Judging by my Twitter feed, last night’s Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings amounted to a sorry excuse for professional football. Why anyone expected it to turn out any differently is odd — those are two really bad football teams.
Despite the complaining, though, a lot of people watched. The game drew a 9.5 overnight rating, according to Nielsen. That’s not a huge audience by Monday Night Football standards, but it’s still large by basically any other. That so many people would watch a game they knew was going to be terrible is indicative of the NFL’s marketing power and its strength as a TV-centric league, but it’s also evidence of something much bigger: the NFL is a drug to which we are seriously addicted, and no amount of information about its dangers is going to change the amount we consume, at least not for a really long time or until the dangers become worse and more apparent.
Compare Monday Night Football’s audience to that of PBS Frontline’s League Of Denial, the documentary that detailed the extensive lengths to which the NFL went to cover up links between football and concussions and long-term brain injuries. According to Rich Sandomir of the New York Times, the documentary drew an average of 2.2 million viewers when it originally aired on October 8. That’s an increase from Frontline’s 1.5 million average, but even a liberal estimate of online viewership would still make League of Denial’s total audience just a fraction of the one that watched the Giants-Vikings abomination last night.
That doesn’t mean that the documentary doesn’t matter or that concussions and brain injuries don’t either. But when the documentary came out earlier this month, a lot of people, including Alyssa, wrote that it probably wouldn’t have much impact, that it wouldn’t cause a massive cultural awakening about the game of football. That point of view is fairly intuitive, but this is actual evidence: even when the NFL is at its worst as it was on Monday night, League of Denial had about as much of a chance going up against it as doctors like Bennet Omalu. The league is a juggernaut fueled by the support of millions and millions of people who can’t get enough. The film is an important marker of an NFL cover-up and one day it may be a piece of a larger puzzle that brings about major change. But for now, it is a minor speed bump for the $9 billion behemoth it was challenging.
TV ratings aren’t the only evidence of how little we care. 24 hours prior on Sunday Night Football, Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee destroyed Denver Broncos return man Trindon Holliday on a kickoff return. The hit drew a massive reaction on social media, most of it positive. This was a punter leveling a skill player. That doesn’t happen every day. McAfee told CBS’ Gregg Doyel after the game that he received 75 text messages about it before the game ended, more than he had when he checked his phone after winning the Super Bowl.
But the hit was dirty. McAfee’s head collided directly with Holliday’s. Many pointed that out immediately, but many more celebrated it. This was a textbook view of the types of hits the NFL is trying to eliminate, the type of hits that have the potential to cause long-term damage. And it was the type of hit we love to celebrate, especially when the kicker is the guy dishing it out. This hit, the type NFL media types say they are working to quit glorifying, led ESPN’s SportsCenter intro on both Sunday and Monday night. NFL.com called it a “can’t miss play” from the weekend.
Need more? Look to Sunday afternoon. Late in the fourth quarter of his game, Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley nearly broke his neck. It was the second major injury of the season for Finley, who suffered a concussion in Week 3. After that injury, Finley’s 5-year-old son asked him to stop playing football. It’s a wonder what the kid thinks now. The hit that devastated Finley — who is now back to walking — isn’t the type we celebrate, but it’s a direct result of the game of football. It happens. It will always happen. But do the Packers share the same concern as Finley’s son? Do fans care? Does Jermichael Finley? It sure doesn’t seem like it. While Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall said chronic illegal hitter Brandon Merriwether may need to be taken out of football completely, the most vocal players about new rules are complaining about new rules rather than supporting them. And the only people who yell louder than the players and coaches are the fans who cry that the rule changes are “taking the football out of football.”
Given that lack of care, the NFL’s response to League of Denial was predictable. According to Michael Phillips from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he hadn’t seen it, but that it was “mostly about the past.” That’s the NFL’s message to fans: this is about problems we’ve fixed through rule changes and a settlement. There’s nothing to see here. Fans are lapping it up, even if it’s obvious to anyone who watches the game that it isn’t true. We love football too much to care. At the same time, the league was busy winning a bitter legislative battle to limit workers’ compensation benefits in California and still pushing the idea of an 18-game regular season over the safety-related objections of the Players Association. You think fans care about safety? See how many of them would oppose two more regular season football games.
There have been dire predictions about the NFL’s future. Before the Super Bowl last year, then-Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard predicted that the league would be dead in 30 years. There are fears that parents will stop letting their children play the game, that football will die a slow death once we learn just how dangerous it is. Maybe, through it all, football fans have bargained with themselves: the game is dangerous, the dangers can’t be removed, and we’re going to ignore it all and enjoy it until the day those dangers don’t let us consciously enjoy it anymore.
But that day seems a long way off. This is our game more than any other, and no matter who’s playing, no matter how good they are, people will watch. That’s not to say those dire predictions about football should or need to come true. But the less fans care about concussions and injuries and the general dangers of the game, the less incentive the NFL and its players have to do anything about it. We have a lot to learn about the specific risks football poses to the human brain, and maybe we’ll learn something that will make us sit up and take notice. Monday night, though, is more evidence that what we know about football’s impact on players’ brains isn’t having an impact on the brains of fans. League of Denial never had a chance, not because the NFL needed to deny its content but because the majority of NFL fans just don’t seem to care.