The National Football League's staying power is nothing short of remarkable. Its ability to succeed in spite of itself is extraordinary.
Despite the non-stop barrage of negative publicity, the NFL has not experienced a significant drop-off in its lure.
At least not yet.
According to an NBC News/Marist poll released on Thursday, nearly 90 percent of Americans say the amount of pro football they watch will not change because of the recent domestic violence cases that have rocked the league since the Sept. 8 release of a video showing former Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée. And less than a third of those polled say commissioner Roger Goodell should resign.
But as the league continues to do damage control over its dealings with a problem that afflicts all segments of society, NFL owners and executives, starting with Goodell himself, need to be mindful of the lessons of history. And why the popularity of today's NFL is not a guarantee of future success.
Through much of the post-World War II era, when football was a niche sport with two six-team conferences and only one playoff game to decide the championship, baseball, boxing and horse racing dominated the pro sports landscape. Football eventually began to grow once it latched on to the transformative powers of television, and it eventually overtook the baseball-boxing-horse racing triumvirate.
Today, the NFL is the dominant sport in America. The growth is due in large part to its commissioners leading the sport through a highly competitive economic landscape.
Pete Rozelle oversaw the initial growth spurt during his remarkable tenure as commissioner from 1960-1989, and Paul Tagliabue took the league's influence a step further with a steady, if less charismatic, approach after succeeding Rozelle. I'd argue that Tagliabue, especially in retrospect, enjoyed a highly successful run. His deliberate approach didn't win him points in terms of his personal popularity, but his governance of the league, which featured an inclusive style that relied on consensus among his constituents, proved to be a productive approach.
Goodell fumbled this one
Goodell, who took over for Tagliabue in 2006, was a much more forceful personality and quickly made his mark as a disciplinarian when it came to player conduct. And although the league has grown exponentially on his watch -- particularly after he forged a 10-year labor agreement in 2011 -- his heavy-handed approach, which suddenly disappeared with an ill-fated decision to give Rice only a two-game suspension, now is coming back to haunt him.
Most of the players don't trust him, particularly in the wake of collective-bargaining agreement negotiations and his handling of the Saints' "Bountygate" scandal in 2012. He has a poor relationship with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith; the two often have gone weeks without speaking, and their public sniping hasn't been helpful.
Smith has gone largely unscathed during the spate of domestic violence cases, but he too needs to take a more visible approach in dealing with the situation. After all, Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jonathan Dwyer and Ray McDonald are members of Smith's union.
But Goodell and Smith need to set aside their differences and form the kind of bond that Tagliabue once had with the late Gene Upshaw, the former NFLPA executive director. Tagliabue and Upshaw had their differences, but they also knew how to make a deal by finding common ground.
Goodell now must do the same with Smith, especially in the wake of Goodell's "everything is on the table" pronouncement on Friday when he was asked how he plans to proceed with player discipline. Anything short of a mutually agreeable plan to discipline players, especially when it comes to the heinous actions we have seen of late, is a failure that will continue to hurt the league.
Other obstacles for NFL
Goodell has worked hard to move the league forward and foster its long-term success, but there is no escaping the fact that the league is at a major crossroads on his watch. There are existential threats that loom in the distance, leaving the NFL's future far from certain:
Concussions continue to be an issue for former players, current players and future players, too. Lost in the news cycles during the past two weeks is the fact that the NFL has determined that about 30 percent of former players will develop Alzheimer's disease or dementia during their lifetime, putting them at a significantly greater risk than the general population.
Youth participation rates in football remain a major concern, especially with more and more parents keeping their children away from the sport because of the concussion issue.
There is the potential for oversaturation of the game. Goodell has instituted a Thursday night package over the objections of many players who find the quick turnaround from a Sunday game too physically demanding. And he still has not given up on the idea of an 18-game season, even though most players are against the idea.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the controversial suggestion in March that the NFL "will implode in 10 years," suggesting that the future player pool will be vastly smaller because of injury concerns among parents.
"I wouldn't want my son playing football, would you?" Cuban wrote on Facebook. "If we start to see a decline of popularity at the high school and then college level because kids choose other sports, it will hurt the interest in watching the NFL."
Cuban also touched on the issue of player behavior in his Facebook post in March.
"The NBA learned this lesson," he said. "Fans don't like to see players acting the fool. While fans may forgive players over time, advertisers have long memories. It is hard to ask players to be warriors on the field and perfect citizens off. Across a population of more than 1,500 players under the age of 30, you can bet that they will have continuing issues. With the unquenchable thirst the online and media world have for HEADLINE PORN, and the ever-growing availability of pictures of those mistakes appearing online, it is not inconceivable that over the next ten years, something could impact the perception of the game enough to impact attendance and viewership."
Cuban was laughed off by NFL owners at the time. "I have great respect for Mr. Cuban," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, "but I'm not sure I agree with his conclusion."
Six months later, it's Cuban who looks as though he had it just right. Maybe not the part about the NFL imploding in 10 years, but if NFL executives -- starting with Goodell -- don't watch out, the league's popularity might be about to take a bigger hit than they realize.