We’re halfway through the NFL season and by far the biggest story in football has been the sharp decline of TV ratings.
It has felt like each week has delivered more and more bad ratings news: this week’s “Monday Night Football” matchup between the Vikings and the Bears, for example, drew a 7.2 overnight rating, down 18% from the Colts-Panthers Week 8 “MNF” game from 2015.
With each subsequent poor rating performance, a new theory has developed to explain why fewer people are watching football: it’s the election, and cord-cutting, and Colin Kaepernick, and too much parity, and too much violence, and yet the league’s latest botched handling of a player accused of domestic violence, and a historic World Series, and on, and on, and on.
According to Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, however, the reason is far more simple: the NFL is not letting its players have fun.
In his weekly press conference on Thursday, Sherman was asked why he believed ratings were down. Here’s what he had to say:
“Because the league isn’t fun anymore. 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, they want to control the messaging, et cetera et cetera.”
From here Sherman went on to call the NFL out for hypocrisy:
“They say we’re influencing kids. And that’s their biggest ploy. You don’t want to be a bad influence to kids, you don’t want to be a bad role model. And I can agree with that. But in the same breath you can’t say Budweiser is the official sponsor of the NFL and we’re trying to influence kids. So, you know, there’s a ton of hypocrisy but it doesn’t matter because we don’t control it.”
Perhaps most interestingly, Sherman then compared the NFL to the NBA, which he said has done a much better job of letting its players express their individuality.
“I think the NBA made an adjustment. Their players were unhappy, they went on strike, they got a new commissioner. The new commissioner has made it a lot more fun, he’s a lot more lenient on the guys. They’re out there shooting threes and putting whatever signs up, they have personality. You can think of James Harden[‘s ‘stir-the-pot’ celebration] — there’s a chance in the NFL you might get fined, there’s a chance you get a penalty on a play like that.”
The NFL has excessively fined players for celebrations this season, some of which are so blatantly innocuous that the flags and fines are laughable. The league has tried to justify these flags and fines by claiming it’s easier to blanket all “excessive celebrations” together, rather than picking and choosing which are acceptable and which cross the line.
But Sherman feels that this slippery slope argument is misinformed. To him, regulating celebrations should be much simpler. How should players be allowed to celebrate? What crosses the line?
“Nothing disrespectful or demonstrative. Obviously nothing lewd, nothing you wouldn’t do in front of your mother. But some of these things are pretty funny, pretty hilarious celebrations. There used to be some hilarious dance moves that you can’t do anymore because you don’t know if they’re suggestive, or whatever the case may be.”
This ties nicely back to Sherman’s point that the NBA has done a much better job of allowing its players to have fun, of embracing the entertainment value. In the NBA there is a line that players can’t cross (the throat-slashing gesture, for example), but more often than not the expressive celebrations are totally fine. It’s no coincidence that the NBA is more popular than the NFL among younger demographics.
As the NFL roars into the second half of the season, ratings should improve. Baseball is over now, and — mercifully — the election is ending, too.
But some of the problems Sherman is mentioning are pervasive on a much more fundamental level. And until the NFL can rid itself of its (deserved) “No Fun League” moniker, the league will only continue to struggle.
Watch Richard Sherman’s full press conference below: