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On NFL's Opening Day, Fans Find A Tale Of Two Leagues


The National Football League's regular season begins tonight. The defending Super Bowl champion, Seattle Sea Hawks, host the Green Bay Packers and first kick-off comes at a time when the talk in the NFL is about a lot more than touchdowns.

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now to talk more. Hey there, Stefan.


CORNISH: So it's Thursday and I understand the game's not being broadcast quite in the same way it used to be this year, right?

FATSIS: Yeah. Thursday's not the change though. The NFL's been opening on Thursdays since 2002 with one exception in 2012. Tonight's game is on NBC, but the next seven Thursday night games are going to be on CBS and that is new. The NFL has shown these games on its own cable network for years. But now it's going for the bigger reach of broadcast TV and a pile of money - a reported $275 million just for the season.

CORNISH: Of course, NFL's still America's most popular league, right - by just about every measure? But just how dominant?

FATSIS: Well, by conventional metrics it is as dominant as a sports league has ever been. $10 billion a year in revenue, by far the biggest audiences on TV, billions spent on gambling and fantasy. But I and think a lot of other people now see the NFL as sort of two entities. There's the product - the games and everything around them - and then there's the other NFL that intrudes on the product - the real world consequences of a violent sport. And this split-personality NFL has existed for years, but never as sharply defined as now.

CORNISH: How so?

FATSIS: The volume of non-football news. The attention that that news receives. I was going to say let's look at the past year - the bullying scandal in Miami, the legal battle in settlement over concussions, but let's just look at the last few days. A team owner was suspended and fined after pleading guilty to a DUI. A second player in months was arrested on domestic violence charges just days after the League spoke out against domestic violence and toughened penalties. The family of Junior Seau, former star who killed himself in 2012, said it was going to sue the league over concussions. The New York Daily News said that it wouldn't use the offensive to many Native Americans and other people nickname of the Washington team. And in Denver, you had a hot topic twofer - wide receiver Wes Welker suffered his third concussion in 10 months and then he was suspended for failing a drug test.

CORNISH: Now, when does all of this non-football and negative news begin to intrude on the success of the business of the NFL?

FATSIS: You know, it might not be reflected in revenue or attendance or TV numbers, but I think you could argue that already has. Plenty of people have a more jaundiced view of the NFL. Fewer kids are playing Pop Warner football. NBA team owner Mark Cuban isn't the most unbiased observer, but he said after the CBS deal that the NFL was saturating the market and he predicted a decline within a decade. Who knows? The NFL is incredibly strong as a marketer and a protector of its brand. But the history of American sports popularity has been anything but constant.

CORNISH: Now, there was one story that was making the NFL bad and it was the story of Michael Sam, a first openly gay player and as the season opens, he is now a Dallas Cowboy.

FATSIS: Yeah. For all the talk of distractions and discomfort and the macho culture of the NFL, the reality of the first openly gay player in League history has been turned out to be pretty uneventful. Michael Sam played well in training camp with the St. Louis Rams, who drafted him. The front office and players accepted and praised him. He wound up getting cut, but it seemed legitimate that it was for football reasons. And then the Cowboys added him to their practice squad and he won't play on Sunday - being on the practice squad - because they have an apparent need at his position - defensive lineman. And as we discussed earlier, so much NFL news reflects badly on the League, but Michael Sam's story has not.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks so much.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Stefan Fatsis, author of "A Few Seconds Of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays In The NFL." He joins us regularly to talk about sports and the business of sports. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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