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Analysis - 'Teflon' league will roll on despite controversy

Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) celebrates with defensive tackle Randy Starks (94) defensive tackle J
Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) celebrates with defensive tackle Randy Starks (94) defensive tackle J

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Bullying, racism and clubhouse culture are dominating all the talk about the National Football League (NFL) these days, but this too shall pass for the U.S. sporting juggernaut that seems impervious to controversy, experts say.

"It's the Teflon league," Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising, told Reuters on Thursday. "No matter what you throw at it, it doesn't seem to stick."

The latest firestorm surrounds Richie Incognito, an All-Pro guard who was suspended indefinitely by the Miami Dolphins on Sunday after allegations of abuse, including racial epithets captured on voicemails, were made by teammate Jonathan Martin.

The case, which is being investigated for the NFL by high-powered attorney Ted Wells, has flung open the door on locker room cultures that embrace the frat-house style hazing of young players, and prize toughness and aggression.

It has also spawned debate across the universe of radio talk shows and office watercoolers about standing up to bullies and dealing with peer pressure and harassment in the workplace.

It may also help TV ratings.

"This whole hazing scandal will probably juice up the ratings for the Monday night game," Sports Business Journal NFL writer Daniel Kaplan said about the November 11 contest between the Dolphins (4-4) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8).

"Who would've wanted to tune in for that? But instead it's almost going to be like rubber-necking - people tuning in just to see how bad it is. In a morbid way, it's a fascinating match-up that will help the TV ratings."

'ULTIMATE REALITY SHOW'

Not that the NFL particularly needs ratings help.

NFL games have snared the top 18 places among most-watched shows on U.S. television since the 2013 season began.

The league will take in $4.2 billion in TV revenues this season. Over the next five years, the NFL will rake in at least $27.5 billion.

This success comes despite deep concerns over player safety and disturbing accounts of brain damage to former players from repeated concussions, and despite dealing with protests over the Redskins nickname of the Washington team, considered by many to be a slur to Native Americans.

Uninterrupted profit has poured in despite risking harm to the product by using replacement referees last season during a contract dispute, and before that having to mete out harsh punishment for bounties paid for hurting opponents on the field.

Nothing has slowed down the business of the NFL, called "the ultimate reality show," by Dorfman.

The popularity of the NFL could hardly be expected to be dented by the Dolphins flap, according to Andrew Zimbalist, professor of sports economics at Smith College.

"I don't think it's going to be something like this hazing scandal with Incognito or isolated incidents of racism," Zimbalist told Reuters.

"It's a little bit like the policeman in 'Casablanca' saying he's horrified to learn that there's gambling going on here.' To say that there are excesses of machismo in the NFL clubhouse, how could anybody not know that.

"I think the area where they are potentially more vulnerable is health."

DARKEST CLOUD

A recent ESPN report that said Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett is showing signs of a degenerative brain disease many scientists say is caused by head trauma and linked to depression and dementia, underlined again the darkest cloud hovering over the league.

Just before the start of the season the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of former players, many suffering from dementia and health problems, who accused the league of hiding the dangers of brain injury.

That was seen as a small hit for a league believed to generate total revenue of more than $9 billion a year.

But the dangers of the game could sour the appetite among a growing number of fans, and could lead parents to steer their children away from playing American football.

"Could the talent pool dry up?" pondered Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University. "That's the biggest concern. If people don't play football or are not allowed to play football, the game could suffer.

"But not in the short run. Football is in as strong a media position and consumption position as it could be."

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd, which does substantial work for NFL teams, agreed safety issues were the key concern of officials, who have put in new rules to protect against head injuries.

"It goes to every aspect of the league. Financial, on-field performance, fan interest, public relations, union relations," Ganis told Reuters. "It goes to almost every aspect of what the league deals with."

Ganis said the players themselves have sometimes gotten in the way of progress. "What's needed? An alteration of the mindset of the players themselves. And that's proving to be the most difficult thing to achieve.

"I'm talking about attitude. The warrior mentality."

Ganis said that is one reason the NFL has focused attention on improved training in youth football programs.

"The mindset is instilled at a very young age and they need to get to youth football to affect the next generation of players."

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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