It’s difficult for me to profess, definitively, that I ever came to dislike the National Football League or football in general. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: I quite like it, as exhibited by 40-plus years of fandom — starting with the Sam Bam/Mike Haynes/John Hannah Patriots — and three decades as a working sportswriter, a role one cannot assume in America without paying attention to gridiron (see examples here and here). The arguments for opting out of the NFL, however, just kept stacking up, like the arguments against industrially farmed meat products, or cocaine. The smoking example remains the most apt: Active NFL fandom was something that undeniably amused me, for decades, but was pretty obviously bad for me.
I have abstained from the game since September 2018. I first composed the meat of this essay 15 months later, when yet another former player had killed himself but preserved his brain — so researchers might posthumously assess the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Thirty-eight months later, it takes an event like the cardiac arrest and collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, on Jan. 2, 2023, to remind myself of why I’ve refrained from reading anything on the subject, and why I’m not watching NFL games or college games.
Yet the NFL is so dominant in our culture that one need not actively follow the nation’s most popular sport in order to know who has died on the field, who’s been accused of sexual assault, and which guys you should probably activate in your fantasy league this week. Football games are on TV everywhere: in bars and restaurants, at parties and poker games. One is effectively buffeted by news of all this stuff, non-stop, via the dribs and drabs of interpersonal conversations, social environments, advertising of all kinds and serial web impressions. Love it or hate it, such is the NFL’s omnipresence in 2023. Americans routinely absorb its competitive results and attendant news/outrages almost by osmosis.
This essay was never conceived as an exercise in virtue signaling. Like someone who stops drinking for the month of January, or perhaps indefinitely, I found it edifying to write down my own reasons for opting out — to better process and perhaps defend (to myself) the quality of the decision-making. Still, 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 alpha, all-pro middle linebackers of their time, but eventually they were all borne from the arena in pieces. Free will allows anyone the license to play that game, but we are similarly 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.
2) The professional game would appear to be administered by fascists. Americans don’t understand (or refuse to recognize) what fascism is: the merging of state and corporate power into a single, hyper nationalist, corporate authoritarianism. The NFL’s 32 owners are certainly rich men in their own right, but they aspire to a higher, oligarchical power and prestige. They don’t covet these teams in order to gain entry into some prestigious boys club. They want access to the government/corporate apparatus that literally prints the money. To complete the picture, just watch a game on TV: 15 minutes of action surrounded by 3 hours and 45 minutes of commercials. Attend one of these games: The combatants stand around for extraordinary amounts of time just waiting for those television commercials to subside. That should tell you right there how much the competitive pales beside corporate… One of those all-powerful “corporate” partners is the U.S. military itself, a.k.a. our federal government. Who do you suppose provides the flyovers and dresses coaching staffs in various shades of camo, to subtly hype and recruit Americans for its volunteer armed forces? Indeed, this partnership was in place a decade before anyone realized it was a paid, client relationship, however symbiotic. Observe the Colin Kaepernick situation. In February of 2019, he settled a grievance against the league that accused teams of colluding to keep the QB out of the NFL on account of his protests during the 2016 season. More to the point, remember that his kneeling was openly and clearly a protest of police brutality (read: the state security apparatus) toward people of color. The league somehow spun this as an attack on the flag, the league, its corporate partners, our troops, God, on America itself. So far as the NFL is concerned, they are all one and the same.
3) Few American pursuits operate on the basis of such misplaced “manhood”. I sensed this when I was 8 years old and the situation has hardly improved since. We were again witness to this toxic state of affairs, in August of 2019, when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck opted to retire rather than deal with yet another injury/recovery process. Merely implied was the regimen of drugs and steroids team staffs routinely deploy to speed along recovery and mask injury. In other lines of work we’d applaud a guy who had made his money and chosen to “spend more time with family”. Instead Luck was pilloried for lacking toughness and not loving his team enough. This is happening more and more, of course, because while it pays quite well, football can maim you, or rob you of cognitive function, or kill you outright. The retirement of Vontae Davis a couple years ago hit home with me. He walked away from $4 million and it was like he’d beaten up his girlfriend or something. Wait! Bad example (see rampant misogyny below). Rather, it was as if Davis had committed a hit-and-run. “This is a joke, you don’t quit,” said former coach/extant cartoon character Rex Ryan. Another ESPN commentator, Damien Woody, added, “There is nothing funny about this. My blood is boiling. I want to fight this guy right now.” His teammate Rafael Bush: “I did lose a little respect for him as a man.” Manhood in the NFL is essentially defined by a willingness to get hurt and hurt others. Opting out of that makes you a pussy. Why would anyone with any sense choose to patronize anything like that?
4) The companion sociopathy to toxic masculinity is misogyny. The NFL has raised the latter to high art. With apologies to at least one niece who was well into cheerleading (and several others who participated in such things as high schoolers, including my wife), there’s something objectively creepy and reductive about it generally. I felt this way before I showed up at boho Wesleyan and got familiar with the patriarchy. On the most basic level, we must ask why girls are expected to cheer for boys but not the other way around. So binary! And, while we’re on the subject, why must women do so in push-up bikini tops? As per usual, the NFL has managed to magnify the phenomenon and utterly pervert it — into something grotesque, something that exceeds mere objectification. For years I’ve been reading about how little, in return for this twisted exhibitionism, NFL cheerleading squads are paid by their fabulously profitable employers. Only in the last couple years has it become clear the extent to which these women are exploited — expected to do team events without pay, for example; punished and/or fired for fraternizing with players (while players are not held to the same rules/standards). I could deal with the sexualized nature of their outfits and routines; to an extent I could swallow the questionable work conditions, which participants presumably chose of their own free will. What truly galled me and put me over the edge, however, was this story about how would-be cheerleaders who failed to make the Redskins squad were offered the opportunity to preserve their chances of joining next year’s squad by joining a sort of auxiliary, whose duties included tarting themselves up and flirting with high-rolling patrons in skyboxes. To believe this practice was or remains restricted to Washington’s NFL franchise would be pretty naïve…
5) From a labor perspective, NFL brass have so brought the players’ union to heel that in this, the nation’s most lucrative sport, the individuals who create the spectacle itself have next to no power. Despite creating the most revenue and experiencing the shortest careers, theirs is the worst contract security among major American athletes; hockey players (many of whom are Canadian or European) have better access to guaranteed contracts — as do baseball and basketball players. While rampant militarism permeates the league and helps explains (alongside mere paternalism and racism) the extended blackballing of someone like Kaepernick, his remains a labor issue at its core. On this, in America, we should be able agree: No employer has the right to tell an employee how to voice his or her political beliefs (Hey, right-wingers: Do those who possess a ‘right to work’ also possess a right to belief?). Neither does that employer have the legal right to collude with purported competitors to bar that person from employment on account of those beliefs. The NFL does both routinely.
6) Special mention must be reserved here for college football, a farm system for which NFL franchises are not obliged to pay. Starting July 1, 2021, the NCAA approved name, image, and likeness policies that allows student-athletes to independently monetize their names, images and likenesses. This is a step forward. However, in nearly every other respect discussed here, the college game outpaces the NFL in terms of unconscionable behavior. “Student/athletes” continue create the college football product, too; they aren’t directly paid for that service at all. Meanwhile, many head football coaches at their respective state universities remain the highest paid public employees in those states.
7) I never thought I’d say this, much less feel it so manifestly, but the Patriots’ 20-year run of otherworldly, ungodly form has taken another chunk of the fun out of football-watching, for me anyway. The Patriots were terrible for decades, as most any New Englander will tell you. The Pats have been mediocre the last two seasons, apparently. The previous 20, however, they went 12-4 without fail, won the AFC East and played for a chance to go to the Super Bowl — each and every year. Ho fucking hum. Sports are compelling because we don’t know what’s going to happen. With the Patriots, in the 21st century, that suspense has been essentially removed from week to week.
Yet here’s the awkward thing (and mark this down as Reason #3,489 why American football fans hate New Englanders with the heat of 3,490 suns): The Pats, who once filled us with shame and self-loathing, have become a massive source of social and civic engagement. Where I live, here in Maine, people throw game parties where men and women alike don replica jerseys and eat snacks. These events are highly inclusive, communitarian, almost weekly affairs. It’s hard to find fault with them. Indeed, it would be churlish to refuse invitations to this sort good natured revelry. So, while I am abstaining from the NFL, the Patriots have become such a civic/social institution in Maine that it’s honestly impossible to avoid them, even if one wishes to.
A friend recently invited himself over to my place after we finished band practice nearby. “Wait,” he caught himself, “you’re not watching football anymore…” Oh, come on over, I said reassuringly. Hewing to principle in such a case makes no sense. I have a working television. I’m not avoiding the NFL (or writing this essay) to signal any virtue. I’m not boycotting products made with slave labor after all (not technically). It’s just a football game. Of course, the Pats beat up on the Jets so thoroughly and unmercifully that Monday night, we switched it off and watched preseason basketball instead.