So, I hear the Patriots are no longer unbeaten. I gather the NFL has deigned to grant Colin Kapaernick an audience — and Antonio Brown is officially old news? I know the basic outlines of this stuff despite the fact that, for the second season running, I’m abstaining from football. I’m not reading anything on the subject, not watching NFL games, nor college games (which barely register in my Yankee world), or even Patriots games on TV. I’ve found it instructive that a conscientious objector like myself need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know with whom Josh Gordon has latched on, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys you should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. That’s one of the big take-aways here: The NFL is so dominant in our culture that one is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, serial web impressions and daily newspaper headlines (the one made of real paper), whether one wants to be or not. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2019. Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.
It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I ever came to dislike the NFL or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it — as exhibited by my 40-plus years of fandom and three decades as a sports writer, including multiple essays published in this space (see here and here) and elsewhere. But the arguments for opting out of the NFL just kept stacking up, like the arguments against smoking — or those advocating more cardiovascular exercise. Or flossing. The smoking example is best: NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me but was pretty obviously bad for me.
I was riding in a Lyft down in Philadelphia a couple months back when the middle-aged driver and I mused for a time about the Sox-Phillies series then taking place at Citizens Park. We quickly moved on to Celtics-Sixers before taking up the inevitable: the Eagles’ Super Bowl win over the Patriots in February 2018. A great game, despite the result, I admitted. But when he asked what I thought about Antonio Brown’s brief dalliance in New England, or how long I thought Tom Brady might keep playing, I explained that I’d checked out of football starting the year before. He appeared sorta dumbfounded by this and asked me why. It wasn’t a long ride-share we’d ordered; my wife and daughter were in the backseat. I provided him only a cursory explanation. For you, dear reader, a complete set of well wrought justifications appears below.
Taken together, they make it ever more clear — to me, for me — that football generally and the NFL in particular were bad for me, like trans-fats. Or cocaine during the 1980s. Or fascism any ol’ time. But the NFL (and college football, it must be said) are frankly worse because trans-fats, for example, don’t seep unbidden into one’s body or consciousness via the culture at large, beguiling conscientious objectors and devotees alike with the same prurient, mass-produced id-candy.
Please believe me when I tell you this essay is not an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write this stuff down — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making involved. So, in no particular order of importance, let it be known that I’ve sworn off the NFL because:
1) It can kill you apparently. Not everyone who plays NFL football (or college football, or high school football) develops CTE-induced aphasia and dies, of course. But enough of them have, and enough exhibit these debilitating cognitive effects in the long term to make a compelling adverse case. Roman gladiators may have been the all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were borne from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but I’m free to opt out of that sort of spectacle… How parents can allow their children to play the game, knowing what we now know, I truly do not understand. Create for yourself a Google alert for “High School Football Spinal Cord and Head Injuries” and witness the sickening news trickle in each Friday night, often via the live-Tweets of sportswriters who witness yet another ambulance on the field, under the klieg lights of small town America. It’s no shock to learn participation is falling across the country. I predict that, in 20 years, no public high school in the nation will have 11-man, tackle football teams, because no public school system will have the money to cover the liability insurance. Kids will continue to play football, or course, but only via private clubs. Like Rollerball.