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.