It doesn’t make sense. The level of play in two of the Big Four professional sports leagues in America – the NFL and the NBA – has never been worse, but both leagues are more popular, and the athletes who play in them richer, than ever before.
Usually a poor performance means poor attendance, television ratings, etc., whether it’s athletics or entertainment – there was a reason nobody went to see the new Fantastic Four movie. But for some reason, that doesn’t seem to matter with the NFL and NBA, even though the level of play in the two leagues is at an all-time low, and for completely different reasons.
In the NFL, which is the undisputed king of pro sports in this country, there are two main culprits responsible for the product on the field being so awful. The obvious one is the officiating, or more to the point, the pressure put on officiating because of the constant tinkering with the rules book. The NFL has completely changed its rules on offense to enhance the passing game, which, of course, is what sells tickets and boosts ratings. And that means lots of holding and interference calls against the defense, whether they’re merited or not.
It’s gotten to the point where fans are surprised when a penalty isn’t called, since defensive players can’t touch receivers and they can’t breathe on the quarterback. But the worst part is the indecision on the officials’ part on too many of those plays. Even the simplest call now results in a five-minute conference — the officials are under so much scrutiny they’re afraid to make a decisive call because they’re afraid it’ll be overruled anyhow.
Again, it’s not the officials’ fault as much as it is the NFL’s for changing the rule book every year and not always being clear about what those changes mean. That results in confusion and indecision and games that have no flow or rhythm. And that results in the poor play we’ve seen all season.
The other reason for the poor play in the NFL is the lack of contact work in practices. Teams never hit in practice after training camp ends and they don’t do much of it then. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the play is so sloppy – if practice makes perfect, then the lack of practice brings about the opposite result.
At the same time, we really can’t complain about that, since the more players hit in games or practices, the greater the chances they’ll end up with some kind of brain damage at some point in their lives. Of course, the NFL is more concerned about the lawsuits brought on by former players who are now starting to feel the effects of that damage than they are the actual welfare of those disposable players, but the result is the same – no contact at all in practice and controlled contact in the games. It’s good for the players, but bad for the game and, of course, the former is much more important than the latter.
In the NBA, the reason for the poor, undisciplined play is also basic – there are too many boys playing a man’s game. The best college players stay in school for a year and then jump to the NBA and way too many of them are coming into the league without really knowing how to play the game. In high school, they were so much better than the competition that it didn’t matter if they knew the fundamentals, and in college they don’t stick around long enough to really learn them. Those kids have plenty of talent, but they would be so much more ready for the NBA if, like in the old days, they had to go to college for four years.
The exodus of young players means the college game isn’t as good, since the best players leave after one year. It also means the NBA game isn’t as good, since rosters are filled with 19-year-old kids who just don’t know how to play basketball the way it’s supposed to be played.
But, we can’t complain too much about that, either, since this is America and we believe anyone over the age of 18 has the right to work to support his family. How can you tell a poor kid that he has to sit around for another three years while his family struggles financially when he knows NBA teams are eager to throw millions of dollars at him?
So, there is no answer and no end in sight, in the NFL or the NBA. And we’ll continue to watch in record numbers, even though the games aren’t as good as they used to be.