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Perspective: How the NFL stole Christmas — again

The NFL wants to be family friendly. It could start by not having games on Christmas and Christmas Eve

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Miami Dolphins mascot T.D., wearing a Santa jacket and sign, helps Santa cheer on the fans before an NFL football game.

Miami Dolphins mascot T.D., wearing a Santa jacket and sign, helps Santa cheer on the fans before an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Doug Murray, Associated Press

In its desperate quest to be family friendly amid profanity-spewing players and boundary-pushing Super Bowl entertainment, the National Football League is ramping up its partnership with the kids network Nickelodeon.

The league announced last month that it will have a dual broadcast of the 2024 Super Bowl, with a “kid-centric presentation” version of the game on Nickelodeon, with plenty of slime, of course.

The “adult” version of Super Bowl LVIII, which will be played in Las Vegas on Feb. 11, will be broadcast on CBS.

In promoting the announcement, however, the NFL displayed the kind of tone-deafness that makes it such a challenge for professional football to be “family friendly,” and it has nothing to do with the beer-soaked atmosphere at stadiums or the propensity of certain star players to yell profanities at their teammates on the sidelines.

Memo to Roger Goodell: If you really were invested in families, you could start by not having games on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve.

The NFL first scheduled games on Christmas Day back in 1971. Since then, according to the San Diego Tribune, they have become a “staple,” enabled, no doubt, in part by what has been called “The Great Dechurching” of America. (A similar thing has happened with the rise of children’s sports games scheduled on Sunday — while some parents still grouse, it’s not a cause for moral outrage among people who don’t go to church.)

But lately, the NFL has leaned into Christmas games like never before. Last year’s “tripleheader” even caught the attention of The Sporting News, which noted that the league received so much pushback for Christmas Day games in 1971 that it temporarily backed off. “With some lawmakers even proposing legislation that would ban NFL games on Christmas, the league avoided the holiday for 18 years,” Dan Treacy wrote for The Sporting News.

And there’s another tripleheader scheduled for Christmas Day this year: the Raiders at the Chiefs, the Giants at the Eagles, and the Ravens at the 49ers.

The upshot: You can watch professional football on Christmas Day from 1 to 11 p.m., even longer if you factor in the pregame and postgame shows. It’s as if Christmas Day is just, well, any given Monday.

Even so, the NFL seems to tread carefully around Christmas games, with Mike North, the league’s vice president for broadcast planning, telling reporters that the NFL consults with its teams about “who was willing to host, who thought they might have an issue, whether it’s in terms of staffing or fan reaction or attendance,” according to The Kansas City Star.

But in the end, it seems, it’s all about ratings, which last year were very good, surpassing the holiday ratings for the NBA.

The money quote, quite literally, is this: “The Christmas tripleheader last year proved something to us all, and that is that our fans are eager to watch NFL football on Christmas,” North told reporters, per The Kansas City Star.

Even as the NFL says it’s not sure whether Christmas Day games will continue when Christmas falls on, say, a Wednesday, the league has a ready excuse this year for injecting football and television into one of the few days this nation pays homage to families, if not the Incarnation.

Christmas Eve is on a Sunday, Christmas Day on a Monday, both “normal” NFL days.

That’s why we have 20 teams playing on Christmas Eve, six on Christmas Day.

I will confess to having two dogs in this particular fight, being an ardent fan of one of the teams that is playing this year on Christmas Eve night, and belonging to a faith tradition in which a Christmas Eve church service is a major part of my family’s holiday observance.

Yes, I can record the game. Yes, I can ignore the game altogether.

But I shouldn’t have to, just so that the NFL can crow over its ratings. The NFL could do more than offer up SpongeBob and slime when it talks about families; the league could take a stand that matters to families, one that might actually have a cost.

I don’t doubt North is right, that most NFL fans are happy to spend a couple of hours on the couch — some most of the day — eyes fixed on their teams.

But this isn’t just about the fans, it’s also about their families, who may or may not care about football. And it’s also about the players, who also have families.

As former NFL kicker Jay Feely told The San Diego Union-Tribune last year, “If you play or practice on Christmas morning, there’s always a little bit of ‘bah humbug’ to it. Because you grow up and Christmas morning is so special. You’re with your family, you open presents, you do the same type of things every year.”

No doubt, the Mr. Krabs types who count money at the NFL salivate over the opportunity to make professional football part of our most cherished family Christmas memories, though this is a challenge given that half the teams playing will lose.

Which is another reason not to have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day games: A loss will ruin the mood of the many fans who are unhealthily invested in the games. This is a bigger phenomenon than you might think — last year, NPR published an article exploring “What it means for sports fans’ mental health when their team loses.”

And for the over-invested, a loss is a bigger blow to holiday cheer than a neighbor’s dog running off with the turkey. As the narrator says in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” “When our joy is at our zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.” Just ask the fans of the Denver Broncos who lost last Christmas to the LA Rams, 51-14.

Roger Goodell could be the man who saves Christmas. Until then, it’s up to the DVR.