Sports leagues must allow individuality to regain views
70,000 dollars can mean two things: a year of expenses for attending Carnegie Mellon, or the total value of fines leveled against Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown last football season. Hefty sums like this might typically be associated with excessively violent plays. Instead, the league fined Brown for participating in a staple of sports culture: celebrating after touchdowns.
Nicknamed the “No Fun League” by writers and fans alike, the NFL is notorious for squashing players’ personalities on the field, whether for trying to have fun or bringing awareness to certain issues. In 2015, the NFL handed Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams a hefty fine for having “Find The Cure” written on his eye black — his way of honoring his mother, who had passed away a year earlier from breast cancer. In 2013, then-Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall was fined more than 10,000 dollars for wearing green cleats in order to raise awareness of mental illness.
Viewership for American professional sports leagues is plummeting. Ratings have dropped for all sports and the average age of spectators has risen. Sports has become a stagnant old boy’s club that is struggling to match advancements in other entertainment sectors.
Suddenly the pull of the team is not enough, but leagues do everything they can to reduce the image of individual players.
In baseball, Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper made multiple statements last season calling out the MLB for their handling of self expression. In April 2016, he donned a cap with “Make Baseball Fun Again” written across the front, and has been a vocal supporter of bringing more individuality into the sport.
The NHL has also recently come under fire for the league’s handling of individualism. Players such as former Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K Subban and Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin are consistently under fire in the media for celebrating too exorbitantly. It was even claimed in 2016 that Subban was traded away from Montreal due to marketing his own brand before that of the team.
The NBA is perhaps the league which allows its players the most leeway to express themselves both on and off the courts. Basketball is also the only sport which boasted notable increases in ratings this past year. Nearly every major basketball star has his own custom sneakers. The league seemingly encourages players to establish themselves as personalities both on and off the court. There are personal rivalries and storylines which draw in new fans and generate buzz.
This team-first mentality was enough when sports were entirely localized. With the advent of streaming services and nationwide broadcasts, sports need an extra boost to make an impact in all markets. So would a sudden injection of personality make a difference? While there is no significant research on the topic, sports writers across the board have often argued for a change. Boring athletes make for boring entertainment. One man throwing a football to another can be seen on any level of football. But watching a noted character like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton throw a football to a teammate can be something else entirely.
No longer is local pride enough to support casual sports fandom. As generations change, it is the responsibility of these leagues to change with the times. It’s time for sports to embrace the personalities of their athletes and move away from a more restrictive, team-first marketing strategy. The modern world wants the Antonio Browns, Alex Ovechkins, and Bryce Harpers. So maybe it’s time to let them happen.