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Tumultuous year for NFL marked by protests, injuries and a ratings drop

The NFL has been mired in controversy this season, from player protests over police mistreatment of African Americans and the reaction from President Trump, to continuing concussion concerns and a civil war between two of the league's most powerful people. Jeffrey Brown talks to Seth Wickersham of ESPN about why the sport is struggling to find its footing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, for many Americans, the traditions of Thanksgiving week include food, family and, very often, football.

    But this year, the sport is, at least for the moment, struggling to find its footing. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The National Football League finds itself mired in a number of controversies this season most prominent, player protests over police mistreatment of African-Americans and the reaction from President Trump and other critics about taking a knee.

    There are also continuing concerns over player safety and the status of a concussion settlement with retired players and topping it off, a recent civil war of sorts between two of the most powerful people in the league. Commissioner Roger Goodell and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. In the meantime the games do go on but ratings have fallen. Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN and joins us now.

    Thanks for joining us Seth. So let’s start with the player protests. How are players and teams dealing with it now and is it still boiling or do you see things calming down at all.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    It’s largely faded. I think that the number of players that are kneeling as a protest are down to two now. And you know I think that it’s been an interesting moment to look at the NFL as this has happened because a lot of the owners of teams, and a lot of league executives, want a mandate that would force the players to stand.

    And Roger Goodell who has been accused by the players of often serving as a puppet for the billionaire ruthless owners, has backed them in their right to protest and has not backed a mandate. And so it’s been a really interesting issue to watch unfold especially going back to a story that I wrote a month ago with Don Van Natta where we quoted Bob McNair the owner of the Houston Texans in an owner’s meeting saying quote “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” and that has all kinds of trouble, caused a lot of stress between players. But I think that largely right now the anthem has faded as an issue. And fortunately for people like me, there are plenty of other things to write about.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well one of them of course is this question of the violence and the concussions. So it’s interesting because there’s what happens on the field, where there seems to be more attention to concussions, there’s that long term settlement with former players. And then there’s this question about how much it’s affecting fans you know, how much people are maybe turned off to the game because of it.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    Where you’re seeing the biggest effects from head injuries, more than concussions I think is just generally it’s head injuries, is on the youth levels and that is a real problem. I think in the NFL, its ratings drop. I don’t think has a lot to do with the violence of the game. And I think that there is a war right now within the NFL that’s kind of playing out where there are owners who think that fans come to the NFL for violence and they don’t actually want the game to get too much safer because it would sort of end up in this weird middle ground that would end up entertaining and pleasing nobody.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Where are things with that settlement because that’s been, that’s been going on a few years now.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    Yeah it’s going on a few years and it is not going to end anytime soon.

    I think that like, right now, the settlement is mired in litigation and even the players who won settlements are being targeted by certain kinds of attorneys that you know can promise more and aren’t delivering. I mean this entire thing has been, it’s been a mess.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You think about people wanting perhaps fans who want to come and see the action and including the violence. But we also have seen a number of big stars injured. Right? I mean this is, it always happens every year but this year especially of Aaron Rodgers and others, and that really affects the quality of the games. I would think.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    There is no question that, you know, so many of these big stars going down has had a huge impact on the game. And I think that in a weird way, it’s what’s elevated this battle going on right now between Jerry Jones and Roger Goodell and a few other owners over who is going to serve as commissioner next and whether that will be Roger Goodell, because the games themselves have been kind of flat and not as many people are watching them. And yet this stuff that’s going on in the executive suites is really fascinating.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Explain that a little bit, especially for those who don’t follow, especially the the internal side of this. Jerry Jones a very sort of familiar figure to football fans, and a very powerful owner, in a very unusual public spat with the commissioner.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    Yeah Jerry Jones during Roger Goodell’s 11 year tenure has been one of his most ardent supporters. I mean he supported Roger Goodell as they’ve gone from crisis to crisis to crises, from head injuries to the Ray Rice domestic violence dispute a couple of years ago, to all of the gates. You know Spygate, Bountygate, Deflategate.

    And now we’re seeing this huge public civil war breaking out with Jerry Jones leading the charge, with not many people behind him, and what he wants out of this is unclear. It’s clear that he does not want Roger Goodell to continue being commissioner of the NFL under the current terms, and he doesn’t want him to get much more money to do it. And that raises the question does he want someone else to do it?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So come back finally to this question of the impact on the game and in particular the ratings being down. You said earlier you don’t think it’s because people are being turned off by the concussions and the violence. Does anyone know what is going on?

  • Seth Wickersham:

    It’s a problem and even people within the NFL aren’t able to get clear answers on it. Clearly a lot of it has to do with viewer habits changing. I think a lot of it has to do with people being turned off by the NFL, maybe not totally because of head injuries, but because of the way that they’ve handled things.

    A small percentage of them maybe these anthem protests, but college football ratings are up. So America is not losing its appetite for football as much as people seem, as people seem to think. But there is a problem with the NFL and it’s a perception problem, and I think that that’s what Jerry Jones on top of everything else is worried about, is that there are these systemic forces that are coming at the NFL right now, and he’s asking has Roger Goodell shown the ability to navigate the league through these things enough to the point that we trust him to navigate the league going forward and end up in a stronger place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know it’s still worth saying though that the NFL is still America’s biggest and most lucrative sport. Right? That hasn’t changed.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    It hasn’t changed a bit. You know, baseball sets their records in World Series ratings and the NBA has set NBA Finals ratings lately. And you know, look, the Super Bowl still draws well over 100 million people a year that’s multiple, multiple times the amount that those other sports draw at their peak.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right Seth Wickersham of ESPN, thanks very much.

  • Seth Wickersham:

    Thank you.

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