When the Roman Empire fell, it imploded. The National Football League, the professional sports version of Rome, is headed for a similar fate if it doesn't act decisively to change a growing trend that has already done significant damage to other leagues.
When New England tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder yesterday, he became the 27th NFL player to have been charged with a crime since the Super Bowl. That's an alarming number of multi-millionaires running afoul of the law in their spare time.
Of course we're not talking the typical "white-collar" crimes others with similar means tend to commit either. Former Lions' WR Titus Young wasn't picked up for insider trading. No, despite making more than the average fan who watches him play will make in a lifetime, Young felt it necessary to commit robbery, including trying to steal his own car from the tow company that had taken his car after Young was pulled over for driving under the influence.
Hernandez is not charged with operating a Ponzi scheme. He's charged with murder. The prosecution alleges that Hernandez shot his victim three times as he exited Hernandez's vehicle and then got out and finished him off with two more shots to the chest. Tony Soprano was less brutal.
Baseball's decline hasn't been just a case of a pastoral game losing traction in a culture with the attention span of a gnat with ADD. Baseball started losing the interest of its fan base when the "Boys of Summer" started becoming more like the "Reservoir Dogs."
The cocaine scandals that rocked baseball in the 1980s followed by the steroid abuses of the 1990s made it increasingly difficult for fans to give the same allegiance to players they once did. Not that Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were saints off the field, but they weren't committing felonies off the field or perjuring themselves in front of Congress. Throw in a couple of labor-related work stoppages and franchise instability and baseball is no longer anywhere near the "National Pastime" it once was.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird transformed the NBA, which spent most of the 1970s perceived as a league full of drug addicts, back into a fan favorite. NBA ratings topped the 20s in market share for the duration of the Magic/Bird years and was continued through Michael Jordan's career.
While some cite Jordan's retirement as the cause for the crash of NBA ratings, that's clearly not the case. Players like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are every bit as intriguing to watch as Jordan was in his prime. If anything, the game itself is probably more watchable than it was when Jordan's Bulls and the Detroit Pistons (and even Dale Davis and the Pacers) were practicing some mixture of basketball and MMA.
The NBA nearly reverted to its 1970s levels of "thuggery" post-Jordan. Pacers fans know this all too well. The Pacers still haven't fully recovered from the brawl in Detroit, despite their recent successes. The excesses of the 2007 All-Star game (ironically highlighted by NFL player Pac-Man Jones "making it rain") highlighted a decade filled with players perceived as self-indulgent, sex-crazed, pot-smoking millionaires whose behavior has nearly destroyed the foundation laid by Bird, Magic, and Jordan. This year's NBA Finals was the were the highest in years, but still only a pittance compared to those in the 80s and 90s.
Image matters. Nobody knows that more than the NFL, the league that wrote the book on sports marketing. The NFL has "uniform police" in every stadium each week making sure that players' socks are the right height and that no unauthorized (read un-marketed) paraphernalia makes its way onto the field/onto the camera.
The league has no problem keeping its players on a tight leash to promote a positive image on the field. Roger Goodell and the rest of the NFL owners are going to have to apply the same kinds of standards for off the field behavior…or risk losing everything they've built.
The NFL is a terrific product, one that has maxed out every ounce of appeal over the past three decades. History shows, however, that fans want more than just a "good game." They want players they can cheer for, guys they can identify with. Having an arrest rate this high doesn't do that, not even Detroit.
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