This was an opinion piece written in New York Post.
Ever since I was a kid growing up in the 1980s, professional football was my sport. I liked baseball, and thought hockey was OK, but the NFL was the main attraction.
A lot of this had to do with growing up in Pittsburgh, and watching tapes of the storied Steelers franchise from the 1970s. Witnessing Lynn Swann make that amazing catch in Super Bowl X, again and again in slow motion, I was hooked for life.
Or so I thought. As much as it pains me to say it, I’m drifting away from football. The NFL is sapping all the joy out of it.
Today’s league leadership didn’t make football a great game. It inherited one. Football was etched into the national consciousness through the Greatest Game Ever Played, the Ice Bowl, the Perfect Season, the Immaculate Reception, the Catch, the Drive, the Hogs, the G-Men, Da Bears — I could go on.
Current NFL execs had nothing to do with this. They were bequeathed a sport of tremendous value. And while the market price of the average NFL team has risen by an order of magnitude over the past generation, the league is destroying the game’s true value.
Games in the past two seasons, according to Pro-Football-Reference data explored by the statisticians at FiveThirtyEight earlier this year, are longer than in any season since the data were first collected in 1999.
The most obvious problem is the replay system, which has spread like a virus all throughout the game. It seems like every play has to be reviewed, which means the naturally fast-paced nature of the sport is constantly interrupted while the refs reconsider every play in slow motion.
Far from adding a layer of objectivity to the sport, the judgments of the refs often seem arbitrary. And these calls can be decisive, as was the case in the Pats-Steelers game last Sunday. Did tight end Jesse James maintain control when he hit the ground on a decisive non-touchdown late in the game? Even the refs explaining the call couldn’t manage to explain it.
Then there’s the proliferation of penalties. In 2009, referees threw an average of 13.85 flags per game. So far in 2017, it’s risen to 16, slightly higher than the average in 2016. Like instant replay, penalties not only slow the game down, but create a sense of arbitrariness.
What gets called versus what doesn’t depends on what the handful of refs notice. And a lot of times, they call penalties that didn’t actually happen, because the line between what’s legal and what isn’t can often be blurry and subjective. So, we have games that are overstuffed with refs calling out rules violations and yet somehow seem less fair.
This is especially true for defensive pass interference, a penalty that can have huge consequences, but is often quite subjective. Already in 2017, there have been more pass interference calls than in all of the 2009 season.
And it’s hard to watch a sport where the marquee players fall to injuries so often. As a Steelers fan, it was especially painful to see Ryan Shazier lying paralyzed on the ground two weeks ago. But that’s just the most severe example. What about Carson Wentz? Richard Sherman? J.J. Watt? Odell Beckham Jr.? Aaron Rodgers? Andrew Luck? Dont’a Hightower? Eric Berry? All are crucial to their teams and the league, and all went down with season-ending injuries this year.
Overall, injury rates have been pretty constant over the last few seasons, but considering the efforts the league has taken to increase player safety, that’s cold comfort (and suggests the league doesn’t know how to reverse the tide).