The Leadoff: The NFL has a personality problem


They say there are only two seasons in America — Football season and waiting for football season. Seeing as the NFL literally ended this month and the combine is still dominating Sportscenter and media coverage, I think it has been proven true.

So if football is unquestionably America’s No. 1 sport — which it is — then why aren’t its players more popular? According to “TV by the Numbers,” in 2017, football games accounted for five of the top ten watched programs (all of the top ten were sporting events of some sort except the Oscars) with the Superbowl more than doubling the second most-watched program (another football game).

If you think NFL players are popular, try this fun exercise: Step one, ask your momma out to lunch. It’s probably been too long since you have had lunch with her anyway, so you are welcome. Step two, tell her a story about a night out you had with some new friend you made, but replace all of your friend's names with NFL players not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers and see if she notices anything.

I was struggling to find a way to quantify popularity, but I figured out the most millennial way possible, to the chagrin of many, I am sure. Twitter. The North County of San Luis Obispo lives in an odd technologically-repressed time. It seems as though the oak trees have inexplicably blocked out our Wi-Fi signal from the world. As the country continued to evolve and adapted to Twitter, we gripped our devices tightly, yelling at the sky, “I don’t want to learn something new that will make my life easier!”

Twitter essentially allows you to create your own news platform. That really is it. It isn't some millennial brainwashing device that will have you suddenly twerking on the kitchen counter while making dumplings. My point is, Twitter is king in the social media world we live in, so that is how you quantify popularity.

If football is the top dog, then its top athletes should be well-represented in the top Twitter followers, right? Well, they aren’t. I would go as far as to say they super aren’t. Russell Wilson has the most Twitter followers of any football player (which, by itself, should tell you the NFL has a personality problem. I would compare his personality to that of a Saltine cracker. Sidebar: do you think after making love, Russell Wilson kisses Ciara on the forehead and whispers “Go Hawks” before rolling over to his side of the bed?).

On the top list of athletes on Twitter, Wilson ranks 78th! You mean to tell me the most popular player in the NFL is only the 78th most popular athlete on Twitter? Ten current basketball players are on the list before Wilson (LeBron is number 2), and also two retired ones. There are tennis players (Serena Williams, 30), boxers (Floyd Mayweather, 44), a golfer (Tiger, 66) and even WWE wrestlers that came in ahead of the top NFL star.

Sure, NFL players wear helmets and lots of padding, so it is unquestionably harder to market them to the masses. Football has also built a culture in which many people feel the organization is more important than the individual and has fans constantly siding with management over labor (which is another bizarre conversation for another time because it's really the only time in society we do that).

It is this antiseptic environment that I believe is hurting football. We as a society have progressed. Young people have the power to show their personality now. Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitch, these all exist for young people to interact with one another and it is the young people who will decide what is the most popular 15 years from now. However, the NFL is still trying to scrub away all personality from the league.

What large personalities are there in the NFL right now? Odell Beckham, Richard Sherman and maybe Jalen Ramsey? I mean, if you want to play a fun drinking game, set up a bingo board of generic sports cliches and then turn on an NFL post-game press conference. You will blackout before the first commercial break because it is ALL THEY SAY.

Being someone who has been in football locker rooms all my life, I can tell you it is a travesty. You want to know what these guys think of each other. These gladiators try to rip each others’ heads off for 60 minutes and you think after the game all they are thinking was, “It’s a game of inches?”  But anytime anyone has any personality the media surrounding the NFL and the teams pounces on them and scrub it out.

Baker Mayfield is the perfect example. The senior from Oklahoma is fun. After beating Ohio State in a crazy game this year he steaked the Oklahoma flag at center field in the middle of the Buckeye logo. It is the best thing I have ever seen — if you don't like it then don’t get beat. Two days later though he was on stage apologizing. Apologizing for what? Having fun?

A couple weeks later, Oklahoma took on Kansas and as the teams met for the ceremonial coin toss, the captains from Kansas refused to shake Mayfield’s hand. This obviously didn't sit well with the fiery frat boy quarterback who then beat them 41-3. During the game, it was very clear Kansas players were trying to get shots off on Mayfield and were even called for a cheap shop roughing the passer penalty. Mayfield responded with a subtle, albeit semi lude, crotch grab while bantering back and forth with the Kansas bench.

Again, Mayfield found himself apologizing, this time deservedly so. I don't think you can crotch grab on TV without repercussions but he has now essentially been made out to be some loose cannon. With tears in his eyes, he apologized and was still forced to miss the first drive of his senior night.

There are plenty more examples. The NFL needs to learn to progress and if not encourage personality, at least stop scrubbing it out. There is a reason why baseball is continuing to die and basketball is on the rise. One has shown initiative in connecting with their younger viewers while not alienating their older ones while the other is 15 years behind every other sport in the world.  

More In Columns