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COMMENTARY: NFL fumbles away viewers with hyped-up, disgraceful display

The next National Football League season is drawing closer with the playing of exhibition games this month. But fans of the 32-team league have seen their enjoyment level drop of late, due to various reasons. And what's to become of blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick?
Colin Kaepernick quarterbacks the San Francisco 49ers in September 2012 against the Green Bay Packers. (MIKE MORBECK)

These are the dog days of summer.

In the cold business world of professional sports in North America, Major League Baseball teams are competing for a playoff spot, or fading fast, the Canadian Football League is a couple of weeks away from the halfway point of its season and National Football League squads are competing in this month’s glut of exhibition games.

For NFL fans, August can prompt conflicting feelings. The pre-season means the league’s 32 teams are dutifully preparing for the start of their quest for the next championship, but that march to the Super Bowl is being unnecessarily slowed at the beginning by an overabundance of dull, meaningless games.

I’ve been watching NFL games for more than 50 years. As other commenters have ably noted, fan experiences ain’t what they used to be. (Apologies to the late Mercer Ellington.)

Between too many penalty flags on the field, too many commercials during televised matches, too few exciting kickoff and punt returns and way too many silly celebrations by players making routine plays, NFL broadcasts are losing a lot of viewers. Some annoyed fans might change the channel during a telecast, while others have abandoned the league entirely and won’t even tune in at the start of a game.

An opinion piece Sally Jenkins wrote last October in the Washington Post said the numbers told the story: seven weeks into the 2016 NFL season, all three prime-time versions of the game saw TV ratings fall by 18 to 24 per cent.

Two days after her column was published, the newspaper ran more than two dozen cutting comments from football fans who used to follow the NFL but, for various reasons (including the league’s poor handling of brain-damage danger from concussions), have lost interest.

Some disgruntled fans have called it the No Fun League, but that’s a bit of a stretch. The NFL can still provide lovers of the game with plenty of great plays, occasional fantastic finishes — last February’s Super Bowl comeback victory, for example — and a few colourful characters.

Unfortunately, any given season might also put forward the usual dreck: bad games, players charged with serious crimes, gruesome injuries, players using drugs (including improper painkiller doses), premature deaths for retired football veterans, obnoxious billionaire team owners and TV broadcasts featuring godawful talking heads filling hours of airtime.

Time marches on and this is purely age rearing its ugly head, but I miss the old NFL. There was a time when competent referees officiated a game discreetly, in the background.

Star players in the old days would dazzle spectators and the television audience with an amazing display of athletic prowess, on the way to scoring a touchdown, and then simply hand the ball to the ref in the end zone before jogging back to their teammates on the sideline.

It used to be a league full of humble-sounding, gifted athletes — yes, there were loudmouths, too — who didn’t come across as entitled prima donnas or surly jocks. (Either way, when they spoke to sports reporters, their remarks didn’t sound like scripted messages learned from their team’s public relations staff.)

There was a time when the U.S. military and the NFL weren’t joined at the hip, because, you know, it’s supposed to be FOOTBALL and not a live, audiovisual recruiting poster for the Armed Forces. The NFL, of course, is not the only sports league doing this.

Then there’s the Colin Kaepernick situation. Here is a young man who can perhaps help some team by bringing his quarterbacking skills to the home field and stadiums around the league, but has been ostracized for standing up for his principles by kneeling down during the playing of the American anthem prior to kickoff.

He’s 29 years old. If he’s lucky and stays injury-free, he can probably remain in the NFL’s labour force for about another decade.

Kaepernick could soon land a job in the NFL. But if he is exiled, that would be another blemish on a league already scarred by unappealing elements and a recent history of mediocrity.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter who lives in Dartmouth


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