Writer Will Leitch Defends His Position That The NFL Is Ending
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Is this the end of the NFL? That is the question at the top of a recent piece in New York Magazine. It was written by Will Leitch. And his answer to the question is, yeah, the NFL is kind of over. Will Leitch is here now to defend his position. Hello there.
WILL LEITCH: Hello. Good afternoon.
MCEVERS: You point out in your piece that football really used to be something that, like, brought people together. There's this great detail you talk about, how Hunter S. Thompson and Richard Nixon even bonded over football. That's obviously not true right now. I mean, how divisive do you feel, like, football has become?
LEITCH: Yeah. You know, one of the things - like everything else these days, the NFL has not been able to escape politics. And I think because it's gotten so popular it is right there, dead at the center. But the problem is because it's not been able to avoid politics it's actually getting it from both sides. On one hand, you know, you have liberals saying that, like, the game is too cruel and worried about concussions and head injuries and the health of the players, or that the league is too militaristic and too much beloved love of the flag and all of that stuff. On the other hand, you have conservatives saying, we're not going to watch this league until the players stop kneeling. And...
LEITCH: ...It's left the league without a natural constituency.
MCEVERS: Did you ever think football would be at the - at - like, in the middle of the culture wars? Like, is this a surprise to you?
LEITCH: It's so strange to think of the NFL, you know, which is - you know, let's not get ahead of ourselves. It is a game where people run around and throw a ball and tackle each other - has become some sort of big political thing. You know, and listen; sports has always wanted to consider itself separate than politics. Fans always claim that they want that. Like, they want to get away from politics for a day. You know, the way things are going it's hard to blame them. I certainly understand the sentiment.
But, you know, standing for the anthem is a political act. Paying for your ticket is a political act. When these stadiums are built with public financing, these - sports has never been able to be completely separate from politics. And I think the reason the NFL has gotten caught up so much in this is it's gotten so big. You know, the NFL really in the last decade has become so powerful in large part because how much power it has in the world of television. We're all watching things on DVR.
LEITCH: And sports, specifically the NFL, is not a DVR game. So people have to watch it live, which has helped them on ad rates. I would argue that one of the mistakes the NFL has made in that, however, is they have overcompensated in that way.
LEITCH: And they've given away too much power to television.
MCEVERS: Whether or not this is the end of the NFL, I mean, we have to talk about concussions and injuries. I mean, I think, you know, when you used to watch a football game and you'd see a big hit you'd be like, wow. And now it's - you know, I think we all have a very different reaction.
LEITCH: Yeah. You know, there was a time not long ago where those big hits were the highlight hits and really promoted the league. Now as more and more scientists come out about how - the damage it causes, it's not just the big hits. It's also just the actual sustained - they call them subconcussive hits.
LEITCH: The dangers of the - playing football are so much more evident now. The NFL has tried to get out ahead of this, but I think you make an argument the games have actually gotten worse. The things that they've tried to get out of the game have not made the game safer, have made it less aesthetically pleasing. It's an existential issue for the NFL, and it's one they really continue to struggle with.
MCEVERS: And then you talk about how football's really losing out to the NBA. What is it about that that they have this, like, inverse relationship, you know?
LEITCH: Yeah. The NBA is really in a peak period right now. You've got a team like the Golden State Warriors, an all-time great team including superstars like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, who is probably the most popular player in the league. You've got LeBron James, one of the best players of all time, who is not just, you know, a great player, but I think is one of the larger things that's really helped out the NBA. They, unlike the NFL, have very much encouraged their players to express their personalities and sometimes to express their political beliefs.
I remember when LeBron James, after President Trump told - said that he was not going to invite Steph Curry and the Warriors to the White House, and LeBron James refuted that and actually called the president you bum, which is kind of a crazy thing to think of, an NBA player calling him you bum. But perhaps what's even crazier is it seemed to work to shut Trump up. He actually has not talked about the NBA since then. So I guess it requires someone at the level of LeBron James.
But I do think that's the issue. The NBA has encouraged social media. They've encouraged free sharing of highlights. They've encouraged their players to express themselves in a way that I think sells the individual and sells the excitement and the off-court stuff as well that the NFL is really kind of lumbering and struggled with.
MCEVERS: I mean, we should be clear. Like, a lot of people still watch football on TV. And this also isn't the first time that someone has proclaimed that the game is done. I mean, it's still holding down, like, No. 1 TV rankings.
LEITCH: Yeah. There's no question. People are still watching the NFL. The numbers have been down a little bit, but not dramatically so. And mostly the numbers being down has just allowed people on both sides to claim that the reason they're mad at the NFL is the reason the ratings are down. Oftentimes it's a little bit more complicated than that.
LEITCH: But, you know, these are - this is the type of thing where the numbers start to go down slowly and then perhaps very quickly. You know, you've seen the idea - you know, youth participation in football is way down. The more we understand about the damage of the game, there's just a lot of different factors that are all kind of nibbling at the NFL on the edges. So it's starting to wobble. And there was a time five years ago it felt like the NFL was unconquerable. And I think it's - there's no question there's some wobbling going on.
MCEVERS: Will Leitch, thank you so much.
LEITCH: Of course. It's my pleasure.
MCEVERS: Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and a senior writer at Sports on Earth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.