NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell arrives for the Super Bowl 50 news conference. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

The NFL’s firm grip on the psyche is based in the fact that it’s the most real, live event on live television. Every game is a character-driven story and a high-speed chase in which the action and the stakes of a collision are genuine. But lately the NFL has seemed formulaic and lacking in a certain kind of authenticity. It’s no great mystery as to why the NFL’s ratings have been dropping: Viewers don’t especially like the stories they’re watching.

The numbers are striking. Through seven weeks, ratings were off for every prime-time incarnation of the NFL: “Sunday Night Football” by 19 percent, “Monday Night Football” by 24 percent and the dreaded Thursday night game by 18 percent. A variety of factors may be contributing to this dive, from the election to so-called “fragmentation” of mass media. But none of the explanations make as much sense as the simplest one: The NFL has put less appealing and more disturbing action on the screen, and viewers are turning it off.

Historian Michael Oriard has observed that the great attraction of the league is that it’s “the true reality TV,” in its most vital form. But the NFL is beginning to seem over-managed and over-staged. Constant commercials and interruptions by refs waving their arms do not produce “appointment viewing;” rather, they produce punts, ties and stasis. Look at the standings: A cluster of 18 teams, indistinguishable save for the colors of their shirts, are at .500 or worse and five more at 4-3. In other words, 23 teams are not must-see-TV to anyone but their most fervent fans. The constant advertisements and hail of yellow flags from overly officious officials make a PBS series seem fast-moving, with a clearer story line.

When rookie quarterback Dak Prescott led the Dallas Cowboys over the Philadelphia Eagles with his touchdown pass to Jason Witten in overtime late Sunday night, it was clear how much animation the league has been missing. But even that terrific game, which had high divisional stakes and featured a bright new star, was crushed in the ratings by Game 5 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It’s the first time since 2011 that a World Series game beat “Sunday Night Football.”

Obviously, viewers are not finding the NFL as meaningful and important as they have in other seasons. Games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday, plus a handful of overseas trips for novelty games in London, have numbed the viewer. Only a handful of contests this past weekend felt like difference-makers, and those were disrupted by flags. One was between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills, which was marred by five penalties in the first 10 minutes. When the Pats led 38-17 in the third quarter, where was the viewer to go? To Jets-Browns? Lions-Texans? Raiders-Buccaneers was close, but that meant suffering through a league-record 23 penalties against the Raiders for 200 yards.

Perhaps the most knowledgeable and acute observer of the NFL is Oriard, a former player for the Kansas City Chiefs turned author whose highly regarded cultural history of the league, “Brand NFL,” is essential reading. Oriard observed, “The job is to market the game, without letting marketing get in the way of the game.” The league has let marketing get in the way of the game, and one expression of that is coming from the officials.

The NFL’s overemphasis on “brand” and “shield” has meant increasingly petty attention to discipline and uniformity, which is sucking away dynamism and rendering it joyless. The league is picking apart its own product with stoppages, until it’s hard for the viewer to separate the major from the minor offense: According to NFLpenalties.com, officials have thrown 1,996 yellow flags, every one of which means a halt. An analyst at The Big Lead ran a database check of profootballreference.com and discovered that offensive holding penalties have increased by fully 43 percent since 2011, and defensive pass interference is up by 45 percent over the same period. Now throw in the new emphasis on curbing celebrations with unsportsmanlike conduct flags. No wonder there are so many cutaways to commercials or to suits in the owner’s box.

“The rhythms and pace of the game are changed,” Oriard said. “There’s a lot less dramatic excitement — and you can’t overstate how much I don’t care if Jerry Jones is enjoying the game.”

The NFL ratings malaise is being puzzled over by everyone from media executives to stock analysts, who offer a variety of speculative causes. Everything from fantasy football to Twitter live-streaming to the shorter attention spans and habits of millennials has been cited. But none of these entirely add up. Other sports aren’t suffering precipitous drops; NBA and Major League Baseball ratings have strengthened over the past year.

In looking for a difference, it’s hard to dismiss the coexisting facts that the NFL has ruined the flow of its on-field stories while experiencing a spate of deeply negative stories off the field — most of them self-inflicted and perpetuated, from the Deflategate four-game suspension of Tom Brady, to the spousal abuse case of place kicker Josh Brown. Donald Trump has blamed Colin Kaepernick for dissing the national anthem for the fall in ratings. If that’s a factor, then undoubtedly so are narratives involving concussions and domestic violence.

For the last five months, we’ve been compiling data from police departments across the country to track arrests in and around NFL stadiums. Here's what the data tells us. (Thomas Johnson,Dani Johnson/The Washington Post)

The NFL always has been a form of “sanctioned” violence and the “most excessive of our sports,” according to Oriard. That creates some delicate balance problems for the league: It has to justify itself morally as a sport of values, otherwise it’s just a slasher film. How to sell and regulate the game without losing the jacked-up energy is one problem. How to protect players’ health is another. And how to keep the loyalty of viewers despite the tug of conscience when a man is carried off the field on a board, or violence spills over to league wives, is yet another.

For almost a century the NFL has positioned itself as a culturally important exercise, and the audience has agreed on that importance. The league insists that its brand of controlled violence is important in the shaping of strong young bodies, important in the self-making of men and important in expressing something vitally American. But lately the league seems more concerned with brand than with justifying its philosophy or grappling with a new reality.

“I pose this as a question,” Oriard said. “We’ve gone through 100 years of knowing football is violent, and the consequences of violence were always deemed to be acceptable, the benefits outweighed the cost. But that ended with Mike Webster’s brain. Are we watching with a greater sense of the danger? Can we still fully give ourselves over to the experience of watching, and of saying, ‘Wow, look at what these bodies can endure, what they do to each other’? Are we seeing a temporary blip in ratings or a kind of resetting of the NFL’s cultural power?”