METAIRIE, La. --New Orleans Saints veterans Drew Brees and Zach Strief expressed concerns Monday that the growing mistrust in the NFL league office has spilled over from the players to the fans and is hurting the league's popularity.
"We feel like [the decline in TV ratings] is a direct result," said Brees, who has been an outspoken critic of the way NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has handled controversial issues such as the Bountygate investigation of the Saints, the Deflategate investigation of the Patriots, and the Ray Rice and Josh Brown domestic violence investigations.
"I know the players don't have any faith in the way that things are conducted within the front office in the NFL -- certainly when it comes to any type of investigation, when it comes to any type of commissioner discipline," Brees said. "It's really kind of a joke at this point, unfortunately. And it shouldn't be like that."
Brees and Strief spoke to ESPN after the Saints players had their annual in-season meeting with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. They agreed that the NFL's declining TV ratings could be a result of "probably a buildup over the last few years."
"It's hard to separate 'em. It all works together," said Strief, who is in his final years as the Saints' player representative. "The NFL front office has seemed to have found a way to make everything somewhat contentious. It feels like there's this constant assault on the players, like we're two entities. It's like they don't think they need us to do this."
"And I think over time, as it's constantly in the media and it's constantly a public issue, I think the fans start to feel a similar way. It's just a constant contentious issue. When you take Brady and say it affected Tom Brady and it affected the New England Patriots, well the fans feel like they're a part of that. It does affect them and it does affect their team and it does affect how you feel about the league, and it does turn you off.
"At the end of the day, the relationship between the front office and the people who are not in the front office has probably never been worse."
The Saints' comments echoed those of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who last week blamed Goodell and the NFL for making the NFL no "fun" anymore, including imposing strict rules against player celebrations.
Brees mentioned the crackdown on player celebrations as another factor that may have turned fans off in recent years.
Brees, who was an outspoken critic of Colin Kaepernick's decision to protest during the national anthem, also acknowledged that such protests could be a turn-off to fans.
"I think it's just been a culmination of a lot of things over the last three years that unfortunately might have just turned people off or caused them to be less engaged," said Brees, a former player rep and a former member of the NFLPA's executive committee, who said his hope when he first joined the NFLPA was that there would be a "partnership" between the players and the league office to move the game forward.
"And unfortunately we've never felt that feeling reciprocated from their end," Brees said. "In fact it's very much been a, 'We're gonna do things behind closed doors. And you just kind of believe what we tell you.' And unfortunately that's jumped up and bit us, and I named all those cases ... where you certainly can't trust anything that's coming out of the league office at this point.
"Listen, we as players want the best for this league. This league has so many great things to offer ... and for a long time the fans were really enjoying it. And now it seems like that's taken a hit. And it really feels like it's been the culmination of the last few years and the way the business of football is being run in the front office. That's the concerning part at this point for us."