Roasting the Goose, Part 4
This coming weekend the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Ravens in Baltimore. Even though M & T Bank Stadium is a relatively short drive away, I doubt if I would attend the game if someone gifted me the tickets and parking. And I am not alone.
The stories that I have heard from those who have attended Steelers games in Baltimore are almost universally horrific, with many fans experiencing everything from verbal abuse to being urinated upon. Nor are other game experiences all that different in kind, if not degree.
The last NFL game I attended was a Monday Night tilt between Washington and the Philadelphia Eagles that attained its own level of ugliness, such that I can say I am in no particular hurry to witness another game in person anytime soon.
And what would any of this have to do with a series addressing a drop-in viewership rather than the in-person fan experience? Many devoted fans have never seen an NFL game in person, and perhaps never will.
Maybe only I see the connection, but the abandonment of sport and sportsmanship would certainly have a trickle-down effect upon all aspects of the experience of professional football, including how fans treat each other.
This is not to say that fan violence is a recent phenomenon only. There were epic fights at Steelers/Browns games going back to the 1950s. But the tone and scope has clearly changed. Outside of any reasonable governing context, violence is not just a problem for players on and off the field. Fans are increasingly out of control as well—in stadiums, tailgating, and at home. Super Bowl Sunday is a domestic violence holiday as well.
Certainly, the league is not responsible for providing or planting the seeds of the violence that occurs throughout our culture, but it would be unwise to not entertain its influence as a fertilizer and trigger, not just based upon the virtually unavoidable violence inherent in the game itself, but also through a growing ethic of disrespect. And like so much of what happens with the league and corporate culture in general, the right hand has to struggle with cleaning up messes unwittingly created by the left.
Attending a live game can be a great anchoring experience for fans, different and impactful in many ways from viewing the game via media. You would think that Steelers fans who live in the Baltimore/Washington metroplex would take advantage of the annual visit of Pittsburgh to the area as a regular feature of their fan experience, but precious few do. Though unlikely to be a direct influence to reduced fan viewership, it does represent a not so subtle weakening of ties. Not feeling respected or safe represents an erosion of a relationship that can eventually lead to estrangement.
I was surprised, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s game against the Patriots, how many observers expressed such satisfaction with the quality of the competition. The combination of my gratitude that the expected blowout did not materialize and a laser sharp focus on the Steelers’ flaws obscured the fact that the game was a relative rarity for the 2016 season so far, a well-played competitive contest between two very good, highly competent organizations.
Few of the criticisms related to reduced viewership hit upon this point in a completely straightforward manner, but the complaints about the lack of compelling match-ups speaks to the fact that the league’s emphasis on maintaining a level playing field competitively has skewed the game decidedly in the direction of mediocrity rather than excellence.
Only a handful of teams like the Steelers and the Pats have the infrastructure and the organizational savvy to consistently buck this trend, but even they are hampered by several factors:
- Roster sizes are much too small, particularly when injury rates are considered
- Salary restrictions discourage the retention of experienced mid- and even upper-level talent,
- Increasing legislative meddling in the form of scheduling (Thursday night games)
- Officiating that is increasingly intrusive, [such as the increase of holding and pass interference penalties,] inscrutable [what is a catch, or an illegal hit?,] and trivial [celebration penalties.]
Another issue is an approach to issues of player safety and workplace ethics that is ineffective, lacking in fairness and cynical. Is the major concern the health and welfare of the players, or is it to erect a hedge against possible legal liability or negative publicity? Is the higher level of protections afforded to quarterbacks and wide receivers a nod to risk factors or a desire to drive fantasy activities? Is a Jordan Rules approach that favors a few marquee stars (Tom Brady) over others (Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton) justifiable when the consequences for less favored players is the possibility of crippling and even career ending injuries?
Furthermore, patterns of player discipline in the form of fines and suspensions can be viewed as arbitrary and biased. They intrude upon both competitive balance and perceived quality of the product.
Sally Jenkins gets the final word here, as she speaks to the overall cultural factors that would suggest that what we are witnessing may be more than the temporary impact of an election season or the weather.