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The bulletproof football league

| Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I love the New Orleans Saints. That football team transformed an entire city into believers, giving people hope that things could get better after a hurricane took so much away from them. I’ll never forget when they won the Super Bowl in 2009, and the city partied all the way through Mardi Gras. It is because I love the Saints (and you probably love the Chicago Bears) that the NFL seems so resilient in the face of what can only be described as a terrible summer.

Players were suspended for substance abuse and for domestic violence against their wives and children. But when the game comes on, we all tune in.

Sure, NFL fans have been shocked by the video of Ray Rice and appalled by the way the league has handled the situation. But few people voluntarily turned off the TV when the Seattle Seahawks took on the Green Bay Packers in the season opener. The NFL enjoys the type of brand success most retail companies would kill for — it’s untouchable.

When the NFL referees went on strike in 2012 over a labor dispute, they said the NFL would jeopardize the safety of the players as well as the integrity of the game because the replacement referees wouldn’t be as qualified. No one who watched football for the first three weeks of that season would disagree with that assessment. Players, broadcasters and fans complained vehemently about the replacement referees. Yet, the NFL stubbornly refused to give in until it was absolutely necessary.

Why would the NFL go through all of this trouble? Because the referees were asking for what amounted to four hundredths of a percent of the NFL’s $10 billion revenue stream.

The league could get away with it though because, through it all, we never stopped watching the games.

Professional football games do not just take place on our TVs, however.

The stadiums are built in the middle of our cities and neighborhoods — billion-dollar buildings that must usually be financed not by the owners of the teams, but by the taxpayers of the cities in which they live. According to a study conducted by a Harvard professor of urban planning, 70 percent of NFL stadiums have been primarily financed by public dollars. Nearly half of the league’s stadiums have actually accumulated more taxpayer dollars than it took to fully build them.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars through our taxes alone in order to keep these teams, while the NFL itself operates as a non-profit “trade group.” It may surprise you, but the NFL has been a non-profit since roughly 1942 and has enjoyed an explicit non-profit designation from Congress since 1966. How many non-profits do you know that can pay their executive $44 million? And what’s more, all of this is public information. The battle over tax subsidies for stadiums happens in the public eye. Regardless, even this information certainly hasn’t stopped us from going to the games.

The most recent set of scandals in football have centered on player behavior off the field. These incidents may affect the NFL in a way that requires more than window dressing. Between the videos, pictures and police reports, fans have a very good understanding of what happened with Rice, Adrian Peterson and even Josh Gordon. These scandals, the kinds that hit closer to home than referee fiascos and taxes, have a chance to strike a chord with NFL fans.

The league looked the other way for five months when one of its stars was accused of domestic abuse. The Vikings owners followed up by trying to get Peterson back on the field days after pictures of his beaten child surfaced. When the storylines break through the TV screen and into reality, fans are forced to think about much more than the game.

The fan base of the NFL is at its core made up of families: fathers, mothers and children who want to come together on Sunday and watch their teams play.

More people watched the Bears come back from 17 points down last week than watched most NBA Finals games. The NFL continues to grow, despite all of the negative headlines. But if the league continues to spit in the face of its fans by ignoring off-the-field issues and bumbling on the ones it does address, fans may start thinking more about the pictures of Peterson’s son than how their fantasy teams are doing that week. Until then, though, I’ll see you Sunday.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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