On Friday, two more events stoked controversy relating to domestic violence and the handling of the Ray Rice affair by the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell held a long-awaited press conference and ESPN.com broke a story that suggested Baltimore Raven influence in attempting to urge leniency on the penalty that Rice would receive. Reaction to these stories continued Friday and through the weekend. The impact on fan support of the NFL was invisible.
Last week, the seven top-rated shows on Nielsen television ratings were NFL night-time football. The NFL is no longer just the most dominant sport in this country -- it is the most dominant form of televised entertainment. There has never been a sport that has crossed over to completely monopolize television in this way. This nation is obsessed by NFL football. Attendance is unflagging, 35 million people play fantasy football, and bettors find every forum imaginable, social media is ablaze with football talk and apps, memorabilia and apparel sales soar.
So how is it that two straight weeks of nonstop media coverage of completely negative athletic behavior, and inept official response to it, has so little effect on fan behavior? No one in this country favors domestic violence and the issues of the past few weeks have galvanized public discussion throughout the land. Even with President Obama announcing war with Isis, Ebola virus outbreaks and the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, news has consistently led with the NFL story. Last week I flipped though six pre-sets on my car radio, only three of which are sports stations, and all six were talking about Rice.
Psychological compartmentalization appears to be at work. Fans waited through an off-season that stretched for most teams from January until September regular-season games. The anticipation level for this season was astronomical. Fans of an individual team, fantasy players, and bettors couldn’t wait for the season to begin. The rituals of Sunday afternoon have become integrated into our culture. And when there is negative news, even if it involves the NFL, where do fans turn? They turn to the actual games for the excitement and respite from day-to-day life.
Rice does not represent the players and games they are watching to fans who have bifurcated their reaction.
The massive promotion powers of television, sponsorship, the Internet, radio, newspapers and magazines were in full force to promote this season, and fans responded. The good news is that a powerful NFL can be a powerful advocate against domestic violence.
Goodell got mixed reviews for his press conference, but he did announce a commitment to education, training for prevention and outreach to counter domestic violence. The proof will be in the details, but the NFL has shown with issues like breast cancer awareness how effective a forum it can be.
A fact lost in the frenzy is that domestic violence was swept completely under the table for most of the history of this country. Incidents of athletic involvement have gotten better, not worse. NFL rates are lower than their non-athletic peers in the same age group. One incident is too many, but this is not a sport of thugs. Fans appear to distinguish between their abhorrence of domestic violence and condemnation of the perpetrators and league handling them on the one hand, and enjoyment of the sport on the other.