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NFL: No fun league

<p>The NFL has taken criticism for cracking down on player celebrations in recent years.&nbsp;</p>

The NFL has taken criticism for cracking down on player celebrations in recent years. 

Ever since I moved to Philadelphia as a child, I have been obsessed with football. Each game is a mini-holiday—three hours I can separate from the rest of my life to engross myself in Eagles fanaticism.

In years past, that respite would typically come Sunday afternoon with the infrequent Sunday night or Monday night game. Now, it might also come Thursday night, Saturday night or even Sunday morning.

The NFL attracts more fans than almost any other sport in the U.S., but more than ever, the league faces major problems. Its ratings are down, mistrust of Commissioner Roger Goodell is up, and above all, players and fans simply are not enjoying the game the way they used to.

Together, that is a bad combination for the world’s most profitable professional league.

“The league isn’t fun anymore,” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said in a press conference Thursday. “Every other league, you see the players have a good time. It’s a game. This isn’t politics. This isn’t justice. This is entertainment. And they’re no longer allowing the players to entertain. They’re no longer allowing the players to show any kind of personality, any kind of uniqueness, any individuality, because they want to control the product.”

It isn’t that the NFL has set out to take fun out of football—it simply has its priorities entirely out of whack.

At his most recent State of the League address in February, Goodell was asked what his mission statement for the NFL would be moving forward. He responded with two words: “Get better.”

But that has not been the case the past nine months.

At their core, sports are entertainment, and the NFL needs to take Sherman’s words to heart. 

I remember the days when each weekend was the opportunity for a new celebration. From Terrell Owens’ constant antics to Joe Horn’s phone call to Jimmy Graham’s crossbar slam dunks, I always wanted to see how a player would enjoy his touchdown.

But since 2000, when the league first cracked down on excessive celebration penalties—and in the past few seasons especially—players have lost the freedom to express their excitement. What's the harm in letting Josh Norman shoot an imaginary bow and arrow or other players choreograph creative dances?

The cookie-cutter celebrations are one of the many reasons TV ratings for the NFL have plummeted through the first half of this season. Another is that the on-field product is lagging behind because of excessive penalties and subpar matchups.

Monday Night Football—a weekly tradition since 1970—is drawing 24 percent fewer fans than last year, and all three primetime slots have dropped by double digits. With fans able to watch six or seven different contests on just a basic cable package on three or four days of the week, no one game is nearly as meaningful.

If the NFL is going to spotlight so many games, then it at least needs to prioritize putting the best games on TV. Thirteen of the 17 teams to play on Thursday night so far have current records of .500 or worse. Despite reaching tens of millions of households each week, most fans likely have no interest in watching the 4-4 Baltimore Ravens take on the winless Cleveland Browns this week.

And in what seems like a weekly occurrence, the most recent Monday Night Football matchup between Seattle and Buffalo was marred by a missed penalty that could have altered the game's outcome. Two weeks ago, the Oakland Raiders set a league record when they committed 23 penalties against Tampa Bay. The inconsistent officiating results in a slower pace of play that can even turn away commentators like ESPN's Sean McDonough

There will always be the football loyalists who tune in or head to the stadium to watch their team play each weekend. There also will be the more than 100 million fans who plop down for the Super Bowl every February.

But there are also many who have become disenchanted with the NFL. Although there is not an immediate, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, the league needs to take steps in the right direction and show both its players and fans tangible progress. Letting stars express themselves after big plays would be a good start.

Ultimately, football is not going away anytime soon—and I certainly hope it sticks around. But an evolution is long overdue. 

It is time for the NFL to make good on its promise and finally get better.


Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 

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