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Blame ‘Thursday Night Football’ for ratings decline, not protesting athletes

The NBA’s ratings are soaring and its high-profile athletes take political stands

Many, including some NFL owners, have latched on to the idea that protesting athletes fuel the NFL’s ratings decline. Some Americans, predisposed to believing blame-black-people explanations for nearly any problem, have ignored alternate theories, such as how Thursday Night Football, almost always an unwatchable mess, damages NFL viewing habits.

Discussion about the dwindling viewership proliferates through much of sports media. Through Week 10, NFL ratings fell 5.7 percent from last year, and last year the ratings dipped 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent during the playoffs. The argument that player protests ignited these declines gained steam last July when characterizations of a J.D. Power survey first surfaced. On July 27, ESPN’s Darren Rovell wrote, “Twenty-six percent of those who watched fewer games last season said that national anthem protests, some of which were led by Colin Kaepernick, were the reason.” That, and similarly worded translations of the survey, steered the discussion of what precipitated the ratings decline toward protest-centric explanations.

But upon closer inspection, the survey really showed that just 3 percent of all sports fans said player protests led them to watch fewer football games, a number so paltry no one should put stock in it. Looking at polls to answer this question, furthermore, is inherently problematic. We presume people know why they watch less football, but that betrays what we know about human behavior. Often people don’t know why they do what they do and, when asked to supply a reason, simply repeat what they’ve heard elsewhere, typically from news outlets.

NBA ratings, however, are trending in the opposite direction, soaring 30 percent year over year, raising an obvious question: If the intertwining of sports and politics dampened NFL ratings, why has the NBA blossomed in this overly political environment? Granted, NBA rules require players to stand for the national anthem. The NBA, moreover, attracts a younger, more diverse fan base, inoculating it from some of the effects generated by these seemingly ever-present social maelstroms.

But the far more recognizable NBA players have injected themselves into political and racial conversations in very pointed ways, with President Donald Trump even targeting Stephen Curry, one of the country’s most popular sports stars. Yet, the NBA’s ratings climb. Perhaps, then, we should investigate non-protest explanations for the NFL’s issues.

That other explanations have largely been sidelined is, I think, most attributable to many Americans being predisposed to believing black people are to blame for problems based on scant, often nonexistent evidence. Indeed, racial scapegoating of black people pulses through the bloodstream of this country.

Identify a problem. Blame black people for it. Observe as people believe it. This is the American way.

Social science backs up the charge. Implicit bias research shows that many white people harbor negative assumptions about black people. Thus, as soon as this idea — that black protesting athletes have caused NFL ratings to deteriorate — infiltrates the national discussion, anti-black biases afford it instant legitimacy such that it becomes the explanation, crowding out all others.

One explanation that hasn’t been given proper attention is how Thursday Night Football torpedoes the NFL brand. Many have excoriated the games’ atrocious quality. In a Players’ Tribune piece, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman called the games a “poopfest” because players’ bodies are not ready to play on only four days’ rest, leading to a substandard product. In the latest Thursday Night Football game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons, commentators repeatedly mentioned how injuries and players’ fatigue, after only four days of rest since the teams’ Sunday games, were affecting the Thursday game. This partly explains why Thursday Night Football games consistently rate lower than other network TV prime-time games.

The problem, however, is larger than that. Thursday night games have been bad enough that some cannot watch them. So they turn them off. In doing this, football viewers have learned a behavior that threatens the health of the league: When a game is boring, or not well-played, find something else to watch.

A recent CNBC report supports this point: “While the number of people [watching NFL games] is relatively steady, the average person spends less time watching.” People are tuning in to games; they are just turning them off. And why now when they didn’t 10 years ago? The experience of watching Thursday Night Football, I think, has taught them to do that when not adequately entertained.

Some attribute this phenomenon to the NFL product being worse. That’s revisionist history, though.

People who believe that the NFL games were once more exciting typically finger current poor quarterback play as the culprit. Advocates of this claim point to signal-callers such as Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles and insist that no one wants to watch players of this caliber. Jimmy Traina, a Sports Illustrated writer, tweeted:

ESPN football writer Bill Barnwell responded:

Barnwell’s unspoken though obvious claim, that the good quarterback trough has never been large enough to feed every franchise, rings true. Moreover, the statistics demonstrate that quarterback play this year surpasses that of 10 years ago. Like those who gripe that Saturday Night Live used to be funny, NFL fans gaze back into the past with an overly kind, nostalgic eye.

Some games bored fans in the past. They watched anyway because that’s what they did: watch football when it was on. But Thursday Night Football has reprogrammed fans. Now they might change the channel on a lackluster contest.

Three years ago, referring to the expansion of Thursday Night Football, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said, “I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

“When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

Should the NFL continue focusing on player protests as the defining reason the viewership has declined, excluding competing explanations, it might find itself, 10 years from now, a slaughtered hog.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.