And these days, when the goal is a more ethical society, I’ll take hope anywhere I can find it.
The big story in the NFL right now is that for the first time ever, its TV ratings are dropping. Through the first seven weeks of the season, ratings were down for every prime-time NFL show: “Sunday Night Football” by 19 percent, “Monday Night Football” by 24 percent and the Thursday night game by 18 percent. For the season as whole, ratings are off in regional games too. The NFL is doing what it always does with bad news: obfuscating and lying. It has blamed the drop on the Presidential race, as if anyone wouldn’t do anything to escape that, and the generational abandonment of network TV and even cable for the internet. Various polling results, however, show that a big factor is the league’s increasingly obvious lack of values.
The concussion issue-–finally—is hurting interest in football, especially as parents try to steer their children toward less risky sports. A recent study that researchers took pains to insist was only troubling, not conclusive, found brain chemistry changes in children who had played one season of junior football. I don’t know about anyone else, but if there is any evidence that a sport might reduce my kid to a brain-damaged invalid by the time he’s 60, that’s plenty for me to limit his recreation choices. The public is also finally reacting to the NFL’s evident cover-up of its responsibility for ex-players who have perished as a consequence of CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated head trauma. I wish this was the main reason that fans are turning off pro-football games, but at least it’s a factor.
Polls also suggest that the domestic abuse exhibited by some stars, and the league’s initial attempts to minimize the seriousness of the problem, has hurt the NFL’s popularity. Most of all, apparently, players using the field to make political statements that many fans feel are both inappropriate and not what they pay to see when they watch football has caused a backlash, as well as the NFL’s pandering to the protesters and their anti-law enforcement supporters.
Good, good, good. This is a greedy sport that extols violence, profits from violence, and tries to avoid accountability for what the violence does to its players’ minds and conduct, as well as our culture.
Meanwhile, baseball’s World Series beat Sunday Night Football in viewers last week and is having its best TV ratings since 2004. The Cubs are the reason, of course; still, baseball, unlike football, communicates positive values. The game has made rule changes to reduce violence, even though the plays that were sacrificed—runners breaking up double plays with rolling blocks and spectacular collisions at the plate between base-runners and catchers—had provided some of the sport’s biggest thrills through the decades. Baseball celebrates individual sportsmanship, character, responsibility, courage and sacrifice, and the philosophy that time never runs out, so there is always hope. Best of all, it’s not about symbolic warfare and hurting people to prevail. In the Series game crowd shots, I see fans in desperate, hopeful anticipation, cheering for the emergence of a hero, not for the cracking of enemy skulls.
We need baseball right now. This field, this game, is a part of our past…It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.