The NFL’s perception problem

Johnny Manziel. Photograph by Erik Drost.

Johnny Manziel. Photograph by Erik Drost.

On this Super Bowl weekend, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” that people around the world will be watching Super Bowl 50 Sunday, implying that the game is the center of the universe.

People may be watching the Super Bowl around the globe, but that doesn’t make it a global sport the way soccer or tennis is. Few people in Indonesia beyond some ex-pats care about the NFL – a subject I address in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding.” But there seems to be a disconnect between public and internal perceptions of the game.

For Goodell the game is one he’d be happy having a son play; arrests are down 40 percent among NFL players, with the players more upstanding than non-players in their demographic group; and, as for concussions, he actually said there’s a risk in sitting on the couch. Really.

Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel – aka Johnny Football, the soon-to-be-former Cleveland Browns quarterback – has imploded. It’s the usual – trouble with drugs, alcohol and women. The assaulted girlfriend who took out a restraining order against him has been criticized. Yeah, blame the victim. But the only one Manziel has to blame here is himself. (Apparently, he doesn’t mind going to rehab as long as he doesn’t have to stay at rehab. Like the guy who doesn’t mind being a famous pianist as long as he doesn’t have to practice the piano.)

Not that there haven’t been enablers. The worship of these people by fans and the media: Who gave him the Johnny Football nickname, huh? And then there’s the oblivious NFL.

Listening to Goodell, you’d think football’s biggest problem is the quality of the Pro Bowl. In a sense, he’s like an artist whose attitude is that as long as the work is great, it doesn’t matter if he’s a disaster.

Sorry, but domestic violence, concussions – which, no excuses, may be related – are huge challenges.

Goodell wants to grow his sport exponentially. He’s not going to do that among those for whom a viscerally thrilling game is simply not enough.