Knees, Domestic Violence And CTE: Why You Stopped Watching Football

Feb 4, 2018
Originally published on February 4, 2018 8:17 am

A lot of people watch the Super Bowl every year.

You know that. Last year about 111 million people watched. The game three years ago became the most-viewed ever, with 114 million people watching.

But football ratings overall have dropped in the past couple years. Numbers for the 2017 season were down 9.7 percent, continuing a decline from the year before.

To be clear, the audience for football is still enormous and dwarfs almost everything else on TV.

Football is still dominating, but just a little bit less so.

There are a lot of theories about why the decline is happening — including the distraction of the 2016 presidential campaign and President Trump's disparaging tweets, games being too long to keep the attention of younger viewers, or a lack of star players on the field.

We asked Weekend Edition listeners to tell us about why they stopped watching recently.

Stephanie Norman from Kansas City, Kan., says she was turned off by NFL players "taking a knee" during the national anthem in recent months to protest police brutality and to protest the president.

"I don't really care to support it," she tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

"I think to incite a political climate in your stadiums when we're there to be entertained is just inappropriate."

Norman says the NFL needs to be clear about exactly why the national anthem is played at games.

"I think if you're playing it to salute the troops, it's the wrong time to be ... grandstanding basically," she says.

"My grandfather died during World War II. I saw the pain and suffering that inflicted upon my family. It's the least we could do, just one time, to celebrate American victory and our heroes.

"Use your social media, use your voice, get a protest going another time. March on D.C. Wear a color of tie to the NFL banquet — I don't care what you do. But I think the NFL needs to make a stand and say why they're playing it, what they expect their players to do, and if you're getting paid to do your job, do your job."

Rodrigo Vijalva of Fort Wright, Ky., doesn't think the players are grandstanding, so much as using their star status to call attention to something.

"They're in a position where they are more heard than the people that they're fighting for," he says. "It's a lot easier if you're a professional player to get attention to an issue" than what "the average person on the street" is able to do.

Fred McFarland of Pensacola, Fla. says he actually started watching football after a long hiatus — to support the protesters.

"Being a veteran, the fact that these gentlemen were using the rights that I defended gave me a reason to support them and start watching football again," he says.

"I understand their viewpoint. They have a right to say how they feel under the First Amendment, just like Colin Kaepernick has the right to take a knee when he's at a game."

He says that when people thank him for his service, he tells them to "use your rights, get involved in local government, register to vote, make sure you vote," because "those are the thank yous that I personally want."

McFarland says he wants to show support because those players are "doing exactly what I've asked others to do" on "their stage." Plus, he's "not a guy that's going to buy a jersey or anything like that."

Another factor listeners talked about: worries about injuries and brain damage in players.

Researchers have long been studying a possible link between the type of hits to the head that football players receive and the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

"I feel like I can't watch football with a clean conscience," listener Obie Pressman tells NPR.

Rodrigo Vijalva says he used to watch and enjoy "a nice hit, a good block or a good tackle." But after hearing about the possible brain damage those head hits could be causing, "as opposed to enjoying it, I would just find myself thinking: Well, I hope the guy gets up."

He has an 8-year-old daughter and a 16-month-old son now.

"I'm definitely concerned about my son maybe wanting to grow up and play, with football being so prevalent in culture, in schools," he says. "Personally, I would not want him to play, so it seems hypocritical to be watching it with him and then kind of glorifying these things."

Vijalva is also worried about players getting in "legal trouble" for things like physically abusing their partners or drunk driving, "and then teams kind of turning a blind eye if the player was good enough."

Listener Annie Callahan told NPR, "After it came out about abuse of their spouses or girlfriends, I actually refuse to watch the NFL anymore because I really don't think they take the safety of women seriously."

In 2014, a video surfaced showing Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer. Other incidents involving domestic violence and NFL players have made the news since then.

"Domestic violence and the NFL have been unhappily coupled more than a few times in recent years," NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates explained in 2016.

Despite their reservations, Vijalva and McFarland say they're watching the game at home Sunday night.

As for Norman? "I was for the Vikings, so I'm out of it at this point," she says. "But Tom Brady has had an amazing career and he's done remarkable things. And I can only hope that he continues to break records."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for The Call-In.

(SOUNDBITE OF CORDUROI'S "MY DEAR")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's Super Bowl Sunday, the NFL's biggest day of the season. Overall, though, NFL viewership is down. Why? Listeners Susan Griffith (ph), Obi Pressman (ph) and Annie Callahan (ph) have a few theories.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I have been demoralized by the treatment of African-American players, and I have just been really upset by the corporatization of the sport.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The evidence that has come out with CTE and how damaging and affecting it is - I feel like I can't watch football with a clean conscience.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: After it came out about abuse of their spouses or girlfriends, I actually refuse to watch the NFL anymore because I really don't think it takes the safety of women seriously.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wanted to dig a little deeper with some NFL fans about why they do and don't watch. So we talked to Rodrigo Villalva from Fort Wright, Ky., Stephanie Norman from Kansas City, Kan., and Fred McFarland from Pensacola, Fla. Fred grew up watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with his mom and grandmom. But then he lost interest.

FRED MCFARLAND: I am just returning after a long-term hiatus. Back in '87, when they had their labor strikes, I was a teenager, didn't quite understand the whole thing and just thought it was silly that people would go on a labor strike when they play a game for a living. But then later, as I grew up in the recent protests, being a veteran, the fact that these gentlemen were using the rights that I defended gave me a reason to support them and start watching football again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not all veterans see that this way. Have you spoken with them about the issue?

MCFARLAND: Some. And I understand, you know, their viewpoint. You know, they have a right to say how they feel under the First Amendment, just like Colin Kaepernick has a right to take a knee when he's at a game.

STEPHANIE NORMAN: Stephanie, you have had the opposite response to the players kneeling or linking arms during the national anthem.

NORMAN: I do. I just think the NFL needs to make a stand one way or the other. What is the intent that they are playing the anthem in the stadiums? Is it to salute the troops, which is what I normally hear when I'm at games? I think, in that case, that they should be honoring the troops and not using it as a time of personal protest for whatever issues they may be having problems with at the time. I mean, I would really love to know how many of these players taking these knees right now are active in their communities and doing other things to be proactive in making changes versus grandstanding on the football field.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you stopped sort of watching football? I mean, are you less engaged?

NORMAN: Oh, yeah. I'm definitely less engaged. I don't really care to support it. I don't want to be at games where I feel intimidated in the stands on, you know, who's going to be judging me, whether I stand or don't stand. There's a lot of, you know, fan issues as it is. And I think to incite a political climate in your stadiums when we're there to be entertained is just inappropriate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rodrigo, you have a different issue. And you're watching less football, I understand.

RODRIGO VILLALVA: Yes. I guess, you know, first, the game started to change maybe, like, 10 years ago. It seemed at first that they wanted to protect quarterbacks. And I thought that that was kind of, you know, letting the defense - you know, giving it more problems, so it's, you know, even more lopsided.

But then, lately, I just - you know, when all the concussion things started coming up, I came from, you know, watching a game and enjoying a nice - you know, a nice hit, like a good block or a good tackle. And then, every time that happened, as opposed to enjoying it, I would just find myself thinking, well, I hope the guy gets up? Or what's going to happen to him? So that kind of, you know, has taken a little bit away from it. And it's one of those things where the game is changing. And then - so I have an 8-year-old daughter and now a 16-month-old son.

So I'm definitely concerned about maybe my son wanting to grow up and play with football being so prevalent, you know, in culture in schools. Personally, I would not want him to play. So it seems hypocritical to be watching it with him and then, you know, kind of glorifying these things and then, at the same time - hey, you know what? You shouldn't play. It's dangerous. Well, why are you watching? Why are you supporting this thing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rodrigo, I'm curious about your view of the politics around the NFL at the moment.

VILLALVA: Yeah. Well, I wanted to also bring up, in addition to the whole issue with the anthem this year, there previously have been problems with maybe players being in legal trouble and then teams kind of turning a blind eye if the player was good enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mean legal trouble because some of the players, of course, have been found to have been abusive to their partners?

VILLALVA: Yeah. That was - that tended to be the most common one. Or, you know, drunk driving - that kind of situation. So that always seemed to me like a bit of a problem. Regarding what was - has been happening this year - people have more voices than before. I definitely agree. If they want to do that, I think they should commit to do something, you know, beyond the field, which I - think many of them are doing it.

Whether it's - the anthem the right spot to do it or not, that's an entire - a different issue that - I think it's a lot more personal. But they're in a position where they are more heard than, you know, the people that they're fighting for. It's a lot easier to - if you're a professional player - to get attention to an issue than if you're just an average person on the street trying to get by day-to-day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Stephanie, what do you think about when you hear that? I mean, we have a veteran, Fred, saying that he fought for these rights, and he supports what Kaepernick has done. And Rodrigo's thoughts, too.

NORMAN: I think it goes back to the NFL deciding why they are playing the anthem and what they want to require their players to show respect during that process. I think if you're playing it to salute the troops, it's the wrong time to be, you know, like I said, grandstanding, basically. And my grandfather died during World War II. I saw the pain and suffering that inflicted upon my family. You know, it's the least we can do just one time to celebrate American victory and our heroes, you know?

Use your social media. Use your voice. Get a protest going another time. March on D.C. Wear a color of tie to the NFL banquet. I don't care what you do. But, you know, I think the NFL needs to make a stand and say why they're playing it, what they expect their players to do. And if you're getting paid to do your job, do your job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fred?

MCFARLAND: I - first off, you know, all of my condolences for your grandfather. And myself - I've asked many people, you know, when I've been offered a beer, whatever, when I'm out and about - they, you know, want to thank me for my service. And I tell them, you know, use your rights, get involved in local government, register to vote, make sure you vote. You know, those are the thank-you's that I personally want.

And so when, you know, Colin Kaepernick and others decided to start doing something on what is, you know, their stage, I didn't mind it. In fact, I - you know, like I said, it drove me to start supporting them in the only way that I can because I'm not a guy that's going to buy a jersey or anything like that. But I'm going to watch games just because they're doing exactly what I've asked others to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fred, where are you going to watch the game tonight?

MCFARLAND: Tonight, I'm going to be home. I'm going for the Eagles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're going for the Eagles?

MCFARLAND: Only because I'm a Cubs fan, as well, so I've got to root for the underdog.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Stephanie, Rodrigo?

NORMAN: I was for the Vikings, so I'm out of it at this point. But, you know, Tom Brady has had an amazing career, and he's done remarkable things. And I can only hope that he continues to break records.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Rodrigo?

VILLALVA: I'm watching it at home with some friends. And I'm going for the Eagles just to, you know, give a chance to somebody else.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Rodrigo Villalva, Stephanie Norman and Fred McFarland, thank you all so much.

MCFARLAND: Thank you.

NORMAN: Thank you.

VILLALVA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF B. FLEISCHMANN'S "COMPOSURE")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And next week, we're taking a break from The Call-In, but we always love to hear from you on any topic. You can tweet at us @NPRWeekend or head to our Facebook page.

(SOUNDBITE OF B. FLEISCHMANN'S "COMPOSURE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.