By Tim Baffoe--
(CBS) I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, particularly when it comes to sports. Those are the worst, dumbest kinds of conversations.
"The refs are calling this game for the bigger market team." "The draft is rigged." "Beyoncé decides who wins the Super Bowl." But a soulless entity like the NFL -- what an '80s action film villain would be if it were an entire league -- invites such temptation.
So forgive me for entertaining the possibility that the almighty Shield actually likes the national anthem demonstrations that have gone league-wide since Colin Kaepernick first sat and later kneeled last season to call attention to social inequalities and police violence. I mean, an organization that has fined players for not meeting the strictest of uniform standards and long took cash from the military to put patriotism upon those of us who just wanted to stick to sports hasn't come down on any of its protesting players whatsoever. Hell, it has even found a way to co-opt the anthem statements and warp them into something convenient and hollow.
What the league might like most about the new fascination with and mock outrage over a pregame ceremony is that it provides a handy distraction from the NFL's super obvious secret -- the football sucks. Take Week 4's slate of turds. There was the usual Thursday night hazardous material that was lovely enough to feature the Chicago Bears getting pantsed by the Packers on national television, and the Bears will probably encounter the same fate against the Vikings next Monday before going back to their Weekly Noon Sad Clown Dance. The Atlanta Falcons lost at home to the Buffalo Bills. Upsets are cool and all, but what's your investment in the Bills beyond that? The Dallas Cowboys lost at home to a Los Angeles Rams team that thinks white horns on its helmets with gold numbers on its jerseys is a good call. There was another game in London that smelled like boiled cabbage and wasn't worth getting out of bed for.
The New England Patriots trotted out a defense that should be getting people fired. The Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the New York Jets -- a team that's trying to tank -- a week after the Jags won by 37 points. The Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers went almost 65 game minutes until one of them scored a touchdown. The Houston Texans put up 57 points in a professional contest in which people get paid, a touchdown more than the highest combined score of each of the 3 p.m. slate of games and two fewer than four of those teams combined. What did the Washington team do to merit back-to-back weeks of primetime island games?
One week is a small sample size, but this one wasn't an anomaly. The NFL garners more complaints about play than wows. Not being able to hit an offensive player outside of postcard-size area on the torso doesn't help the thrill factor. Nobody knows what a catch is, and we've been gaslighted into not knowing if we ever knew. The league's overtime rules are still stupid and allow for the possibility of a tie, which should never happen.
Compounding all that is a league that supposedly favors parity allowing for so many of its teams to be consistently terrible. The Bears, an anchor franchise in this league, have been a travesty going on most of three decades. The Cleveland Browns are a generational joke. The Cincinnati Bengals have a head coach in his 15th year there who's 0-7 in the playoffs. What even are the Jacksonville Jaguars? I ask that existentially. The Oakland Raiders made the postseason for the first time in 14 years last season. That's not a feel-good story -- it's professional incompetence.
Have you ever met a Tennessee Titans fan? The Los Angeles Chargers are a Greek myth in which they exist but only in the form of punishment and anonymity. The Detroit Lions have played just 13 playoff games total since the NFL merger in 1970, winning exactly one of them. Besides their epic Super Bowl loss, the Falcons have quietly been your kid who quit college for culinary school then for improv classes then for that startup he can't quite explain.
None of those teams named above have won a Super Bowl in the last 30 years. The last 25 titles are held by 13 franchises. But having literally a quarter of your organization being a perpetual flaming bag of dog excrement has never kept the NFL from being insanely profitable.
Spencer Hall at SB Nation wrote last month on the NFL not caring about the product on the field because that isn't a team's true worth:
If you see an NFL franchise as just another asset to be maximized and squeezed for every dime, being good at football — i.e. producing a good product — doesn't matter. It's not even rational to put effort toward anything but 'value creation,' i.e. shuffling around pieces of the franchise until they sit in the most profitable positions. The Rams doubled their value overnight by leaving St. Louis and moving to L.A. They are a miserable football team run by a despised owner playing in an empty stadium, but the Rams could care less. The fourth most valuable team in the NFL sucks by design and shines bright enough on the balance sheet to eliminate any real concerns about how bad the product is on the field.
So when the weekly mentions of NFL ratings being down arise again today, those so bothered by the player protests get to take less eyeballs as a victory for their fragilities. This has been shown to be as dubious as the claim the angry fans take offense to disrespect to the flag.
That some people are refusing to watch because players holding up a mirror to them produces too much of the vapors is happening, just not to the extent that those boycotters would like to think. What's acknowledged a lot less by people on both poles of the protest issue is that once the ball is kicked off, we're subject to way more underwhelming football than we used to be.
And maybe the NFL, who has no skin in the social justice debates other than what can make them money (keep an eye out for NFL-branded #Unity merchandise soon), would prefer that we talk more about what happens before the first whistle than the increasingly subpar stuff afterward.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.
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