Controversy hit the 2014-15 NFL season long before the first coin toss. Ray Rice knocked his future wife unconscious in a Las Vegas elevator and the league ignored the video evidence, suspending him only after it was released publicly. Then Adrian Peterson was accused of child abuse, again initially ignored by the league but ultimately suspended.
Those are the major ones, but there have been tons of other minor controversies throughout the 2014-15 season. Browns WR Josh Gordon initially received a lengthier suspension than domestic violence suspects for smoking marijuana. Washington’s football team still has the same name and mascot.
Less than two weeks until what promises to be an exciting matchup between defending Super Bowl Champions the Seattle Seahawks and long-running dynasty team the New England Patriots, controversy has struck the NFL again. This time Bill Belichick and the Patriots staff are under investigation for allegedly deflating 11 out of 12 of the game balls during Sunday’s AFC Championship game. The accusation was initially downplayed by much of the media, as it was probably irrelevant in the Patriots 45-7 route of the Colts, and QBs commonly tweak game balls to their specifications (within the 12.5 to 13.5 pound limits) depending on weather and a variety of other factors. The deflated balls could have been easier for Brady to throw and for his receivers to catch, but it probably wouldn’t have had a significant outcome on the game.
Still, the story has exposed an apparently common practice which deceives fans as much as it does other teams. Each team has to submit its own game balls to be verified for proper weight and standards by an official two hours prior to kickoff. In Sunday’s case, the balls were approved before the game began but subject to suspicions and scrutiny on behalf of the Colts staff after D’Qwell Jackson’s interception of Tom Brady’s pass in the second quarter.
It’s impossible to directly compare this incident to those of Rice or Peterson, but once again the NFL has left far too many questions rather than answers. “We are not commenting at this time” has been the league’s only comment, courtesy of SVP of Communications Greg Aiello. Roger Goodell is, again, nowhere to be found. The Patriots players and coaching staff have been similarly tight-lipped. Once again, there’s a controversy that everyone except the media and the public seem to be ignoring.
Despite repeated controversies and mishandling of punishment, the NFL can’t get people to stop watching. In late October, halfway through the current season and in the height of the Rice/Peterson controversies, Monday Night Football viewership was up seven percent. Fox’s Sunday broadcast averaged 20.8 million viewers, and CBS averaged 17.52 million viewers. Viewership actually declined for the NFC and AFC Championship games compared to last year, but the former still averaged 49.8 million viewers and the latter averaged 42.1 million viewers. Still, the peak viewership for the NFC Championship (which featured an unbelievable come-from-behind overtime victory on behalf of Seattle) was actually higher than last year at 60.5 million. As NBC Sports reports, “It’s worth noting that even a bad NFL playoff game like Colts-Patriots drew a rating that dwarfs the ratings of anything else on TV. The NFL remains the king of American television.”
The league has turned itself into an indestructible force. It’s difficult to be held accountable for your actions when you can continue profiting off astronomical television ratings no matter what you do. The Super Bowl will be another predictable ratings boom even if the Patriots are miraculously found guilty and issued a punishment or penalty in the next two weeks. If you like football, love a certain team, and have spent years invested in the sport then it can be difficult to just turn off your television on Sundays. But the 2014-15 season will go down in history as an example not only of the league’s power, but of its disregard for the consequences of its actions. With an audience that complains about league policies but is satisfied to keep watching week-after-week regardless, it’s difficult to imagine anything changing in the near future.