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Fifteen Months into NFL boycott, Life Continues Remarkably Unchanged…

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 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.

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Long Story: Why Rugby’s Distant Cousin has Replaced Tackling with Hitting

What’s wrong with this picture? Stefon Diggs (14) scored a winning, last-second touchdown on Sunday because Marcus Williams (43) went for the hit, not the traditional tackle…

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings wide-out Stefon Diggs may go on to do many more spectacular things during his career but for now his miraculous walk-off touchdown to win last January’s playoff game vs. the New Orleans Saints remains his claim to fame. But let’s widen the scope on this play and connect a few dots, for in so doing we link the signature moment of the 2018 playoffs to the league’s most pressing issue. Look at the picture that accompanies this essay (or watch the video of the play here) and examine with me what New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams was thinking as time ran out.

We should first take a moment to pity the man, a rookie whose coaches consigned him to a god-awful position — “on an island,” as they say, by himself defending half the field when the situation clearly called for the Mother of All Prevent Defenses. Even in this highly vulnerable position, however, all Williams needed to do was play center field, keep Mr. Diggs in front of him, eventually wrap him up and wait for help, or bring him down, ideally in the field of play (but even a shove out of bounds would have sufficed).

Instead, Williams did what most American footballers tend to do in the 21st century: He went for the “spectacle hit”, head first.

Competitively, as we’ve seen, the results were disastrous. (Williams even managed too compound his misfortune, somewhat comically, by whiffing on Diggs entirely, then taking out his teammate — the only guy in a viable position to chase the wide receiver down when the ball is caught.) What’s more, according to rules taking effect for the 2018 regular season, even the headfirst attempt should/would draw a 15-yard personal foul penalty. But if we step back, we see here yet another consequence of football’s troubling evolution on the defensive side of scrimmage. Despite a litany of league-wide initiatives to curb headfirst tackling — the result of mounting evidence linking repeated football-related head trauma to brain injury (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) — the NFL’s hit culture remains firmly in place. Even in a situation like Williams’, where old fashioned, rugby-style tackling was called for, the defender acted on the instinct that football today engenders.

NFL Football in the here and now is plenty good fun, the most popular and culturally dominant game in 21st century North America. Minnesota’s unlikely victory last January (indeed, three of the four games that weekend) showcase exactly why this is so. NFL games can be spectacularly entertaining.

But it would be a stretch to consider the game of professional football “perfected”. Any sport played at the elite level exists as a moving target, a work in evolutionary progress because the salient factors affecting that evolution — rules, tactics, equipment, geography and fashion — also shift and evolve. All this transforms the way a game is played over the course of time, sometimes by design, sometimes organically without much guidance at all.

In 2018, we can add “culture” and “the legal process” to this list of salient change-agents. People took notice when former NFL player Ed Cunningham resigned from his position of ESPN football analyst — on account of the game’s growing concussion dilemma — but, in truth, we’ve become somewhat inured to stories like this because nearly every week brings some new, relevant development, be it evidence that concussions sustained in pee wee football can lead to adult brain trauma, or steps the Canadian Football League has taken to reduce the volume of dangerous hits.

The idea that former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez might have committed his violent crimes while experiencing advanced-stage CTE adds to this potent mix the elements of irony and the macabre. Did you know that a class-action lawsuit, brought on behalf of current and former NCAA student-athletes, remains pending before Judge John Z. Lee of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois? Me neither. Class actions have their own online portals these days, naturally. Visit this one and be prepared for the following greeting: “Welcome to the NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation Website.”

Bit by bit, the forces of change would appear to be gathering over football, as they have intermittently but more or less continuously for more than a century. No game, it seems to me, has evolved so far, so quickly or so dangerously.

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