Sunday, February 14, 2016

On Football and Falling Out of Love

We’ve long known football breaks bodies. We now know football breaks brains. The sport is violently athletic and viscerally fast, traits that have an unfortunate multiplier effect when combined with chemically altered behemoths smashing into one another dozens of times per game. The game is pure, uncut American id – soaring fighter jets overhead and handsome quarterbacks who break down the defense and get the girls, men being men like back in the days when men were men (only now with more slightly more dancing!). It’s the State of Nature goofily reflected through a game with an oblong ball and non-guaranteed contracts. Unfortunately, the career (and life) of a standard football player is equally Hobbesian – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
The National Football League for many years has misled, or lied, about an established link between football and long-term head injuries. It has done so to protect a product that fundamentally destroys itself. This is a league that routinely bilks taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars to build new stadiums, ruthlessly applying leverage and the love of its fanbases to extract just that. Its commissioner is a comically inept Oz-like figure, dispensing justice from on high so haphazardly that he calls into question the integrity of the league. And the game just breaks people, it hurts them beyond repair. Meanwhile, the league desperately tries to avoid responsibility, shuttling forward scientists to deny a definitive link between football and head trauma, cutting funding to research that might implicate the league, and trying to silence the daughter of a hall of famer who committed suicide specifically by shooting himself in the chest so his brain could be analyzed for CTE. (He had it.)

More and more it seems that NFL football is a moral injustice.

Unfortunately, I love football. I watch just about every Packer game, read about the league during the week, and even buy goofy hats with pompoms because they have a green and gold “G” and I’m a sucker for comfort-related capitalism. I’m an active consumer of the NFL. I’m part of the problem.

I liken this support to my relationship with eating meat. Increasingly I feel it’s morally wrong and not just for the personal choice whether or not to eat a once-living thing. My support is tacit (actually pretty explicit) approval of a rotten system. The meat industry has come a long way since Upton Sinclair but to briefly list some flaws, it’s a major driver of the water shortage in California and treats animals with the specific cruelty that can only be driven by a belief in short-term economics as dogma. (See: Ted Cruz.) Yet still, I eat meat on average once a day.

Neither of these lists of complaints is remotely exhaustive. The NFL uses amateur athletes as a farm system, forcing youth players to put themselves at the same risk for lifelong injury while they are subsequently barred from making any money off their skills. Farm system is an apt metaphor here – especially in comparing the NFL to Big Meat – because the general attitude from NCAA higher ups toward its Esteemed Student Athletes is to brand them and then cast them aside when they’ve reached the end of their usefulness.

(These analogies write themselves, by the way. My favorite team is named for a meatpacking company.)

In the wake of a Super Bowl that pitted a golden boy quarterback (who covered up a sexual assault and threatened people who tried to expose potential drug use) versus a quarterback about whom I could charitably say many analysts speak in code, I’ve been thinking a lot about letting go. Football and carnivore-dom are by no means cornerstones of my identity, but I haven’t given them up. They’re both quick shorthand for aggro/macho behavior (I say “steak” in my head the way it’s read in most Taco Bell commercials), but I’ve never been too concerned with that. My question boils down to this: recognizing something is bad or immoral is certainly a step, but does it matter if my behavior has hardly changed? It’s a precarious moral position to evaluate behavior from, because lots of things I enjoy propagate systems I find evil, banal or not. The music industry certainly has its share of terrible people and exploitative structures. The t-shirt I’m wearing as I write this – which is awesome – was probably made in a sweatshop. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I believe that awareness matters and that systems never change unless pressure is applied specifically to address certain ills. I’m also one of a million voices shouting into the void about how awful football is; let’s check the Super Bowl ratings to see if I’ve done any good. Me? I watched and scarfed down about 20 hot wings in the process. They were delicious and the game was pretty entertaining, if we’re being honest.

But I watched with this new knowledge of the horrors of the sport, too. The last few seasons, as I’ve seen crushing hits, I’ve stopped celebrating them. I know, too, that those aren’t the hits that lead to CTE. The sub-concussive hits, which are woven into the fabric of the game, are the real culprits. This season, I saw potentially career threatening plays (which should actually be evaluated as life-altering injuries) and cringed because the league is laughably bad at taking care of its retired players, many of whom aren’t rich and don’t play more than three seasons. This year I felt queasy, even if I kept watching.

I think I’m falling out of love with the game, but what’s that like, really? Is there a protracted denouement or a sharp break? I still screamed, literally hurt my voice for days, when Aaron Rodgers completed that Hail Mary against Arizona. If I still care this much, will I really let go?


As usual, I don’t have an answer. Life is a battleground of murky, and moral absolutes are thin on the ground. There will probably come a time that I can no longer justify watching a game I know destroys people. I just don’t know how it will come about.

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