For The NFL, It’s Only An Island If You Look At It From The Water

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“You yell barracuda, everybody says ‘huh, what?’ You yell ‘shark!’ and we’ve got a panic on our hands…”

This is the Mayor of Amity Island, Larry Vaughn, pleading with Chief Brody to consider the consequences of exposing a dangerous truth of their pristine island.

Jaws is a monster movie about outsiders defeating a threat in the face of internal turmoil. An impeccable island of sandy white beaches and like-minded people face a giant shark that threatens their identity. To kill the shark, Amity reluctantly turns to their newly arrived Chief of Police with a fear of water, a visiting oceanographer whose intellect brings a rationality to the island’s hysteria, and a loner fisherman who is driven by such an intimate hatred for sharks that his fate is somewhat cathartic.

The brilliance of Jaws is Spielberg’s decision to withhold revealing the shark to the audience for the first three-quarters of the movie. While this was famously due to mechanical problems, it left viewers trembling through every scene—wondering, waiting, when would this monster show itself?

Terrorizing people with their own anticipation is an objective of any good horror movie. It does not serve as well in football.

Beneath the surface of the National Football League, there are conversations that challenge and threaten the once unimpeachable joys of the sport. Football can no longer be its own Amity island. The past few decades have sewn it so deeply into the fabric of America, it’s high time it come to terms with being an active part of it.

The NFL was great at being this Sunday paradise for Americans. It was apolitical, unassailable, and appealed to every type of person. But there is a reason paradise is a vacation destination. It’s an unsustainable foray of blissful ignorance. Like the banks of last decade and tech companies now, the more these separate profit-seeking entities influence a culture, the more they lose the privilege of ignorance in their social responsibilities.

But the NFL never seems too interested in doing that. They focus numerous campaigns on increasing their female fan base, but they act belatedly, or not at all, to domestic abuse within their league. They lock arms with their players when the camera’s on, but behind the scenes seek to end the difficult conversation around it. They want to make the game safer, but flirt with adding games to the schedule.

The amount of good the NFL does should not be undersold, but with the number of glaring contradictions in recent years, its authenticity deserves to be questioned.

In the past 25 years, football has transitioned into America’s sport. The value of the NFL grew to nearly double that of America’s original pastime, baseball. League owners got their stadiums, their money, and an insatiable fan base. But when you create a paradise and ignore the lurking shark, it’s bound to swim up and bite you.

With players getting stronger and faster, the sport has become increasingly dangerous. This is not conjecture, it’s science. The NFL has looked at equipment, technique, and rule changes, but there is a nervous tension felt throughout each game. Hits went from guys ending up on the ground, to guys ending up in highlight reels called Jacked Up, to guys lying motionless on the field surrounded by medical professionals, visibly shaken teammates, and a stunned and silent viewing public. You could see why it’s become a harder sport to watch.

This past season also featured a true outsider bringing the NFL to its literal knees. Unemployed by the league, Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice coincided with the powerful movements taking place all over the country. The players responded by engaging in their own form of protest. If you’re uncomfortable by their means to do it, your discomfort is the whole point. NFL Sunday is an escape from our problems—a retreat to paradise. Players showed us that for a large minority, there is no such thing.

In the wake of these protests, most of the owners and a subset of fans feel that the players should follow regular workplace conduct. What about the NFL is a regular workplace? The league wants their players to be public figures when they raise profits, but obedient employees when they raise questions. Sorry, you don’t get to have it both ways. There is a lack of accountability in the problems with the league. But if the owners insist on it being a regular place of employment, well then, like every other organization, the buck stops at the top, doesn’t it?

There are a lot of guesses being made for why NFL viewership is going down. Here’s one more: Maybe the public is tired of billionaires throwing tantrums when they can’t control something they don’t like.

Commissioner Roger Goodell is stuck being the Mayor of Amity. He’s in charge of keeping the island together while beach goers are feeling a little apprehensive about going into the water. The league can keep yelling “barracuda!”, but there will be more outsiders—the Kaepernick’s, the journalists, the doctors and scientists—letting you know, you’ve got a shark on your hands. Jaws created a very real fear of the ocean after it came out. But last I checked, people still love the beach. All problems are navigable. It just takes a little courage.

The NFL needs a little courage.

With Chief Brody’s arrival to Amity, the locals didn’t know what to make of him. His fear of the ocean makes him see things differently from the rest of the island, which is to say he knows more about the threats around it. In his wife’s attempt to pinpoint the clinical name for people afraid of water, Brody answers, “drowning.” He ends up facing this fear because his complicity in leaving the beaches open is worse. I repeat, complicity is worse than fear.

It might be time for the NFL to choose a new leader, one from the outside who doesn’t see the league as it was. Professional football isn’t dead by any stretch—not even close—but it’s certainly not the blockbuster it was.

Fortunately, the Super Bowl served as one of the best games in an otherwise substandard season. The Eagles stared down the Great White of the sport. With their backup quarterback and an inexperienced head coach, they were gonna need a bigger boat. But like a good movie, the Super Bowl is never without a few surprises. The game had trick plays, loads of offense, changing leads, and a final stand that came down to the last play. The dramatic finish had us feeling that in the end, football is going to be okay—a classic Spielberg ending.

So what happens now? With the season officially over, the immediate threat is vanquished from our consciousness. But as next season arrives, the problems will still be there.

And with all the money involved, there was always going to be a Jaws 2.

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