What was happening? Everyone had an explanation. Some said it was the referees, who were blowing calls and spoiling the games. Or it was the networks, which were showing too many commercials. One line of argument suggested that, because the teams were employing increasingly younger players to save money, the level of play was suffering. Or maybe the viewership numbers weren’t accounting for cord-cutters, who were streaming games online. Or were millennials too busy watching Netflix? Maybe everyone simply missed Peyton Manning, who retired last year.
The most popular argument—the one favored by the N.F.L. itself—involved politics. League executives argued that the Presidential campaign was drawing viewers away. The ratings, they predicted, would rebound after Election Day. And they did, thanks in large part to a popular slate of games on Thanksgiving and a large number of prime-time games featuring the resurgent Dallas Cowboys, long known as “America’s team.” But as the Web site Awful Announcing, among others, has pointed out, ratings in the second half of a season are always higher than in the first—and the N.F.L.’s strong second-half numbers this year were not enough to erase its rough start.
Still, even if the election wasn’t really to blame, the ideas and divisions that Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s campaigns laid bare seeped into fans’ discussions—and complaints—about the N.F.L. Some conservative fans argued that Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s quarterback, and the other players who were protesting during the national anthem had driven flag-loving Americans away. Others said that the sport had been softened to appease squeamish fans. Liberals, meanwhile, suggested that fans might finally have been turned off by the brutality of the game, and the N.F.L.’s slow response to the concussion crisis. There was talk that basketball, with its “young, diverse and tech savvy” fans, would one day usurp football as the national sport.
This politicization produced its share of incongruous moments and odd allies. The liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Kaepernick’s protest “dumb and disrespectful.” (She later apologized.) On live television the night before the election, Trump read a letter of support he’d received from Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots—a no-nonsense guy whom you’d expect to kick a player off his team for tweeting about politics. “You’ve proved to be the ultimate competitor and fighter,” Trump said, reading the note. “Your leadership is amazing.” Suddenly, the N.F.L.’s big tent—where all the players look more or less alike under their helmets, and fans find common cause in matching jerseys and face paint—felt claustrophobic. An article on Bleacher Report stated that the Buffalo Bills locker room had been roiled by arguments over the election—especially after the team’s head coach at the time, Rex Ryan, spoke at a Trump rally. “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that,” an unnamed player said. Meanwhile, Trump supporters on the team were wary of speaking their minds, lest they be judged as racist.