Balance of power shifting in NFL as a result of scandal

On Feb. 7, 2015, Super Bowl 50 will shape up to be the biggest entertainment event in history, at least until the next year’s game. Well over 100 million Americans will watch the game and the halftime show, and millions more will be watching all over the world. It’s safe to say that football has been the dominant sport in the American market for quite some time, and that title carries a huge payday to the National Football League (NFL).

The Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins, New York Giants, and Houston Texans are all worth over $1 billion each and are the most highly valued teams in the NFL. At the bottom of the barrel, the St. Louis Rams’ net worth of $930 million stands as a testament to the amount of money in football. Player salaries have risen considerably since the latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) put an end to the $70 million contracts that top rookie prospects commanded. The top-tier quarterbacks in the league now command $100 million contracts easily, with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers making $22 million last year alone. Head coaches top out with $8 million for Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton while the bottom five head coaches took $3.5 million each.

Despite the financial boom in football that shows no sign of slowing down barring a huge recession, the NFL continues to face big challenges to its status as the premier sports league in the United States. The integrity of the league itself has undergone intense scrutiny due to its handling of the Deflategate scandal from the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Commissioner of the NFL Roger Goodell was resolute on issuing a strict punishment on the Patriots as other owners put the pressure on him to act stronger than he did in 2007 Spygate scandal. Although Patriots owner Robert Kraft accepted the league stripping the Patriots of two draft picks and fining the team $1 million, he was furious when Goodell decided to suspend Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games.

The basis for the suspension was a report conducted by a firm called Exponent, whose findings were cited by the Wells Report and considered proof that the Patriots had intentionally brought underinflated footballs to cheat. Outside the NFL, many scientists disagreed, reaching conclusion that the deflated balls in the game were consistent with the Ideal Gas Law. Carnegie Mellon physics professor Gregg Franklin explained away the issue in a January 2015 press release. “It’s pretty simple physics,” Franklin said. “If you pump up a bicycle tire using air from a warm room and then take it outside on a cold winter day, you’ll find that the pressure in the tire decreases as the air in the tire cools off. The air pressure in a football is no different. If a football is inflated to the minimum pressure allowed by the NFL—12.5 pounds per square inch—using warm air, the football’s pressure will drop below this minimum value as the air cools.”

Goodell’s insistence on being both the deliverer of Brady’s suspension and the only one the quarterback could appeal to drew much ire. Brady and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) argued that Goodell was overstepping the bounds of the CBA. The NFLPA took Brady’s case to the legal system, and U.S. District Judge Richard Brennan sided with Brady, forcing the NFL to cancel the suspension. Still, Goodell insisted on appealing to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, continuing to escalate the feud to this day. Had Goodell abided by the rules of the CBA and issued a fine on Brady, his authority as commissioner might have been attacked by other owners, but it would never have gotten into the U.S. court system. With a judge’s order to reel in the commissioner’s powers, it appears that there will be unrest in the league’s system as the balance of power changes. What effects this may have on football’s future is completely unknown.

While the changing balance of power may lead to devastating consequences down the line, player safety concerns threaten to destroy the game more immediately. Early on during the last offseason, four players under the age of 30 decided to retire early rather than risk developing lasting impairments. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds and Oakland Raiders running back Maurice Jones-Drew all decided to retire in spite of the money on the table. Though the NFL has been trying a number of measures to try to improve player safety, the reality of professional football’s damage to the human body could end up making the tough nature of football a huge deterrent rather than a positive for the league.

For the NFL, times are good now, and they probably will stay good for quite some time. However, the ongoing challenges that the NFL faces must be handled well. Otherwise, football will relinquish its status as the most prominent sport in America, something that no player, owner, or league executive would like to see.