Roger Goodell cut his pay to zero last month, and other employees are being cut and furloughed, according to ESPN, and the first reaction might be a shrug. Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Soccer have all instituted cuts of various kinds because of the pandemic. Naturally, the NFL is next.
But hang on. Look closer.
Those other leagues all had to cancel games. The NFL did not. The NFL finished its 2019 season in early February, before the pandemic forced cancellations, and it claims it plans to hold its full slate of games, in stadiums full of fans, in 2020.
So why the cuts?
This does not look like a simple business decision. It looks like a tell. For all the talk about a 16-game season and getting back to normal, the NFL is acting like it expects something else. As it should.
The hope that spectator sports as we knew them will be back soon is just that: hope. Maybe even a fantasy. These are unprecedented and uncertain times, and nobody knows quite what the country will look like in early September. But a normal NFL season involves games in 22 states, plus London and Mexico City. That feels highly unlikely.
Goodell is smart enough to know that. And these cuts feel like an acknowledgement of that reality.
The NFL won’t say that, of course. It must act like it there is nothing to see here, for two reasons. One: While games are likely to be canceled or held without fans, the NFL does not have to make that decision now. The smart business move is to keep season ticketholders and sponsors committed. Maybe a farmer in Iowa will discover a miracle cure for COVID-19 in his backyard next week.
The other reason is political. President Donald Trump has been clear that he wants the economy to open back up, and anybody who bucks him publicly will be stepping into his line of Twitter fire. The NFL went through this before, during the height of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. If the President offered to never mention pro football again, I think Goodell would sign up for that in a second.
White House officials have held multiple calls with leaders of sports leagues, and it’s pretty easy to see why. Just as college sports are the front porch of many major universities, pro sports are now a large window through which we view the economy. If there are games and crowds, we’re back. If not, we’re not.
I asked NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy why the league is making cuts if it plans a normal, full season in front of fans. He wrote that “the economic effects will be deeper and longer lasting than anyone anticipated and that their duration remains uncertain,” and that “these are difficult and painful decisions for any business.”
I followed up and asked, in simple terms, if the league still expects to hold a full slate of games in full stadiums. McCarthy wrote, “That’s what we are planning on and working toward. We will be prepared to make adjustments if necessary. It is only responsible for the league to prepare for all alternatives and we will be ready for any change.”
That sounds good, but the league has already made adjustments. That’s what those pay cuts are. NFL revenue simply should not go down enough in between seasons to warrant pay cuts. There isn’t enough happening. The league makes the vast majority of its money from staging and televising football games.
The coronavirus, like many issues in this country, has been framed as a political argument between two sides. If you say the pandemic will last a long time, you are painted as somehow rooting for that. I cannot fathom anybody actually rooting for that, and trust me: Sportswriters would like sports to be played. Our jobs are a lot easier that way.
But turn off the TV and look around. The country’s leading infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, just told the New York Times we’re not ready for sports yet, and “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season.’” California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state is home to three NFL teams, has said spectator sports may not return there until 2021.
Roger Goodell has said the NFL is planning to play games this fall, as it normally does. This is what he has to say. His actions say otherwise.
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