It happens every year, with more intensity in this particular one. Deep in the heart of the NBA playoffs, a Klay Thompson starts draining threes with less effort than it takes to breathe. A Steph Curry-LeBron James matchup is as glitzy as it gets. The NBA becomes so majestic, its athletes such superheroes, that I start toying with the notion that it could be a better product than the NFL. Given that I cover the NFL full-time, I wonder if I should jump ship or at least find a hybrid way to cover both.
Despite its ever-increasing revenue, the NFL is in crisis mode. With the ever-brightening spotlight on head trauma—be it a Congressional report on its handling of concussion research, the film Concussion or another football player retiring earlier than the norm—the league somehow becomes even more mistrustful on the subject. To a much lesser extent, the quarterback era that has starred in these glory days could very well be dwindling. Look at the landscape—there are currently only three QBs under the age of 30—Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton—who appear to have even the slightest possibility of amassing the type of decade-long dominating Hall of Fame careers we’ve been spoiled to see from Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers, most of it concurrently. Add in the league’s penchant for profit over player safety and product in the form of Thursday Night Football, not to mention its recent handling of domestic violence and blatant profiting off the military, and the NFL feels tainted.
Compare that to the NBA where Adam Silver is a mostly beloved, proactive commissioner. When the NBA was faced with its own existential crisis, the Donald Sterling scandal, Silver acted swiftly and decisively. His league is full of megastars and fascinating personalities. There’s an accessibility about the NBA right now, perhaps because its reigning MVP, Curry looks like a regular human, someone who would be pumping his gas next to you or that you might not notice on a treadmill at the gym. LeBron, of course, is a marvel in his sheer size and athleticism, but his down-to-earth personality and decision to return to Cleveland has turned him back into the most likeable superstar since Jordan. The game is truly international with names like Nowitzi, Ginobli, Ming, Lin, and Barbosa becoming fixtures in the league, unlike the far more internationally insular NFL. And when NBA players get into a shooting zone, like Thompson did in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, it’s simply stunning. Nothing in the NFL compares.
But here’s where the NFL envelops you in ways the NBA never can. First off, the emphasis on hype has worked. Roger Goodell has brilliantly spread out the calendar to ensure we don’t go more than three weeks without a major event, no matter how artificial. Hell, we get jazzed for the schedule announcement in April, even though opponents and location were determined months before! Look at the current coverage of the ongoing OTAs, and how we deeply analyze why certain players haven’t shown up to voluntary workouts and what every word out of a coach’s mouth means for fantasy football. We’re a sick bunch.
Yet, what makes it all worth it in the end are not the stars, the red carpet shows or the faux All-Star Game or the 17-hour pregame shows. It’s that once we’re in season everything counts. Everything. Every play. Every scheme shift. Every errant officiating call. Unlike the NBA, where you can truly wait for the final quarter—heck, the last five minutes—and not miss much, in the NFL you better hold it until halftime. Because every single play factors into the outcome and how we analyze a game, even a season.
Unlike the NFL, the NBA doesn’t as a whole view everything through a sliding-door’s lens. If Russell Westbrook misses four free throws in the first half of an NBA game, and the Thunder lose by, say, three points, the headline will never be “Westbrook’s poor first half at the line costs Thunder.” The depths to which we analyze every decision in the NFL, and it’s trickle effect, is amazing but not uncalled for. That’s because 16 games is the ideal number to make them all count, and an observer can parse through cause and effect without having a PhD. in mathematics. The Green Bay Packers Fail Mary game of 2012 will be remembered as a major officiating gaffe, but more so because it cost the Packers a first-round bye. That is real and probably still raw for Packers fans. On a smaller level, the average fan can pinpoint a missed opportunity to throw the challenge flag, a holding penalty, even a wrong route when casting blame for a loss. We’re enraptured in every moment, and it’s a pulsating thrill ride.
The NBA can be monotonous. The ball goes back and forth. Baskets are made with frequency. Free throws are made with even more frequency. Even in the playoffs you don’t need to hang on every pass, every missed opportunity for a steal or rejection. The average NBA fan can watch a game while simultaneously toggling through three other screens, tweeting, watching some Vines and doing some online shopping without missing much.
In this era of ADD and multiples screens, the NFL may be the only sustainable form of entertainment that captures our full attention for three straight hours. That’s why, despite all of the NFL’s flaws, it remains America’s top league.
The #1 question a football player is being asked these days
Lorenzo Alexander, currently a Bills linebacker, had an interesting tweet this week
Alexander’s blog post (which you should read) was thoughtful and nuanced. Yes, he wants his sons to play football, poignantly explaining how the sport has helped him financially and by cementing values laid forth by his mother. His older son’s love of the game is also a key factor, and he won’t set any road blocks. Though interestingly, Alexander is hoping his sons follow in his footsteps and don’t play tackle football until they are in high school.
Alexander’s ideal is no longer the outlying mentality.
Information about CTE and brain trauma has become more prevalent, including a recent Boston University study showing that former NFL players who partook in tackle football before age 12 performed significantly worse in cognitive testing than their peers. Even more recently, Vikings backup quarterback Shaun Hill has pushed to delay tackle football for kids in his hometown of Parsons, Kan.
The NFL has invested heavy resources into flag football at all levels, but particularly for youth, and it’s working because participation numbers are growing exponentially. In theory the skills learned would transfer well to a more rigorous, tackling level in high school. So if the #1 question Alexander is being asked is truly about whether he will let his kids play football, the NFL needs to consider a similar question: When will they officially recommend that kids wait until high school to play tackle football?
RIP, The Greatest
My favorite from an endless number of historic Muhammad Ali quotes.
"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you down. It's the pebble in your shoe."