Friday, December 11, 2009

The NFL, Congress, the BCS and the Bahamas

The NFL, Congress, the BCS and the Bahamas

By Evan Weiner

(Nassau, Bahamas) -- You can tell a lot about a sport’s popularity by going to a supermarket. I spent the day before Thanksgiving, a huge sports lead up day in America to three National Football League contests on the holiday along with a three-day menu of college football games, in Nassau, Bahamas. Strolling through a supermarket you can see how integrated a sports really is within a society by walking through the beer and snacks areas.

In Nassau, the Super Value supermarket near the beach near Sandals is far more of a gauge of what the locals think about the National Football League and college football than Paradise Island and the Atlantis resort. There is no real NFL interest despite Nassau’s close proximity to the United States on West Bay Street not far from Goodman Bay. There were no in-store promotions pushing the National Football League in the beer area or the snack aisle.

It was almost as if the NFL didn’t exist.

That probably is not news to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or his owners even though they would like to expand the league’s reach. The only North American sports league that has tried to do anything in Nassau was the National Basketball Association as the Miami Heat played a pre-season game in the city. There are basketball courts around Nassau. There were two NBA players from the Bahamas, Mychael Thompson and Rick Fox.

Nassau and the rest of the Bahamas have boxing and track and field along with a lot of yacht races but there is no football, the American version, but there is the international version of football, soccer, along with cricket and rugby. The Bahamas have golf, tennis and water sports but there is no real interest in football except when tourists bet on games. In the 1990s, the Bahamas government approved gambling on sports events as a way to keep the gambling money in the country as some of that money was being lost to riverboat style gambling.

The Bahamas, after all, became an independent country in 1973 and centuries of being under British rule and the country is a member of the British Commonwealth which means that American sports stayed on the mainland except for some baseball.
The National Football League is no big deal outside of North America. The NFL has the entire United States, a good chunk of Canada and parts of Mexico in its marketing footprint and that why the NFL is desperately trying to establish a foothold in London and the United Kingdom with the thought of marketing the brand in the Commonwealth nations.

But the NFL and college football have far more problems than expanding the global gridiron footprint. Walking on Goodman’s Bay beach the day before Thanksgiving, a holiday not celebrated in November in the Bahamas, is a world away from Washington and Goodell along with the college football industry have spent more time up on Capitol Hill recently than dealing with Dan Snyder’s Redskins or the University of Maryland’s football squad.

Congress wants to know more about head injuries and concussions and Congress wants to know about college football’s way of determining a national champion. Should politicians be involved in football?

The answer should be no but the game and business of football and Washington interests have been intertwined since President Theodore Roosevelt in October 1905 began to ask questions about the brutal nature of football. Columbia University dropped football because of the brutality and Harvard was ready to follow suit. Roosevelt liked football, his son played the game at Harvard, however the game bordered on savagery.

By December 1905, Roosevelt used the bully pulpit of the Oval Office and cleaned up football, a game which had a growing casualty rate.

Because of Roosevelt’s interference or influence and it according to historians was a bit of both, new rules were drawn up to make the game safer.

Thanks to federal legislation, big time college football factories have a tax exemption; pro football got a version of an anti-trust exemption in 1961 which allowed the established National Football League to group all 14 franchises as one and sell weekly games to a television network, just like the newly formed American Football League and Congress gave approval to the 1966 American Football League-National Football League merger which ended the competition for players between the 15 team NFL and the nine team AFL.

The merger not only combined the leagues but created the American Football League-National Football League World Championship Game which is now known as the Super Bowl.

That is why Congress has held hearings on head injuries and long time consequences for players who have had concussions and how college football determines a champion. Congress has not yet touched on football programs being dropped at Boston’s Northeastern University of Long Island’s Hofstra University. It has become far too expensive to run programs for those schools.

Perhaps Congress will look into the divide between the big time football programs and the schools who are opting out on a small level. Congress has had issues with the Bowl Championship Series in the past and Congress should be reviewing every aspect of college sports from tax exemptions to graduation rates to whether players should get a piece of the pie from the billions of dollars in TV revenues.
Congress wants a national football champion. A House panel wants a national champion which is sort of strange given that America is fighting two wars, there is a battle going on over health care. Municipalities are laying off people because of the consequences of a very severe recession and unemployment remains too, too high. But there is bipartisan support for a national college football championship game.

Congress is about a decade and a half late in holding hearings on head injuries. The former NHL power skating hockey coach Laura Stamm was talking about the issue in the mid-1990s and was doing research on injuries. Laura Stamm was just a voice in the wilderness in the mid-1990s.

Head injuries in sports is not a new topic, it is just getting far more scrutiny now. Theodore Roosevelt knew all about head injuries as President in 1905 when there was serious consideration given to banning football and on field deaths.
Congress has some leverage in making sure Goodell and his owners get the message that they better do something to clean up football. Congress has passed legislation that has greatly aided the NFL and made NFL owners a lot of money in bills ranging from the 1961 Sports Broadcast Act to the 1966 merger to the 1984 Cable TV Act to the revision of the tax code in 1986 which changed the funding methods of municipally funded stadiums. In 2007, Congress forced the NFL to put the undefeated New England Patriots-New York Giants game on over-the-air TV networks instead of the NFL Network when New England was 15-0 and going for an undefeated season. It seems inconceivable that Congress has that kind of power, but Congress does as the House of Representatives and the Senate are very active partners in sports.

But in Nassau, Bahamas, the beach is far, far away and the NFL is largely a TV and betting affair. There is no American football in Nassau. The NFL is a world away despite being less than an hour plane flight from Miami to Nassau. Before the NFL goes overseas in a quest to sell more logo-ed t-shirts and hats, Goodell better take care of his own home which was why he is obsessing with head injuries and might have to feel the wrath of the bully pulpit like college presidents did in 1905.

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