For years and years, those within the NHL offices have wanted to get rid of fighting. It’s been a given that fighting and the mayhem connected to it, as limited as it’s become recently, is one of the many factors that has kept hockey from a larger audience. It’s also pretty much agreed that it has no effect on the game itself, other than to paint it as a cartoon.
But the NHL has never made a full move to eliminate it, along with having a more punitive system for hits to the head, because it is terrified of one section of its fandom. They’re the section that still doesn’t know why Don Cherry is off the air, decry every suspension longer than a game, and use the word “pansificiation.” What percentage this crowd still makes up of overall NHL fandom is hard to parse, but their influence is almost certainly outsized.
It’s the same kind of fandom that the NFL is terrified of as well, which is why you get milquetoast and tone-deaf statements like yesterday’s from the league. What neither league realizes, or has the balls to find out, is just how long this type of fan would be able to stay away. The answer is almost certainly measured more in minutes than years, because the sport is too ingrained with them.
The NFL might point to 2016 when ratings dropped 8%, and Kaepernick and anthem protests were cited as a reason by some. Some. Of course, in the grand scheme of things that lasted barely a blink of an eye, as this past season — just three seasons later — TV ratings jumped 5% from the year before and 46-of-the-50-most watched programs on TV were NFL games. Clearly whatever anger there was over Colin Kaepernick dissipated pretty quickly. While ratings haven’t gotten back to their 2015 heights, the increase in digital viewers makes up for a good portion of that.
The NFL also hasn’t really bothered to find out what percentage of the viewers lost were those who turned off because of the blackballing of Kaepernick, or the sweeping away of the issues he was trying to raise. Perhaps the NFL lost as many viewers and fans simply because it gave a platform to those who yelled loudest and were in the wrong. The distance in time between Kaepernick’s kneeling to now is always mentioned as one reason for the increase in ratings since 2017, but nothing of the courting of those who have yet to return or why.
If time has healed whatever wound those offended by Kaepernick claimed and they’ve come back, you’d have to conclude those who haven’t were offended by the reaction and treatment of the quarterback. There’s also never been much of a read or appetite to find how many new fans or increasing the interest of casual ones would increase if the NFL used its massive platform for what is right. Though the fact that Kaepernick’s jersey became the top-selling one for the months after he started taking a knee is some indication.
And the NFL is still catering to that crowd, afraid to anger anyone by mentioning the word “police” or “Kaepernick” in its recent statement on the murder of George Floyd. The NFL is at the center of this, whether it likes it or not. While Kaepernick’s protest may not have changed anything institutionally in police departments across the nation, he certainly highlighted the ignorance, indifference, and mockery of those opposed to him and his cause. The anger because of that was only heightened. By whatever percentage it did, it moved us close to the eruption we’ve seen the past few days.
Even more galling, the NFL is more buffeted in the things it cares about and able to take a stronger stand. One, every fan this upcoming season will most likely be at home, and watching on TV. Second, legal sports gambling spreading across the nation will hold numbers where they’ve been at the absolute worst, and they’re much more likely to increase. The NFL has no reason to focus on an exodus of racist fuckwits and has even more protection than it had in 2016 and ‘17, and yet it still is tiptoeing around them.
The NFL won’t escape it this season, as more than a few players will use the stage to amplify and echo what has gone on in the streets. The league will almost have nothing to lose to join them. But you can be sure that out of fear, it will still try to make everyone happy. Which will make exactly no one happy, other than the owners depositing the checks.