The NFL has become one of the rare businesses that would still thrive notwithstanding management’s best efforts to torpedo its own aircraft carrier, a veritable Brewster’s Billions that can’t be squandered no matter how hard the stewards of the sport may try.
That reality will once again be tested in 2018, as the league launches into a new season with an array of threats. From the immediate to the existential, pro football has its problems. And yet the game continues to be the ultimate deodorant for a Shield that has grown more than a little gamey.
The latest complication comes from a case that the league’s legal echo chamber likely regarded as frivolous. Until, of course, the moment that arbitrator Stephen Burbank banged his gavel and gave Colin Kaepernick a guarantee that his collusion case will play out like the trial in My Cousin Vinny, with Mark Geragos poised to rip through owner and executive after owner and executive, systematically shouting out, “I’m done with this guy!”
Burbank’s ruling surely burst a bubble of hubris regarding the league’s belief that Kaepernick’s case lacked merit, forcing the NFL to consider the possibility that Geragos could be able to marshal a tapestry of evidence to prove that the league office sent a clear and distinct message that doing business with the Oliver Twist of the anthem morass would be bad for the collective business of the league. And it pushes the door wide open for the possibility that, eventually, Burbank will agree with Geragos that 32 businesses operating under the umbrella of 345 Park Avenue did indeed agree implicitly but unmistakably to shun Colin Kaepernick.
Then there’s the aforementioned anthem morass, which continues to hide in plain sight. While relatively few, anthem protests persist — and the underlying problem doesn’t seem close to being resolved through collective bargaining. Which means that, as the Commander-in-Chief finds himself increasingly pinched within the walls of Garbage Compactor 3263827, there’s a strong chance that the league will continue to have more tweets and remarks sent in its direction regarding the alleged lack of respect for flag, military, and country.
Beyond that, stories continue to emerge regarding decreased youth participation in the sport and the scrapping of high-school programs. Which surely delights those who hope to witness and/or bring about the diminution or outright collapse of football.
The good news for the NFL comes from the fact that the preseason has produced plenty of evidence that ratings could be rebounding. Moreover, the emergence of legalized gambling should trigger expanded audiences and, in time, enhanced earnings. And the non-change change to the helmet rule quite possibly will prevent the 2018 from being thrown off the rails by what seemed to be a misguided effort to take all helmet contact out of the game.
So even though the league has more than its fair share of self-inflicted wounds, the NFL continues to be the strongest sports property around because the sport itself, as played by highly-skilled athletes, continues to be the one thing that can pull together a live audience like nothing else. That won’t change, even if the league actively tries to change it.