By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) It’s something you never hear during an NFL game, the admission that the person paid to describe and contextualize the action is as unhappy watching it as you are. And that’s especially the case on ESPN, the multimedia marketing company that used to be a sports network, where their own football broadcasters have admitted to being glorified salesmen, finding ways to tell you that bad players are good and mediocre ones are stars. On Monday night, even, Jon Gruden himself was sitting right there.
But that didn’t stop Sean McDonough from having quite enough of the inconsistent and over-aggressive officiating that marred the Cardinals-Jets matchup with 19 penalties. He said what we have all been thinking and telling each other for a while.
“If we’re looking for reasons why TV ratings for the NFL are down all over the place, this doesn’t help,” McDonough said. “The way this game has been officiated is not something anybody wants to watch.”
Amen. A thousand times, amen.
We don’t know what a catch is, nor do we know what constitutes offensive holding. When we finally get a kick or punt returned, somebody is called for a block in the back. Every incomplete pass now concludes with a lobbying session of dueling tantrums and inevitably a flag amid all the pointing and arm-waving. Some helmet-to-helmet hits are critical personal fouls, while others go entirely unnoticed until we hear about the fines issued. It’s a seemingly randomized mess.
Ratings are down 10 percent across the board compared to this time last year. It’s a big drop, and there are many possible reasons for it. But McDonough criticizing the actual product is significant.
The primary talking point for the league to deflect concern has been the effect of the presidential election. Games going head to head with the debates has pulled down viewership, and interest in general has been pulled away from football and toward what has devolved on one side into a frightening tabloid freak show. And much of that contention must be true.
Also of concern is white flight from the national anthem protests led by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, as some viewers feel uncomfortable when confronted with the fact that not everyone’s American experience is the same. There’s also the fact of declining youth participation in the sport due to the awareness of brain injury, and some fans possibly enjoying the pro game less with more knowledge of what’s happening to the players in all those collisions.
Then there’s the implosion of ubiquitous daily fantasy gaming sites amid a legal landscape racing to catch up with its regulation. What was once everywhere is now not, both in advertising dollars and connection to the average fan.
But what hits home in McDonough’s admission is that it’s about the football itself. He mentioned the arbitrary and suppressive officiating, specifically, but the essence of worry should be about how the game is being played overall.
Injuries have even good teams down to third-stringers at key positions, with rosters already supplemented by too many players waived two months ago and re-signed from civilian jobs. There aren’t enough competent quarterbacks to staff the league’s franchises one time around, let alone man backup spots, and the increasingly divergent college game is doing little to produce more. The collective bargaining agreement has limited practice to the point that coaches feel their hands are tied when it comes to game-speed preparation, particularly for line play. And the cynical, cosmetic attempts by the NFL to position themselves for future head-injury litigation by pretending to make an inherently violent game safe have caused nothing but confusion.
There’s too much NFL football available, and too much of it isn’t very good. Sean McDonough just had the microphone and the guts to say it.