Considering how well it is doing and how much money it makes, it seems difficult to believe that the NFL has a problem, but it does. The league is suffering a crisis of leadership and is racing toward some sort of implosion down the road.
It may be the 10 years that Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, predicted a year ago. It may be sooner; it may be later. But when any business model is built around nothing more simplistic than making more money, it is asking for trouble. No matter how it may seem today.
Think about all the NFL news lately, and we're not just talking about the continuing debate over the concussion and health issue. Doesn't it feel like the same issues over and over again, that nothing ever seems to get solved?
Tom Brady's suspension. The Raiders' future. Debate over the Redskins name. The players union sniping at the commissioner.
And over it all, there is the elephant in the room, the continuing saga about concussions and player health. The relatively recent mini-trend of players retiring young probably has not gotten the traction it deserves in the public mind, but if too many young men eventually decide that football is bad for their health - or their mothers decide for them - then what happens to the NFL?
Perhaps the problem simply is that the NFL has it too good. With all its long-term television contracts, the league doesn't have to worry about where its next billion is (or several billions are) coming from. It just awarded three more Super Bowls to cities that are putting ridiculous amounts of money toward new or improved stadiums and the commissioner is sending out condolence letters to cities that lost bids, the league's equivalent of patting the child on the head and telling him to try harder next time.
In the past, NFL commissioners tried to make problems go away by solving them, not by putting them off. Pete Rozelle had his issues with Al Davis and two player strikes, but no one could have handled Davis, and the union thing was still relatively new at the time, exacerbated by owners who didn't understand that players had rights, too. Nonetheless, considering Rozelle ran the NFL for three decades and established it as the nation's No. 1 sport, it's hard to find fault with his history.
Then came Paul Tagliabue, who became something of a media pinata because of his standoffish ways, yet understood his job better than any of us on the outside understood it. He established a great rapport with Gene Upshaw, the players union leader, and the league enjoyed a decade and a half of unity and good times. Tagliabue never has gotten the credit he deserved and maybe never will, because of his relationship with the media, but he put in motion many of the initiatives that have led to today's cash cow.
Nonetheless, that wasn't good enough for Goodell, who sees everything in dollar signs. He has turned the NFL into a virtual arm of Goldman Sachs, and that's what Cuban was referring to a year ago when he predicted the NFL's implosion in a decade. In the pursuit of ever more dollars, one issue after another has been allowed to fester.
Nothing, of course, shows that more than the drama involving Brady and Deflategate, now nearly a year and a half long and still in the news. But Brady's case hardly is the NFL's only long-running saga, one of the league's several long-running mini-series that needs a final episode.
The Raiders, for example, have been dwelling on their stadium issue ever since they moved back from Los Angeles to Oakland more than two decades ago. It used to be part of a long-running "California issue" that bedeviled Tagliabue and was one reason he was serially rejected for the Hall of Fame. San Francisco never did get a stadium (the 49ers moved to the outskirts of San Jose), and Los Angeles only now is going to get one.
Meanwhile, the nickname of the Washington franchise has been debated for longer than anyone can remember. That is an issue a proactive leadership should long ago have taken off the table. And the relationship between the players union and the league probably could be fixed with two simple words - impartial arbitration - that sensibly should have been in place decades ago.
Wouldn't it be nice if the first thoughts about pro football concerned Rex Ryan's mouth and Denver's quarterback situation, and not all these other long-running topics? It's all stuff that proactive leadership should be putting to rest. But all that came out of the league's spring meeting last week was a pat on the head for the Super Bowl bid losers. Of course. Those cities walked away with their wallets intact, and now the NFL needs to find another way to separate them from their money. That's, after all, what the league does best these days.
--Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.