Why does the NFL make for such bad media?

Scott Halleran

Y'all suck, and Spencer Hall honestly doesn't know why.

There is a reason The NBA on TNT is so good, and it started with this:

Mark asked me, "What do you think of our show?" And I said, "You all suck. You don't have any fun. The players make a lot of money and the announcers make a lot of money, so how can you make the fans enjoy the game? That should be your goal. All these announcers take themselves too seriously. We're not curing cancer, we're not po-licemen."

Damn a copy editor there for undoing what was surely Charles Barkley saying "y'all suck." The phrasing matters there. Saying "You all suck" from Charles would have been a break, an exclusion, as in "You all are terrible at your jobs, and I want nothing to do with you." Instead, Charles cozied up with "y'all suck," as in "You are very bad at your jobs, and I would like you to do something about it." Because Charles cared about the NBA, and wanted something better for the sport he loved.

If you are an NFL fan, it is time to have your own moment with the NFL media, because in short: y'all suck, and it would be lovely if you did something about it.

There are islands of competence and even charm out there. And obviously, if you're reading this, you're not included in that criticism. (You are clearly brilliant, beyond reproach, and already reading the right things, you sexy devil, you.) The NFL Network does a decent enough job of sounding human-esque, but even that may be the most damning criticism of all: the NFL's official network, owned and operated by the league, feels greater independence and exhibits greater candor than those covering it.

A quick survey of NFL stories viewed by someone who has never seen a single NFL game, and who might be confused about what the game is, would probably divine that it was a contract-based game of real estate acquisition. Half the news concerns contracts, negotiations thereof, and rumors surrounding various parties' happiness or unhappiness in the situation. It's essentially the real estate section of the New York Times, complete with the story of someone far richer than you insisting how they're more than happy with their fifth-floor walkup Victor Cruz.

After passing through the real estate section of NFL coverage, there is the rumors section. This is usually naked advancement of owners' and management's opinions regarding players, and the strangest part of the NFL media's formula: a bootlicking fealty to the sport's landlords that transcends what could even be considered reasonable. Take out the obviously repellent and unsuccessful Daniel Snyder, the deranged fax machines running the Oakland franchise, and Bud Adams, and every other owner successfully feeds precisely what they want to hear into the local media without question.

*Try to find an NFL columnist who takes a quote from an owner directly who then does not turn around and say "I came away impressed" by said owner. Owners are very rich men, and reporters are evidently really impressed by even moderate amounts of wealth.

It's less "writing about football" than "business reporting that smells like filthy jockstrap," and it carries the same vernacular of confidence games, tautological assumptions of confidence, and backroom rumor leakage. And like business reporting, it rarely sees fit to correct itself even in the face of mounting evidence that someone, despite holding a title and a position of importance, might be utterly and evidentially incompetent. There is not an NFL studio crew commentary that doesn't start a discussion of a coach without mentioning what a good man he is; there is not a GM who doesn't "get it."

What that "it" is is rarely explained, but that is not rare. Little is explained, period. Aside from rare moments of Ron Jaworski sketching out an actual play or the work you see from Football Outsiders and Chris Brown, so much of what the NFL does is reduced to exchanges of bellowing nothing-isms. I don't just mean The NFL Today on CBS, but it is certainly the master class on bellowing nothing-ism.

CBS NFL Today Show - Faceoff Segment from Mobivity Sports & Entertainment on Vimeo.

I'm sorry for exposing you to that, but sometimes to learn you must feel the pain of mistakes like watching The NFL Today or reading Mike Florio on purpose. Why NFL coverage is so bad across the board is something that even baffles the NFL writers I've talked to, who are as a whole at a loss on the issue. There are some theories, though. Like all theories, we present them for testing, because this is science, and science is nothing without hypotheses and trial.

The NFL is an access league with very few points of access. All leagues control access to media, but the NFL has a unique degree of control thanks to its corporate structure and the very design of the league itself. A paltry sixteen games, constant meetings and practice, and a well-oiled PR machine bent on protecting the marketability of its players limit the number of opportunities the media have to talk to players, coaches, and management.

The NFL's labor structure discourages players from saying anything remotely interesting. The league's lack of guaranteed contracts--and the interchangeable parts of its teams--create serious negative incentive to talk, stick out, be interesting in the least, or even cough in an interesting manner around reporters. Players are more easily replaced in a 32-team league with 53-man rosters, and literally less valuable. Contrast this with the NBA, a league that has to deal with mercurial or odd personalities because there aren't many giant men in the world, much less those who can actually move from point A to B while sort of dribbling a basketball. (Hi, Kendrick Perkins!)

Being bland and featureless is very marketable. There is a lot of academic explanation to this, but in short: one of the NFL's biggest sponsors is Bud Light. Bud Light would love to sell you beer, and do so on a featureless surface where they don't have to worry about rough patches messing up the signage in either a literal or a metaphorical sense.

The NFL still relies on the same marketing pitch it used in 1982. It is not broke, and it doesn't need fixing: the NFL is the most successful league by the numbers, a business goliath built on a mythos of pain, glory, and swole-shirt masculinity largely unchanged since a VHS copy of Crunch Course popped into your dad's mailbox 25 years ago free with his SI subscription. It's a man's game in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, at least according to every announcer or pundit whose language seems to spout directly from a random verbiage generator located somewhere in Roger Goodell's office.

That SI reference brings up a relevant point here: that was Sports Illustrated, the home of Paul Zimmerman, maybe the last great mainstream NFL writer who actually wrote about football like it was any kind of full-spectrum fun. Dr. Z wrote about the game on multiple levels: as a former player, as a former reporter, as a fan of George Orwell and overpriced red wines, and most importantly as someone who wanted to be doing nothing but writing about professional football, and not a converted gossip reporter desperate to throw themselves into the sweet noose of the deadline and be done with the whole affair.

He was a proto-blogger, the kind to go to original source material and make his opinions himself. And yet, after a decade of sports on the internet, after every other league has seen someone rise to the occasions offered by the shifting media landscape, the NFL and those covering it seem committed to braindeath unto the horizon in coverage.

Start with the NBA alone, and see just how deep the gulf between the NFL and every other major sport truly is. On one hand: Bill Simmons, Zach Lowe, Adrian Wojnarowski, the entire crew of The NBA on TNT, Henry Abbott, The Basketball Jones, Andrew Sharp, and a crew of competent, engaged, and enthusiastic beat writers. And on the other hand, in the NFL's corner: Bill Barnwell, Chris Brown, Drew Magary, and anything at Kissing Suzy Kolber.*

That's it. There is literally nothing else out there I would care to read or watch about the NFL, a self-contained ecosystem of volume without substance, and a sport masquerading as serious business cloaked in the bloated language of derivatives traders. To quote Sir Charles: it is 2013, and y'all still suck for the most part, seemingly bent on selling a game in the language of Glengarry Glen Ross in pads. You're not the po-lice, or even mall cops on holiday. It is football, and an alleged source of fun, distraction, and yes, some much-needed irreverence.

Dr. Z would tell you this, but he had a stroke in 2008, and hasn't been able to write since. No one will ever replace him. It would be nice, however, if someone would at least make an effort.

*For editorial purposes, I'm leaving out SB Nation people because of obvious bias. Of course I like what the writers here do, but this isn't a sales pitch. It's a cry for help for smart writing about the NFL in general.

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