Thursday, September 10, 2015

Six Reasons for my Self-imposed Football Exile

Last year around this time, I was somewhat surprised to find myself morally uncomfortable getting ready to watch the NFL.  Ray Rice's domestic violence and the NFL's handling of the situation, which dominated so much off-season coverage, made me really uncomfortable.  So, I decided to essentially not watch the NFL.  I watched a few games for social reasons, including the Super Bowl, which is probably hypocritical, but I am an American, after all.

I'm taking this year off as well and - unless something radical changes - it will be my second of forty-some years away from football.  And yes, I'm extending my self-imposed exile this year to football at all levels.

Here's why:

1.  Domestic violence/sexual assault/rape culture - Respectable sources have
documented that the rate of domestic violence among NFL players is actually lower than the national average among men of the same age.  Still, it feels like there's as much police-blotter coverage of football players as there is game coverage, and too much of the crime hurts women.  [Edit:  Thank to a friend, I now know that the author of the above-linked article actually posted a follow-up saying that he was distressed by the response to that article.  He wrote a follow-up saying that the NFL does have a domestic violence problem.  It's not just my perception.]  Amy Schumer nailed this topic, surprisingly enough in a humorous fashion.  But watch all the way to the end to see the underlying connection. 

2.  Concussions - Will Smith's Christmas present to the culture is a movie that will raise everyone's concussion awareness.  The high-profile suicides of Junior Seau and others have made it feel just plain wrong to watch today's players endure the same kinds of risks. From what I have heard about Chris Nowinski's research, concussion risk is as high or higher in practice than in games.  That makes the thought of children and young people playing football that much less palatable.

3.  Instant Replay - OK, they aren't all moral reasons.  Football offers incredibly fast changes of momentum and fortune, like when what appears to be a sure touchdown for team A becomes a turnover converted into a touchdown for team B.  As such, replay ruins the visceral experience of watching football more than it ruins that experience in other sports.  For the gain of officials calling plays more accurately more often, we have lost the sheer joy and surprise of watching sports.  The NFL has tainted and ruined its own entertainment value by forcing players and fans to look around and wait to know whether they can celebrate any touchdown and most every exciting play.  No thanks.

4.  Roger Goodell - This guy has less integrity than a credit card thief.  He dispenses justice so arbitrarily and unilaterally, it's head-spinning.  Of course, he's just a symbol for how rules always seem to get bent for football players.

5.  The NCAA - After taking last year's NFL season off, I have to expand my football ban to college and high school because of issues 1 and 2.  Taylor Branch's exhaustive Atlantic cover story on the NCAA explained how its history of policies and decision-making make Roger Goodell look like Cory Booker.  Should this article and the Ed O'Bannon case make me give up college basketball, too?  Possibly, but a) it's a long winter, people, b) basketball has fewer of these problems than football and c) give it time.  For now, though, college football's exploitation vibe trumps basketballs for me personally.  Without seeking it out, I've happened upon the NFL combine on television.  In this event, draft-eligible college players (er, excuse me, student athletes) wear identical numbered spandex suits and run through the same drills in a regimented, measured fashion for NFL scouts to observe.  There is also a weigh-in, pictured at right.  Fans, front-office execs
NFL Combine Weigh-in
and team owners soak up the results of these weigh-ins.  Actually, it goes beyond height and weight to other, more specific body measurements

Now, I've never seen a slave auction, but having studied the cultural history of slavery, nothing in our current culture comes closer to an auction than the combine.  "Owners" putting men the rights to whom they can acquire through their paces at a big public event?  I'm not the first to say this either.  Anyway, the college system exploits thousands of young men who sign on for the chance at the ultimate mutual exploitation opportunity: an NFL career.

6.  Steve Almond's Against Football -  Steve Almond wrote a "reluctant manifesto" against a sport on which he too grew up--and he does way better than I do here.  In his short book, he outlines his own process that brought him to the point where he had to swear off the game.  Even if you plan to go on with your Red Zone channel and fantasy league, read Almond's book and at least see what the most articulate of us wackos has to say about not watching football anymore.

Those are my reasons.

The smaller-time the football I'm giving up, the more I'll miss it.  Following my alma mater's fortunes in the Ivy League is as futile as it is highly entertaining.  The university I work for plays in a conference you've never heard of against schools you've never considered; I've listened to their games on the radio and read the tiny writeups they merit in the local paper.  I live in a top-5 high school football region in the country.  I've taken my boys to high school games picked at random from the listings in the newspaper; they have immediately become loyal fans of the home team.  I've consumed every single media production that has ever resulted from Buzz Bissinger's masterpiece Friday Night Lights (including, of course, the masterpiece).  Football's pageantry and entertainment value at all levels make this decision difficult.  

The excesses Bissinger exposed 25 years ago planted the first seed of finding football a little too squicky to stay married to.  Actually, maybe some of the assholes on my own high schools' teams did that.  For as likable as many of the characters in the FNL TV series turned out to be, the original book pointed out the gonzo disproportion of resources devoted to football in schools.  It also highlighted how the free pass given to players in their glory days can come back to bite those very players in the butt when their football lives come to an end.

If you see me watching a football game or somehow weighing in, you can call me a hypocrite.  I'll have some excuse like my kids, neighbors or alumni association making me swallow my moral opprobrium for familial or social reasons.  I don't actually know what I plan to say to my kids about all of this.  They still get a lot of joy out of football; I'm not sure what right I believe I have to impose more than a decade of my creeping discomfort on their young hearts and minds.

Already, I have a lot more time on my hands.  Football games are long, and I read a surprisingly small number of the pages in the sports section.  That creates a certain pressure to do something valuable with the extra time.  My March Madness bracket better perform very well next spring. 


Mike Jackson said...

I wrestle with this too, Jeff. Do we give up all sports? MLB is not without it's share of wife/drug abusers, cheats and jerks (, soccer has it's concussion problems and "actors", hockey celebrates violence, etc.

I guess I just have to somehow pay attention to all the good players to help justify my love of simply watching something that, on the field, is very entertaining. If we focus on the negative headline grabbers not many sports (badminton?), or other forms of entertainment for that matter, would pass the purity test.

I miss sport for spots sake. Not for money or sponsorships or fame. Just play the game. I used to feel that way about college basketball. I'll certainly be watching the Seahawks, this year but will need to work this through, certainly with my boys, and myself. Thanks for the thought-proving ideas.


Lauren Jackson said...

I'm also reminded of this article about the problems with our country's focus on high school sports.

JFo said...

Mike and Lauren,

It's always good to have more perspective. Thanks for offering it in your comments.

The older I get the less bandwidth I feel I have/want to devote to sports. For instance, a few years ago, I gave up paying attention to hockey, not for any big reason. Just because I didn't have time to know enough to follow it knowledgeably, and it was therefore less fun than it used to be. I couldn't tell my Kovalevs from my Nichushkins, and it was easier to leave it behind.

So maybe all sports have their problems, but if one seems glaringly worse than the rest, it makes it easier for me to shed that one in favor of the others. I'm not prepared to give up sports altogether, but my relationship with them has changed over and over again throughout my life.

Anne H. said...

I admire you for taking action based on what know and have learned about football. I think the cover-up at any level but especially by the NFL, of the danger of concussions and head blows (I believe it does't take a full-blown concussion to do damage), is beyond shameful. But I'm not a person of my convictions on this topic. I won't buy tickets to go to a game, but I wouldn't have anyway. I will watch the occasional game, especially if the Steelers are doing well or my grandsons are in the house. This is a sacrificial decision and I won't judge you if I see you watching a game.

JFo said...

Unfortunately, I've noticed two stories about high school students dying from in-game injuries this season, one of a lacerated spleen and one of a head injury. RIP, Evan Murray and Kenny Bui.