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.
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 an extraordinary amount 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, 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 Kaepernick situation. In February, 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, quite openly and clearly, a protest of police brutality 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, 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 opted 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 like Davis had committed a hit-and-run. “This is a joke, you don’t quit,” said former coach/extant cartoon 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 think 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 and 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 they do so in push-up bikinis? 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 creepy 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 the 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, to say nothing of professional baseball and basketball players. While rampant militarism permeates the league and helps explains (alongside mere paternalism and racism) the extended blackballing of 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. Special mention must be reserved here for college football, a farm system for which NFL franchises are not obliged to pay. Of course, in nearly every respect discussed here, the college game outpaces the NFL in terms of unconscionable behavior. “Student/athletes” create the college football product, too; they aren’t paid at all. Meanwhile, in many states, the head football coaches at state universities are the highest paid public employees in those states.
6) 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 any New Englander knows. For fans, their all-too infrequent glimmers of contention (1976-78, 1985-86, 1996) were nothing less than thrilling. Well, that particular thrill is gone. In the 21st century, without fail, they go 12-4, win the AFC East and play for a chance to go to the Super Bowl — each and every year. Ho fucking hum. Is it Brady we should thank for this unprecedented, ultimately mind-numbing success? Is it Belichik? I tend to believe the latter and not because we are fellow Wesleyan Cardinals. Remember 2009, the year Brady got hurt? They went 11-5 with Matt Cassell at quarterback. But it really doesn’t matter who gets the credit. 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.
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 on any level. Indeed, it would be churlish to refuse invitations to this sort good natured revelry. So, while I am abstaining from the NFL, I did watch last year’s Super Bowl, for example — a terrible bore of a game, if we’re being honest. I attended a cocktail party last January, at a Florida golf resort, where the Pats-Chiefs AFC Championship game played soundlessly on massive flat-screen. That game was unbelievable, about the best riposte the NFL could possibly muster to someone like me (if we look past the fact that grandfatherly Pats owner/oligarch Bob Kraft flew to Kansas City directly from a Florida massage parlor). The Patriots have become such a civic/social institution in Maine that it’s honestly impossible to avoid them, even if one wishes to. In October, a friend invited himself over to my place after we finished music 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 little sense. 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.