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.
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|
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.