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The NFL Doesn’t Know How to Lose

For half a century, the league was impervious to defeat: Ownership maintained its power over players, viewership expanded, and revenue exploded. Although it seemed like the winning would never end, the NFL’s streak of victories has ground to a halt—and the league seems clueless as to how to respond.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a Twilight Zone episode called a “A Nice Place to Visit.” It tells the story of a guy named Rocky, who dies and then is given everything he could ever dream of in the afterlife: unlimited funds, a massive home, and a never-ending hot streak at a casino. He wins every hand. If his opponent has a straight flush, he has a royal flush. His number hits on roulette every time.

Rocky’s hot streak continues unabated — every pool shot goes in — but after a long while, he grows bored and eventually despondent, throwing the chips back at the dealer after he wins a hand. Much to his dismay, the outburst doesn’t make a difference, and Rocky just keeps winning.

The big reveal is that this isn’t heaven. “Now he has everything he ever wanted, and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity,” narrator Rod Serling growls.

Somehow, Donald Trump has said that he loves this episode, but the lesson here applies most directly to the group that has won more than any other in modern sports: the National Football League.

Over the past 50 years, the league owners have built a world in which they only win. Their annual revenue, now halfway to their goal of $25 billion, climbs yearly. They’ve won every labor negotiation with ease. They have built an internal system in which they have full disciplinary control, so they (eventually) win every battle with players. They have control over television networks. Even when ratings dipped last season, NFL ad revenue was at an all-time high. That’s a half-century hot streak.

This world kept the NFL and its power structure from ever being vulnerable to any truly existential threats. When the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal hit in 2014, commissioner Roger Goodell’s job was never in doubt; he was unassailable because of the colossal TV ratings and revenue. When the league bungled the Deflategate investigation, it still won in the end, and Tom Brady served his four-game punishment. And despite nearly the entire American public agreeing that head injuries are a problem, only a small fraction of fans say they aren’t football fans because of it.

However, the 2017 season marks the first time the NFL has met problems that it cannot, in the parlance of our times, tweet through. This is an abbreviated list of the issues the league faces and seems unable to solve: double-digit ratings declines over the past two years; a protest debate in which players are pitted against the president of the United States, who in turn has pitted himself against the NFL; sponsors so unhappy that there was a war of words over whether football is hurting sales of Papa John’s pizza; news that CTE could soon be detected in living people; and more protracted and convoluted court battles, most recently featuring Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott.

For years, the league has screwed up multiple things and won. And because for so long defeat didn’t seem possible, the upper echelons of football power are simply not equipped for losing.

Earlier this week, Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, was asked what the next short will be; he said it would be the NFL. The league is not exactly collapsing — other leagues would love to have the NFL’s ratings “problems” — but the issues suggest a tough road ahead.

I’ve covered the NFL for more than five years now and, with few very exceptions, I cannot recall NFL owners being anything but effusive in their praise of the commissioner. If an owner was ever outwardly critical of Goodell, it was over a team-specific issue, and that owner got back on Goodell’s side as soon as it was resolved. Robert Kraft was furious at Goodell during Deflategate, but then the pair appeared to publicly make up. I knew of multiple owners who privately rolled their eyes at issues ranging from Goodell’s salary (he has made over $200 million as commissioner) to his inconsistent disciplinary rulings, but the gravy train was rolling, and they never made a public fuss. There is no fire department in the league office because till now there haven’t been any fires.

That era is over. This week, The New York Times reported that Jerry Jones, last seen demanding his Cowboys players stand for the national anthem, was hiring a high-powered attorney to help block Goodell’s contract extension. It is the most direct challenge to Goodell’s power yet. No one thinks Jones is going to win this fight, but the fight is nonetheless significant.

In a twist, Goodell is apparently “furious” about Jones’s push to tie his compensation to performance. This, of course, is the natural evolution for the head of a league that has, for decades, relied on one-sided, team-friendly contracts for its players, where little is guaranteed.

On Thursday, ESPN reported that Jones and Falcons owner Arthur Blank are in a sort-of feud over Goodell’s contract negotiations:

“When he sues the owners, that’s crossing the Rubicon,” a source told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer.

“Most owners would admit that Roger has done a terrible job handling the anthem controversy and a terrible job explaining the [TV] ratings declines, a terrible job on any number of other issues,” an anonymous longtime executive for an NFL team told ESPN.

This week, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote: “You know what I found odd after the October league meetings in New York? I heard not a single owner stand up when buttonholed by the minicams and reporters on their way out of the meetings and say, We’re behind our commissioner 100 percent. Here’s why: They’re not.”

Things are only going to get worse for Goodell: Ratings are down 5 percent from last year — after even bigger losses from 2015 to 2016. The optimist’s view is that being down 5 percent isn’t the worst thing in the world when all of television is down significantly. The problem with that theory is that the NFL always saw itself above the rest of television. As an NFL executive once put it to me, flat was the new up for everyone but the NFL. Sunday Night Football getting its lowest ratings since NBC acquired the rights in 2006, as it is this season, is not the NFL way; being a money-making juggernaut is. And that’s why Goodell is vulnerable. The NFL could afford to screw things up before, but not now.

So, now what?

The political part of football is not going away. Three weeks ago, the league held a meeting to, well, discuss how to make the upswell in football-related political expression disappear, and that led to Houston owner Bob McNair’s now-infamous comment about the “inmates running the prison” in regard to players kneeling against the owners’ wishes. That, of course, just made the sport more political. The owners’ stances on the anthem issue are so public that mini dramas will play out weekly; basically every team has players who disagree. In short, NFL owners are not handling this very well.

The ratings may get better, but not significantly so. TV is changing and the current rights deals likely feature too many national games to get the nation back to its old viewing habits: Essentially, television executives believe there is too much football on the airwaves and that the fatigue is hurting viewership in prime-time windows. James Andrew Miller, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, suggested that ESPN could dump the NFL altogether because it’s hard to justify spending $15 billion on Monday Night Football. Two years ago, the mere thought of this idea would’ve seemed preposterous.

Meanwhile, Goodell’s situation is as fascinating as any boardroom sports drama in years. In his MMQB column a little over a week ago, King relayed that an owner told him something revealing about Goodell’s current situation: “Goodell has so few friends on the player side — he has a cold relationship with union chief DeMaurice Smith — and he’s feeling the cold shoulder from more and more owners that he doesn’t have the chips to call in to make tough deals right now.”

Indeed, an ESPN story said that an owner compared Goodell unfavorably to the NBA’s Adam Silver, who got the players to stand for the anthem because he had a good relationship with the union. After rounds of hostile negotiations with the NFLPA that saw the NFL come out on top every time, the league office has no such relationship with its players.

The NFL got everything it ever wanted, and now it has to live with it.