Years ago, when I was in my infancy as a Washington Post reporter, I was assigned to cover the Washington Diplomats, who played in the now defunct North American Soccer League.
I loved the beat for one reason: I had complete access to everyone associated with the team and, for that matter, everyone associated with the league. The joke among reporters was that the NASL was so desperate for publicity that the players and coaches would come to your house to be interviewed if you asked.
The Diplomats PR guy in those days was Terry Hanson, who would go on to work for both Turner and the PGA Tour. It was Hanson who came up with the idea in the late-80s of making tournament title sponsors buy half the advertising slots for their event and buy slots for other events on that network throughout the year. That stroke of genius got the tour on TV every week, including Thursdays and Fridays.
Hanson and I became friends then and remain friends today. The NASL was billing soccer as “the sport of the 80s.” With all the kids who were playing the game in the U.S. there was no doubt in the minds of the league’s leaders that the kind of huge crowds who were coming to Giants Stadium to see the Cosmos — who had signed Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and other international stars and superstars — would soon be flocking to stadiums around the country.
In a three-year period, preparing for the explosion to come in the 80s, the league expanded from 12 teams to 24. By 1984, the league was dead. So much for the sport of the 80s.
What went wrong? The easy answer was that the NASL’s leaders got too full of themselves because of the Cosmos success. The New York team (playing in New Jersey) drew from a huge base of immigrants who had grown up with soccer and knew Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and even the team’s lesser stars. Other cities simply didn’t have that kind of base. Maybe Washington, but the only true international star the Diplomats ever had was Johan Cruyff — and that was for two years.
But there was more to it than that and it was Hanson who explained it best: “It’s the gaping wound,” he said.
The gaping wound, he explained, was the game. Part of it was that American fans hadn’t grown up with it, part of it was that the NASL version was several rungs below the top leagues overseas — just as the MLS, even now, isn’t on par with the best leagues in the world.
But I come here today not to get into a debate with socceristas about the beauty of the game or about people not appreciating that a 0-0 tie can be 90 minutes — or more — of brilliant soccer.
This is about the NFL. And the gaping wound.
Because I’m working on a book about playing quarterback in the NFL, I’ve been at a game most weeks this season. What’s more, I’ve DVR’d games that “my” guys have played in throughout the fall so I can watch them with replay and without commercials.
There have been about a million theories thrown out on why the NFL’s TV ratings are down and why so many NFL stadiums have rows and rows of empty seats. Years ago, the NFL used to announce two attendance numbers: tickets sold and actual attendance, giving the number of no-shows to the media and the public.
Now, it only announces tickets sold, which creates the rather ludicrous sight of announced attendance figures in the 70,000 range when it’s clear the stadium is half-empty.
TV ratings are down; attendance is down and I’ll bet licensing numbers are down. Even a pizza salesman with an NFL sponsorship complained this year that HIS sales were down — blaming it on players kneeling for the national anthem.
The drop in NFL popularity isn’t about players kneeling or Colin Kaepernick; it isn’t about CTE or about Presidential politics — which was the claim when the numbers started to drop in the fall of 2016. It isn’t about Roger Goodell’s various missteps or about fewer people subscribing to cable TV.
It’s about the gaping wound.
Most of the games range from not-very-good to awful. The current state of the league was summed up by the four playoff games this past weekend. The Jacksonville-Buffalo game was about as bad a playoff game as I can remember – and my memory goes back a long way. The Tennessee-Kansas City game was the worst-officiated game I’ve ever seen. Atlanta-L.A. was a fairly typical 2017-2018 yawner. And the Carolina-New Orleans game was worth watching even though the officials somehow forgot the 10-second runoff rule after Cam Newton’s late grounding penalty and were saved only by someone in New York screaming in the ear of the alternate official, who ran onto the field JUST prior to the snap. Troy Aikman knew the rule and remembered it; none of the on-field officials did.
It isn’t any one thing that’s wrong. There are still great players who make great plays. It’s a combination of things, including the following:
It happens too often and takes too long. People forget it was first invented to fix blatantly wrong calls. Now, every other play seems to go to New York. Part of that is because the on-field officials struggle with the myriad rules that now exist. The catch rule — all 185 words of it — is a microcosm of what’s wrong. Here’s the deal: If you can’t tell within 60 seconds that a call is wrong on the field, it stands. Move along.
This is a box the league has put itself in by blackmailing the networks into paying such ridiculously high rights fees. The networks have to get back the money somewhere. The league tried to limit the number of back-to-back timeouts: score, timeout, kickoff, timeout, this season. That just made for longer TV breaks, which is torture sitting in the stadium, especially when the weather gets cold. The games have very little flow and the quarter breaks feel as if they’re as long as halftime.
• Quality of officiating
Remember the three weeks in 2012 when the NFL locked its officials out and used replacement officials? That was a complete disaster. The officials were actually cheered when they returned.
Not anymore. To be fair, officiating has become virtually impossible. When is a catch a catch? When is a helmet-to-helmet hit a penalty? What is pass interference? Holding. The last two can be called on almost every play. When is a quarterback roughed? And so on. It seems now that all but the simplest penalties require a conference among the officials. Calls get missed because officials are over-thinking or they throw constant flags because they don’t want to be graded down by the press box observer for not flagging what MIGHT be a penalty.
The number of penalties called is completely out of control. I saw one game this season in which 35 penalties were accepted. THIRTY-FIVE!
And the rule on helmet-to-helmet hits is completely incomprehensible. Officials are now asked to decide when a runner is a runner. That was evident when Travis Kelce was knocked senseless by a clear helmet-to-helmet hit in the K.C.-Tennessee game and was judged to be “a runner,” even though he was being tackled and was on his way to the ground. I’m sure the Chiefs — not to mention his family — were relieved to learn he’d been a runner when he was knocked into next week. Helmet-to-helmet, inadvertent or not, should be 15 yards. If the officials judge it to be intentional, ejection. MOST penalties are inadvertent. They’re still called.
Finally, officials need to be fulltime, train all year, be in shape and be fired if they’re doing a poor job. Jeff Triplette didn’t belong on the field in Kansas City with a whistle any more than I did. If the league gave him a game as a going away present, whoever made that decision should be fired on the spot.
It’s called accountability.
Finally, the so-called “concussion protocol” is a joke, Answer about three questions and, unless you were knocked cold, you’re back in the game.
Because there are so many injuries, some of the league’s best players aren’t on the field. That hurts too — especially when they’re quarterbacks. The Packers without Aaron Rodgers? The Colts without Andrew Luck? The Eagles without Carson Wentz? The Texans without Deshaun Watson? That’s just for starters.
The NFL isn’t going to go the way of the NASL anytime soon. But it’s bleeding right now. The reason is the gaping wound.
John Feinstein’s most recent book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” remains on the New York Times bestseller list for a third month. His most recent Young Adult Mystery, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black and White,” was a children’s literary guild choice as one of the best books of 2017.