For me, in some ways, football is the closest thing I have to religion. Every Sunday, I would pledge my allegiance to ESPN for two hours of pregame, and then devote myself to Fox, CBS, and NBC for nine or ten hours. It was more than a game or entertainment, it was a ritual.
And when fantasy football became popular, I remember creating my yahoo account so that I could sign-up for a random league. It only grew from there. A fun hour of drafting evolved into weeks of pouring over stats and trends, trying to find a way to outsmart my friends and co-workers.
But I have to be honest, I don’t feel the way that I used to about the game. I know I have to quit football.
As a Patriots’ fan, their recent Super Bowl win was a roller coaster. As a fan, I can name their entire starting lineup, relevant stats, college highlights for their players, and explain how Tom Brady was basically screwed over at Michigan. The Super Bowl was the culmination of years of fandom, of disappointments, triumphs, failures, and successes.
And yet, the game left me feeling unsatisfied. But I’m jumping ahead. My feelings of discontent have accumulated over the last four years. As the information on head injuries has become more transparent, the harm that these men are inflicting on themselves has reached dangerous levels. As the NFL has failed to implement sufficient, safety strategies, and in some cases, even acted to suppress the evidence associated with the catastrophic toll these players are putting on their bodies, I’ve grown more and more disgusted with the league’s actions.
Even more frightening is the mentality that so many players display, as they hungrily accept any opportunity to play one more down. “Play for your teammates, your family…” I hear that, again and again from players. I shake my head as I read about the number of former football players suffering from serious brain injuries, some even committing suicide. For men who played for “their families,” I can’t imagine the pain that their actual family must feel. The NFL, however, continues to make money. Record-setting attendance, viewership, and participation are a constant. Not bad for a non-profit (PETA, take notice…).
I don’t specifically blame the players, as it’s hammered into them from a young age. You sacrifice, you work, you put the team before everything else. Of course they feel a sense of loyalty to that contrived idea. For a lot of young athletes, it becomes an integral part of their life, an opportunity to be a part of something bigger. The issue arises when those same athletes then sacrifice their futures for 60 minutes of glory. There is honor in being part of something bigger than oneself, but when the goal is profit, in an industry that suppresses the likely harm to its employees.
My dissatisfaction reached new levels, however, with the handling of the league’s big players, Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. I personally don’t have a problem with the league reacting one way or the other on the charges levied against the players (that’s what courts are for). But the NFL’s waffling, their inability to form a semi-coherent response to the actions of both reminded me of my preschool class requesting an extra recess from our teacher. We kept asking, changing our reasons for being outside again, hoping that what we said would eventually be what our teacher wanted to hear.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, Ray Rice, a Pro Bowl-level running back who used to be on the Baltimore Ravens, knocked out his then-fiancee (now wife) in a casino elevator. The NFL originally suspended him for two games. TMZ obtained the Ray Rice video, however, the NFL said that they were blindsided by the actions in the video, and suspended him indefinitely (TMZ said it took one phone call to obtain the video after the NFL claimed that they could not obtain the video). Aside from the absurdity that TMZ was the moral arbiter in the situation, the NFL seemed either grossly incompetent in their inability to obtain a video that the hotel was more than willing to provide, or they lied. Neither one bodes well for the future of the most popular sport in the United States.
With the Adrian Peterson circumstance, where Peterson was charged with child abuse (he eventually plead no contest to a charge of misdemeanor reckless assault), the NFL bundled another attempt to set some industry standard for how the league wanted to conduct itself. More than that, fans lined up near the courthouse and took to every message board they could to support him. This was a man who was being charged with striking a child, multiple times, causing numerous lacerations, and their only reaction was unadulterated support, criticizing anyone who suggested that the object of their affection could be guilty of ANY wrongdoing.
The real kicker, however, is that the Super Bowl, with growing concerns of the conduct of the players and their safety, still set viewership records. Also, I watched it. Meanwhile, stuff like this was still going on in the world. I don’t mean to make this an advertisement about John Oliver. Truth is, I just love his show.
It was about a week after the Super Bowl that all of the destructive factors came together for me. I realized the real issue with the NFL: me. I was the problem, or, at least, I was part of the problem. I spent so much time the previous year watching videos on NFL.com, checking my ESPN fantasy app, checking the Patriots Salary Cap situation, and debating possible playoff teams with my friends that I never stopped to realize the dangers, both health and in perception, that the league presented. It altered my sense of justice, my empathy for the health of others, and my prioritization of the different issues that were going on in the world. All so that I could watch a person I’ve never met hold up a metal statue.
I’m happy that it entertained me for the time that it did, but the game has gotten to a point where it stands for something that I don’t want to be a part of anymore. Maybe I’m naïve and it was always like this, I just didn’t (want to) see it. Whatever the reason, I can’t contribute to this empire, anymore. My time, my money, my energy could be much better spent. More importantly, I hope that if enough people also feel like this, we can cause change by affecting the one thing the NFL would notice: their wallet.