Criticism of the NFL Grows, But Fans Remain Loyal
The National Football League has faced a firestorm of criticism in recent months, but our analysis of online conversations suggests that football fans have been largely unfazed by the negative chatter.
An analysis of news media coverage between July 25-September 25 ‒ the two-month period following Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend Ray Rice for two games for beating his then-fiancée ‒ indicates that the total amount of conversation critical of the NFL from mass media Op Eds increased by roughly 80 percent, with more than a third of NFL-related media coverage lambasting the League for its ethics, culture, and policies.
Yet while the criticism of the league spread in the mass media, the tone of conversation among football fans barely changed. Analysis of over 2,000 sources including blogs and forums written both before and after the Ray Rice decision indicates that conversations focused on football itself ‒ e.g. the rise of the Cowboys, Tom Brady shines again, etc. ‒ did not really change, making up 90.3% of total conversations before and 91.0% after the incident. The amount of critical commentary, focusing on issues such as domestic abuse and the Washington Redskins name controversy, increased from just 3% to 7%. And the amount of dialogue focused on health concerns (e.g. the risks of concussion) shrank from 6% to 2%.
Television ratings from the season also suggest that the sport’s popularity has not been affected by the public criticism: during the first several weeks of the season, CBS, NBC and ESPN all saw their NFL broadcast ratings increase according to Nielsen data. In other words, while some fans might say they disapprove of the NFL, they are consuming the product in record numbers.
Deeper analysis suggests that the online criticism of the NFL tends to follow two main storylines. The first, which the researchers describe as the “Disgracing the Game” narrative, is characterized by the following sentiments: the NFL is tarnishing a great game; the league punishes people more for drug use than for domestic violence, promotes a racial slur as a team name, and remains in denial about health risks to players; and the league is corrupt and must change. The second story, described as the “Broken Game” narrative, holds that football itself is the problem, creating a culture of violence: in addition to penalizing domestic abuse with only slightly more punishment than is handed down for an inappropriate end-zone celebration, the violent sport condemns a third of professional players to life-changing brain damage. Football is a dangerous sport – and fans should look away.
We could easily imagine either ‘Disgracing the Game’ or ‘Broken Game’ narratives hurting NFL ratings and business, but it hasn’t happened yet. None of the narratives have generated enough momentum to translate into a change in behavior, certainly not on a mass scale. This is partly because narratives don’t always translate into behavioral change rapidly ‒ for example, it has taken decades of criticism about the Redskins name to finally see an adverse effect on merchandise sales ‒ and we suspect fans draw a distinction between their loyalty to their team and their beliefs about the NFL and its problems at large. But more deeply, football and football teams mean an awful lot to the American public. The sport is tied to communal narratives of identity and belonging, and this loyalty will not break easily. No matter what NFL players, coaches, owners or commissioners do, and whether or not the game is broken, many love football far too much to change the channel.Download PDF