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Original Issue

Bully Market

Despite its concussion controversy and rash of off-field ills, the NFL casts a shadow that other leagues seem afraid to step out of

COINCIDENTAL OR NOT, two announcements came within moments of each other last Friday. The first was the revelation that arbitrator Barbara S. Jones, a former federal judge, had overturned the indefinite suspension of Ray Rice. This was still more bad publicity for the NFL, another outsider rendering an opinion—this one legally binding—that the commissioner's office had acted in that red zone between inept and mendacious.

The other communiqué: an NBC press release boasting that the television ratings for the Thanksgiving-night NFL telecast were up sharply from 2013. Here was the NFL in miniature. For all of the league's moral failures and ambient ugliness—arbitrary discipline, head injuries, etc.—the relentless popularity of pro football has not been diminished.

In fact, the NFL's supremacy has never been more pronounced. In October mediocre NFL games were outdrawing World Series games; in the spring the NFL draft will outdraw the NBA playoffs. We all mock the Pro Bowl, but it almost triples the U.S. audience of the NHL's Winter Classic. The NFL dwarfs the other leagues in sponsorship dollars and licensing revenues. And there are the unquantifiables: buzz factor and cultural relevance.

And yet football faces a profound existential issue. However dismayed we may be that PEDs have infected baseball, they don't cause one in three retired players to develop neurological problems. However much we might recoil at, say, the knee injuries that befell the Bulls' Derrick Rose, you don't find many parents declining to let their kids play basketball. The NFL boldly declares that it wants to be a $25 billion business in 2027, even as a growing chorus questions whether there will even be an NFL a dozen years from now.

In most competitive industries this sort of public crisis would be an opportunity for rivals to capitalize. Not so in sports. The other leagues are reluctant to make even an indirect mention of the NFL's concussion problem. When LeBron James recently told that he won't let his sons play football, it was a jarring admission. Not because of the sentiment, which countless parents share, but rather because it marked the rare occasion when a leader in another sport dared to take a swipe at the almighty NFL.

Likewise, when Mark Cuban declared in March that the NFL was headed for "implosion," it was widely seen as a violation of some unspoken rule. And even he's ambivalent about being more aggressive. "Challenge them when they are hypocrites, i.e., gambling, how they deal with abuse issues, health, concussions," Cuban told SI via email. "[But] there is no value in saying the NFL sucks. It won't bring fans."

After insisting on anonymity, a minority owner of another NBA franchise conceded that, yes, other sports were, in his words, "playing nice."

If there is an expectation of playing nice, it's not reciprocal. Whether it was out of courtesy or contractual, for years the NFL didn't hold Sunday Night Football telecasts opposite World Series games. That not only changed in 2010, but the NFL even began scheduling teams from nonbaseball markets (New Orleans, Green Bay and Indianapolis), which has the effect of maximizing ratings. This year, it went a step further, making sure that Fox, the World Series rights holder, was deprived of a Sunday NFL game before Game 5. (Instead, CBS received an NFL doubleheader.) Then the NFL was quick to trumpet that NBC's Sunday Night Football game dramatically outdrew Fox's World Series game (18.8 million to 12.6). This is how a ruthless business behaves.

Cuban is right that simply denouncing football doesn't sell NBA or MLB tickets and sponsorships. The overlapping fan bases and television partners also add a layer of complication. But what about a more delicate approach, say, a grassroots "Play Safe" marketing campaign or a program stressing the sentience of former basketball and baseball players? What if MLB Charities earmarked more money to sports science? ("While our injuries are less serious than those in other sports, we take health and safety seriously.")

As it stands, we're left with this irony: The same leagues that are predicated on competition are afraid to embrace it. If athletes performed this passively, how long would it be before they were replaced?

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