Feb 7, 2022 - Sports

The NFL always wins

Illustration a football helmet with with a halo next to another with devil horns

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

America is obsessed with football — a love affair that has allowed the NFL to tighten its already-firm grip on our culture despite mounting scandals.

The big picture: From brain injuries to toxic workplaces to racism allegations, the NFL is no stranger to outrage. Then Sunday arrives, and all is seemingly forgiven.

  • That will be the case once again this week, as the same networks currently reporting on the Brian Flores lawsuit and Commanders harassment allegations will begin promoting the Super Bowl.
  • NFL fans, much like those networks, have shown a willingness to separate the product from the business, which has made the league impervious to gaffes that would doom most organizations.

State of play: The NFL has arguably never been more entertaining than it was this season, delivering unrivaled parity, a record number of close games and thrilling playoff drama.

  • The league accounted for 41 of the 50 most-watched U.S. broadcasts in 2021, which explains why its media partners are willing to pay more than $100 billion over the next decade-plus to broadcast games.
  • The Broncos' sale price could exceed $4 billion, which would smash the record for richest sports team sale. Sunday's Super Bowl will be played in the most expensive sports venue ever built (~$5.5 billion).

The other side: The NFL has reached these heights despite spending the past decade mired in controversy. A few demons that aren't going away:

  • Brain injuries: In 2013, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement after retired players alleged the league concealed what it knew about concussions. A few years later, a neuropathologist examined the brains of 111 deceased NFL players, and all but one had CTE, a brain disease linked with repeated blows to the head.
  • Racism concerns: Roughly 70% of NFL players are Black, but Mike Tomlin is the only active Black head coach. There's also the "race norming" practice used in the concussion settlement, Jon Gruden's emails and the Kaepernick saga and collusion lawsuit.
  • Lack of accountability: The NFL's investigation into misconduct allegations in Washington hasn't been transparent, and Commanders owner Dan Snyder may have control over whether the results are made public — a reminder that Roger Goodell works for the owners, not with them.

By the numbers: NFL fans may be divided when it comes to issues like kneeling during the national anthem, but in general, most feel the same way about the league: They love it.

  • 51% of Americans are professional football fans, according to a 2021 Axios-Ipsos poll. No other sport cracked 40%.
  • That includes 51% of Democrats, 50% of Republicans and 55% of independents. The NFL is also equally favored by Black and white Americans.

The last word: "The NFL doesn't care about your concerns, because the NFL doesn’t have to," as NYT's Kurt Streeter put it — not as long as viewership, revenue and franchise values continue to outpace every other sports league on Earth.

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