NFL Owners Say National Anthem Protests Are Hurting TV Ratings

Perhaps the lead story in the NFL this season is the league’s sagging television ratings.

Through six weeks, numbers are at a five-year low, with all primetime windows down by double digits. The issue is so prevalent, that Monday Night Football play-by-play man Sean McDonough even brought it up during the telecast this week, which was an atrocious affair between the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets.

NFL owners have been searching for answers to explain this ratings plunge. In a recent memo, league executives blamed it on a “confluence of events,” including the contentious presidential election. Cable news channels are experiencing a surge in viewership, with CNN and Fox News poised to set all-time ratings records.

But it’s likely that the problems go deeper than that. Primetime games have largely been terrible and there’s a lack of star power around the league. On The Ringer, Kevin Clark writes there’s simply too much football on TV, echoing a doomsday prediction from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban about how the NFL’s greed will lead to its slaughter.

That’s a scary prospect for the league, which probably explains why several owners have offered up scapegoats to explain the ratings crisis. One of the popular theories is that the Colin Kaepernick-led national anthem protests are driving viewers away. That’s the narrative that Colts owner Jim Irsay appears to be going with, at least.

“I think it’s the wrong venue,” Irsay said about the protests, via USA Today. “It hasn’t been a positive thing. What we all have to be aware of as players, owners, PR people, equipment managers, is when the lights go on we are entertainment. We are being paid to put on a show. There are other places to express yourself.”

It’s difficult for Irsay to assume the role of moral arbiter, considering he’s been arrested for DUI and drug possession. According to law enforcement, Irsay had “numerous” prescription pill bottles and a suitcase stuffed with $29,000 in cash when he was booked in 2014. That’s a much worse look for the league than some players kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner, don’t you think?

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair echoes Irsay’s sentiments. “People come to the game because they want to get away from what’s happening in their everyday lives,” he said. “When you bring those types of things into the scene, yeah, it will turn some people off. But the main thing we try to do is to say, ‘We recognize your concern. Let’s do something about it.’”

Though a Rasmussen Poll finds nearly one-third of Americans say they’re less likely to watch the NFL due to the protests, it’s difficult to believe that’s the driving force behind the ratings fumble. It seems odd that fans would stick with the NFL through a domestic violence epidemic and concussion crisis, but leave because a couple dozen players have expressed themselves while the anthem is being played.

Blaming the protests is a cop out. It deflects attention away from the real problems facing the league and is an excuse for owners like Irsay and McNair to avoid looking inward.

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