Welcome to the NFL's Armageddon
With NFL commissioner Heath Shuler considering the unthinkable -- canceling the final regular-season games of the 2020 NFL season because of injuries, substandard play, PED problems and fan apathy -- I thought it would be a good idea to go back in time more than a decade to that fateful, final week of September 2010 when everything changed in pro football.
The NFL hasn't always been the sorry mess it is today. I know it seems hard to fathom, but back in 2010, pro football was considered a national pastime. Honest. It was bigger than baseball, bigger than soccer and bigger than the NBA. The Super Bowl wasn't held on a Tuesday, like it is now, in between "The Price Is Right" and "The Dr. Kardashian Show." It used to be a national holiday and one of the most-watched sporting events on the planet.
Back then, rookie quarterbacks made $60 million -- guaranteed. Franchises were valued in the billions. The public's appetite for the game bordered on insatiable. We loved the violence, speed and excitement of the game so much that we put up with goofy beer commercials, personal seat licenses and the first three of Brett Favre's eventual nine retirements.
Of course, that all changed the horrific week in September 2010 when negotiations in Washington, D.C., between the NFL and the NFLPA reached a turning point. Long before Michael Vick led the Eagles past the Chiefs in Super Bowl XLV that season, Colts president Bill Polian announced on his radio show that an 18-game regular-season schedule was a "fait accompli" -- a decision that, even when disguised in French, turned out to be disastrous for the NFL.
It's weird, looking back, that no one bothered to listen when Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis, one of the baddest men ever to play the game, said he feared what an 18-game schedule would do to the men on the field and to the game itself. Lewis knew. He saw firsthand, from the inside, exactly what players had to overcome just to take the field in December when the regular season was only 16 games (24 if you count preseason and a full playoffs.) "Sixteen games is enough," Lewis said at the time. "We're not automobiles, we're not machines, we're humans."
No one listened.
Now, the Super Bowl is played midweek, at a juco field in Texas as a lead-in for the OchoCinco Network's regular-season soccer programming.
I know we all have soccer on the brain now, 24/7, and before everyone gets too involved in New York's run at a record third title in the World Futbol League (Honestly, I just don't know whether my heart can take another breathtaking scoring barrage like the 1-0 shootout the Yanks had against Barcelona last week), I thought it might be interesting to recount the chain of events, dating back to September 2010, that set the NFL's imminent failure into motion.
Because, as Vice President George Clooney once said, "Those who do not learn from their [fake] history are doomed to repeat it."
• With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that, more than anything else, the NFL's decision to go with an 18-game season immediately eroded the paying public's confidence and trust in the owners and commissioner as the so-called guardians of the game. The owners learned the hard way that you can't preach that you care about your employees while simultaneously compounding their long-term health and injury issues with two more games that have no real meaning beyond lining the pockets of billionaires.
• As we all know, this insincerity contributed a great deal to the stalled negotiations and the eventual lockout and cancellation of the 2011 season and Super Bowl. That turned out to be a gargantuan miscalculation by both sides. Out of money after six months, the players caved in to almost every demand, and with a rookie salary cap in place, college stars immediately started bolting for the UFL.
NFL owners, on the other hand, should have learned from baseball how damaging a strike can be or at least learned from hockey how to use a labor stoppage to dramatically improve your sport and your business model. The NFL, being the NFL, did neither.
• Already collectively in billions of dollars of debt from the prerecession stampede on stadium construction, NFL owners welcomed the players back and kicked off the new 18-game era of the NFL by raising prices in 2012 on everything from tickets to sodas to merchandise. That made almost as much sense as the league's old catch rule. In response, fans stayed away in droves and flocked, in record numbers, to high school and college games and the rapidly improving product of the UFL, which, oddly, spent more energy on innovation, entertainment and fan interaction than on fining players for wearing the wrong kind of socks.
• Back then, most of us thought that only baseball fans cared about stats, records and historical comparisons. But the NFL fans who did return after the strike felt disconnected from the game. Example: For 75 years, 1,000 yards rushing was the standard for great running backs. In the 18-game era, all it takes is 55 yards a game. Suddenly, even a back from the Browns could have Pro Bowl-looking stats. I know, I know, it just doesn't seem right.
• The stats weren't the only thing fans didn't recognize. Lewis knew that the speed and violence of the sport had gotten so that a normal human body could not survive for more than 16 games. That, in turn, made the outcome of an 18-game season more about injury attrition and less about talent, preparation and execution. After 2011, the healthy teams won. Period.
Injuries got so bad, remember, that teams that lost games but stayed healthy would celebrate wildly after loses. Teams even tried holding their star players off the roster until November -- until the fan strike in Cincinnati changed all that. So, many players turned to performance-enhancing drugs, not to cheat or get ahead but to survive the season. It got so bad that the league had to either turn a blind eye to drug use by its players or fold. The NFL powers that be went the MLB way and buried their heads in the sand. In 2014, there was talk of dropping HGH from the list of banned substances altogether to help the 213 players on injured reserve get back on the field in time for the playoffs.
At that point, though, it didn't matter. Pro football stopped being about teamwork, sacrifice, intelligence and toughness and became about survival. Once the competitive nature of the game eroded and champions were determined by injuries and luck, the NFL essentially turned into pro wrestling.
• Then came the lawsuits.
• First, there was the fan in Dallas who successfully sued the Cowboys for a full refund of his PSL and 2014 season-ticket costs after eight of the team's best players, including league MVP QB Denard Robinson, were injured in the regular season in January. The judge in the case said he ultimately was swayed by the lawyer's unique "entertainment world" argument. The fan argued that if he had paid top dollar to see U2 but Bono or the Edge was unable to play the show, he would be given an immediate full ticket refund, no questions asked. But if the music world were run by the NFL, the same fan would be expected to pay top dollar for 18 concert tickets and not complain at all when he listened to a U2 show featuring Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, the singer from Nickelback and Joe Jonas on guitar.
• By 2016, most NFL stadiums were half full. Some people think the desperate owners' proposal of a 20-game season was the final straw. Others think it was when injuries forced Mike Singletary to suit up for Game 18 of the 2013 season. Most fans I talk to think the final straw came in 2014 with the double whammy of a blacked-out Super Bowl and Kenny Chesney as the halftime entertainment.
• In the end, it was something much simpler. The NFL lost the moms.
See, in its ultimate arrogance, the NFL forgot that football's popularity was always driven by our society's insatiable appetite for violence. The bump to 18 games in the name of greed was a Willy Wonka lesson in too much of a good thing.
All the horrific, graphic, late-season injuries that were suffered as teams wore down in Week's 17 and 18 gave the public a gruesome, unwanted, behind-the-curtain glimpse at the dark, painful reality of the sport. In the old days, you could see a crippled, retired player or read of another guy suffering from the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head and fool yourself into thinking the two weren't connected. But now, especially in Weeks 17 and 18, the uber-brutality is taking place right in front of our eyes. There is no more denying it.
Once the public lost its craving for the violence of football, the game was never the same.
The bottom line is that fans no longer wanted to feel culpable for crippling their heroes so they could have something to watch on TV in July and March. In turn, the fans became less inclined to fund the monster by spending gobs of money on tickets and merch. And that's when it happened. That's when the moms said, "enough." They closed their checkbooks and stopped letting their kids play football. When all the best athletes in high school moved to soccer, lacrosse and hockey, in less than a decade, the NFL's feeder program was bone dry.
• That, my friends, is how the NFL wound up where it is today, with TV ratings in the tank, attendance at an all-time low, revenue down more than 60 percent, sloppy and soporific play clogging up the field, injured stars everywhere you turn, and no-name hacks filling up the rest of the rosters.
Meanwhile, those of us who do still follow the old gridiron sit and wait for commissioner Shuler to decide whether he's actually going to cancel the rest of the 2020 NFL season so he can pursue what he calls a more honorable vocation as a cast member on "Dancing with the Stars."
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books, ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys") and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing.