players are taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with fans despite the potential drawbacks from trolling and the like. As a result, there is more connection to the individuals who play the games than the league has ever seen.
The Information Age has also brought about more public knowledge about the risks associated with football. We always knew that football wasn’t the safest activity, but we now have unprecedented data into just how destructive it can be. The more is known about the players as people, the harder it becomes for fans to reconcile watching what these athletes do for entertainment alongside the knowledge of what it’s doing to them long-term.
However, not all the reasoning from fans reassessing their NFL support is altruistic of course. As evidenced by the pushback to player protests and demonstrations, there is a significant faction of the NFL fandom (like in general society) that doesn’t want to see the players on the same level of human as themselves. The ones saying their football watching is being impacted by the protesters are essentially saying that players asserting their humanness is making them recoil from the NFL.
Even in this instance, while opposite on the compassion spectrum from being uncomfortable because (consciously or unconsciously) you don’t like the toll the game takes on the players, the wane in enthusiasm towards viewing is directly connected to humanity.
The actions the NFL will take in efforts to stop its slide may not be clear yet, but one thing is clear: the playbook has to change and riding the fence is less of an option each day. Whatever moves it makes, the league will end up ostracizing a group of people. The question is: which side of the social issues swirling around it is the league willing to stake it’s existence on to stand? How much individual humanity is it as an entity willing to give its players?