NFL has never been better, except for one thing

"Annual Meeting" painted a picture of peace and prosperity


GREEN BAY—The NFL has never been better. That simple fact resonated loudest at this week's "Annual Meeting" in Orlando.

On what is that judgment based? Begin with revenue. It's never been better.

Professional football is a business and businesses are about balancing revenues vs. expenditures. When you see the degree to which the NFL spends money, it's obvious revenues are strong.

The league has new TV deals and they just keep getting bigger. NFL Network, whose startup costs made it a money pit in the network's early days, is now closing on the grand vision Paul Tagliabue had for it when he persuaded owners to fund it. The TV situation is to point that the league has been able to blend NFL Network into its contract with CBS, which gives NFL Network major network status.

On the legal front, there is harmony. There are no Al Davis types within the current ownership, threatening to sue the league or challenge its orders. Los Angeles still needs to be addressed, but Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league is merely waiting for the right stadium deal before it commits a team to LA. It'll happen.

The concussion lawsuit that was the league's gravest challenge a year ago at this time has by and large been settled; the league can handle any possible adjustment of the award.

There's strong evidence the league has a handle on the concussion problem and head injury may not be as much of an issue heading into the 2014 season as it was going into last season. The players are on board with Goodell's change-the-culture edict, which further underscores the harmony the league is experiencing.

Yes, the game is changing. It's change that, at first, frightened everyone. Will the fans accept the change? Will the fans buy a kinder, gentler game? The answer would appear to be yes to both questions. That's why smiles dominated the Ritz-Carlton Hotel this week.

Fans want to be entertained and entertainment is what the NFL does best. It is possibly this nation's finest form of entertainment, and the continued growth of the NFL's popularity says everything about it having turned the corner in this most major event in the evolution of the game.

What fans don't want is for their children to play the game, and that's the biggest and maybe the only truly threatening problem the NFL is facing this spring. The fallout from having aggressively addressed the concussion problem was that in doing so the league exposed the ugly side of football. It exposed to mother and fathers nationwide the dangers of allowing their children to play the game they love to watch others play.

Youth participation is in decline. Forget Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. That's a minor problem compared to a nation of children who are being driven past the football field on the way to the soccer field. It's a trend that must be reversed.

The popularity of any game at the professional level is directly linked to its popularity on the amateur level. That's why the NFL is pushing the "Play 60" youth football movement with the same intensity with which the league launched not too many years ago.

"Play 60" will paint a picture of safety. It will attempt to erase the damage caused by concussion awareness, the class-action concussion suit by former players, the unchallenged veracity of the novel "League of Denial," Brandon Meriweather and all of those hits on defenseless receivers that continued to dog the game in 2013. "Play 60" is football for boys and girls. "Play 60" is football for the whole family.

Selling it is the last hurdle. It might be the biggest hurdle.

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