Football long ago supplanted baseball as the national pastime, but that hasn't stopped scores of Americans from complaining to a federal regulatory agency about televised gridiron action. And while some of the grievances filed with the FCC are not without merit, the majority are almost farcically off the beam.
According to documents unearthed by the Government Attic website via the Freedom of Information Act, the FCC over the last three years has fielded no fewer than 151 informal civilian complaints, the majority of which have to do with viewers' concerns with sexual innuendo, coarse language and racial stereotypes in and around NFL broadcasts. In fact, football games generated more consumer complaints than perennial hot-button series such as "Family Guy" and "2 Broke Girls," which is very likely a function of the sport's unrivaled reach.
To be sure, much of the criticism is justified. Dozens of self-identified Native Americans in the last year alone have contacted the FCC to protest the liberal use of the nickname for the Beltway NFL franchise, which, to their view and in the eyes of many other Americans, is an unambiguously racist coinage. (Although one viewer perhaps took the air out of his or her argument in playing the analogous-bigotry game; a resident of West Hollywood, Calif., wrote to suggest that "Washington Redskins" is as offensive as "The New York Shifty Jews." Always with the adjectives.)
Another viewer of stated Irish extraction wrote in to express discontent with the "highly derogatory and offensive … references to the 'Fighting Irish' [of Notre Dame]," which only serve to intimate that "all Irish people are fighters." In another example of taking rhetoric a step too far, the Oregon resident suggested that the FCC "put that in your peace pipe and smoke it!"
Tone-deaf musings about race and culture aside, most of the FCC beefs provide a sort of guilt-free blast of unintentional hilarity. Take for example, the numerous complaints the regulatory agency has received about the ubiquitous ED drug spots, ads that feature salt-and-pepper-maned men firing perfect spirals through backyard tire swings while their much younger lady companions look on in starry-eyed admiration. Or perhaps you prefer the series in which the older couple inexplicably hangs out on the beach in separate bathtubs, or the one where the woman in the knockoff Detroit Lions jersey talks frankly about the state of your erection. Choose your poison.
The common thread running through nearly all the complaints about Cialis and Viagra ads has to do with the sensibilities of children who happen to be in the room at the time. If nothing else, the extremity of the various reactions suggests that most people would just as soon keep the sex talk to a low roar until their kids have attained voting age. One Kansas parent who appears to be raising a fading flower from a lesser Tennessee Williams play reported that his eight-year-old son actually fled the room when the Viagra lady appeared on the screen; upon putting sufficient distance between himself and the advertisement, he requested that the TV be muted until it was safe to return. Kid's going to need a crash helmet the first time he goes online.
Other concerned adults carp that the drug companies are subverting their parental authority ("I would rather be the one that decides when we discuss erections, not Pfizer"), while some simply want the networks to shelve the more prurient spots til after bedtime. "After 7 p.m., sure, talk about all the penis and breast problems you want," wrote one libertine.
Most of the ED complaints characterize the various spots as "crap" or "filth" and end with a valedictory message of curt dismissal. "Shame on you," reads one, while another brings the communication to a close with the rhetorical "what the hell is wrong with you?" (Earlier in the same missive, the concerned citizen voices the desire to "seriously … play these ads for YOUR children and for the children of employees at ESPN2." The town elders of "Footloose" could take a page out of this viewer's book.)
If there's anything that makes Americans more uncomfortable than having frank discussions with their offspring about sex, however, it may be swear words. And while it's frankly amazing that more barnyard epithets aren't caught by the omni-dimensional microphones used in NFL broadcasts, when an expletive slips through the net, it tends to be a doozy. One of the biggest offenders is four-time-Super Bowl Champ and unrepentant potty mouth Tom Brady, who mouthed the word "Fuck!" multiple times during a recent Patriots-Packers broadcast.
Now, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, nearly all of those who complain about graphic language are meticulous in documenting the syntax used. A grievance about the utterance of the hardy F-bomb almost always includes the word in question, usually rendered in all-caps, with any number of exclamation marks trailing after it like the hidden protagonists of so many Viagra commercials. And very often, the vulgar term for "making whoopee" is deployed in the course of a complaint about sexual content, even in cases where no bad words were spoken. This perhaps is best demonstrated by a 2013 complaint about an episode of "2 Broke Girls," in which the viewer registered his or her concern about a scene in which "TWO DOLLS AND A PUPPET WITH NO CLOTHES ON" were used to simulate "A GRAPHIC SEXUAL ACT (FUCKING)."
Touchdown Tom isn't alone in liberally spewing filth on the sidelines. An Ohio man reported that he heard parties unknown shouting "That's fucking bullshit!" after a Ravens-Chargers game on WBNS-10. Another viewer was unhappy to hear Baltimore wide receiver Steve Smith release a torrent of toilet talk that decorum prohibits us from repeating here, while a Duluth, Minn., resident quailed when the NFL on Fox crew referred to Buffalo's Anthony Dixon "by a nickname that was highly inappropriate. They were calling him 'Boobie.'" Mr. Dixon was saddled with the sobriquet back in college, when his Mississippi State teammates jokingly compared him to the "Friday Night Lights" character Boobie Miles.
Stray on-field cussing and colorful nicknames aren't the only trigger of viewer angst; indeed, sometimes even a veteran broadcaster will give offense. Last year, during a Thanksgiving showdown between the Seahawks and 49ers, NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels idly uttered the words "They got some crazy little women there, and we're gonna get us none." Twitter predictably went nuts as viewers failed to make the connection between Fats Domino's "Kansas City" and the Broncos-Chiefs game Mr. Michaels was setting up for that following Sunday. The FCC received two complaints from people who questioned Mr. Michael's seemingly ungentlemanly mores. The teachable moment here: Try to keep your pop culture references limited to the last 60 years.
Perhaps the most level-headed complaints were made after New Line began running ads last year for the low-budget horror film "Annabelle." The FCC received 12 complaints about the trailer, which scared the dickens out of luckless children and adults alike. "Tonight it's on the football game," one angry viewer wrote. "If my kids walked in … while that was on, they wouldn't sleep for a year." Another non-fan griped that the trailer, which featured "a very scary doll," was the "dumbest thing to show when kids who own dolls may be watching."
A third parent reported that her kids "were accidentally exposed to 30 seconds of truly terrifying horror that none of use signed on for when we started watching football." Sounds like someone's not a big Cleveland Browns fan! (Seriously, though, that spot is pure, unadulterated, nightmare fuel. Ban all scary doll movies forever, President Trump.)
More than a few of the complaints in the FCC document appear to have been submitted by a person who had lost leave of his senses. How else to explain the Lakeside, Calif., resident who warned the commission that Dodge was trying to foment a race war with its funny series of ads starring Craig Robinson and Jake Johnson? ("You people are out of your minds with those Dart ads," the viewer wrote. "The white guy threatens to vandalize the black guy's car. Black guy backhands him, an assault. This to sell a car. … Sick, sick, sick.")
Lastly, there's this uncategorizably weird and gross complaint from an eastern Pennsylvania football fan who noted that a Steelers-Ravens broadcast "consistently showed a player by the name of Terrell Suggs who appeared to be wearing a partial birth abortion as a mouthpiece." Say what now? "I can see no medical/educational purpose to show this on prime time, national television. Whatever was below his nose was certainly obscene."
Your guess is as good as ours.
Each year, the FCC receives hundreds of thousands of complaints about TV content; of these, only a handful result in the issue of a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture. Actual fines, or Forfeiture Orders, are even less common and in recent years most of these have been voided by federal courts or reduced considerably.