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NFL hastens its inevitable decline

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Jerry Richardson is on his way out, but the NFL would do well to better police its owners’ behavior. (David T. Foster, III/Charlotte Observer/TNS)
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Opportunity cost: “The loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.”

The National Football League is a case-study in ignored opportunity cost. Historically it has played out in short-sighted decision making — for example, it was a stupid thing to lie about the effects of head trauma. It may have made a perverse sense at the time to bamboozle a vulnerable workforce into disabling themselves, but protecting them and taking early steps to minimize the damage might have saved millions of dollars and a number of lives, not to mention avoiding one of many PR catastrophes.

We see another version of ignored opportunity cost play out when Roger Goodell signs a new contract. The league cites profits and ignores disciplinary disasters as they approve another $40 million-a-year deal for a man whose only demonstrated value is taking fire for the owners when the next piece of feces hits the fan.

It’s absurd to suggest a more competent, consistent and reasonable commissioner couldn’t make even more money for the league. Yet the only challenge to Goodell’s next windfall is Jerry Jones bickering over a personal grudge — nobody even bothers to suggest there might be a better man for the job.

In the long run, the NFL is likely doomed to a niche spot in the sports world. It’s a fundamentally unsafe activity, and as more parents decide not to let their child play — the talent pool is likely to diminish.

But the league remains immensely popular and profitable, and how quickly that decline sets in is not only up for debate but definitely within the league’s control. The NFL can’t change the very nature of football to make it safe or palatable to everyone, but there are a number of problems that are very solvable.

The People Problem

Most people don’t like to root for crappy people. (The internet trolls and regressive creeps who like to root for crappy people cannot sustain a multi-billion dollar business.)

A lot has been made of the league’s domestic violence issues and other problems with player behavior, and rightfully so. The sports world in general has a long way to go in the arena of respecting and behaving appropriately towards women (just ask me).

Perhaps an even bigger problem, though, is the repulsive behavior of the league’s power brokers. Panthers Owner Jerry Richardson is the latest culprit, exposed this weekend as a racist and sexist, but he’s hardly the first owner or executive to make news for being disgusting. We have a communications magnate who refuses to change his team’s name from an ethnic slur, an old power plant owner who views players as inmates and a litany of billionaires who have held cities hostage for expensive stadiums that will never bring a reasonable return on investment.

It’s hard to imagine these rich old men policing themselves, but Richardson’s reported decision to sell the Panthers is a start. Further steps toward handling owner and executive behavior as seriously and severely as player behavior would only strengthen the league.

The Riddle of Refereeing

As with each of these problems, there is no shortage of recent examples. The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a game on Sunday because nobody in the NFL or on their couch watching knows what a catch is anymore. The Oakland Raiders lost — at least in part — because Gene Steratore got creative with a folded piece of paper.

The replay rules in the NFL are stupid to begin with — can you imagine trying to sell the challenge concept in any other walk of life? The whole idea of having to gamble a valuable timeout in order to see if the referee made the right call is insane. The referee’s entire job is to make the right call. That’s before we get to the irregular enforcement of things like holding and pass interference that can both slow games to a crawl and dramatically influence outcomes.

That said, referees have been nitpicked to death and given a far-too-complicated and ultimately insufficient rulebook to work from. The answer is simple: common sense.

There are optics issues to address, and some referees are simply never going to be great, but the biggest problem is when millions of viewers at home can all agree on the appropriate ruling and somehow referees get it wrong. The NFL simply must find a way not to have multiple plays each week that 90 percent of fans think was handled incorrectly, and the only way to do this is to give referees more decision-making power.

If officials are not allowed to make some common sense rulings, we will continue to have the letter of the law get in the way of the spirit of the law, and the viewing experience will continue to suffer as a result.

The Injury Inconvenience

Injuries are up throughout the NFL, and significantly so according to an early-November piece from The MMQB. The frequency with which star players have gone down this year — which may be no more than an unfortunate coincidence — makes that problem seem even worse.

It feels like every time the NFL fanbase gets excited about someone this year, they get hurt shortly thereafter. From established stars like Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham, Jr. and JJ Watt going down early in the year to the Dalvin Cooks, Deshaun Watsons and Carson Wentzes whose coming out parties have been cut abruptly short, there has been a nasty injury surprise waiting around every corner for us this season.

The unfortunate fact of this issue is that there are no obvious improvements to make beyond high-quality medical staff and honesty in diagnoses. The league would do well to search for other alternatives, though, because the preponderance of injuries makes it harder to enjoy Sundays and the appearance of an effort to limit them would go a long way to easing concern.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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