Some thoughts on football and the NFL

I suspect there’s a part of me that still loves football, but I’m also pretty sure it’s the part of me that is memories and nostalgia, not the part of me that lives in the here and now. In what’s becoming increasingly incongruous, I read lots of football coverage, and I hear the hand-wringing about declining ratings and interest in the NFL. I’m one of those people abandoning the league, and the sport, and as I think about why, I think the more compelling question is why I hung on so long.

A few years ago, the NFL moved Monday Night Football to a cable network, ESPN; I’ve never paid for a cable tier that gives me ESPN access, and I’m not willing to do that, or to support a sports network that increasingly monopolizes live sports programming and sensationalizes nothing-stories, and that more recently has withdrawn its support for quality writing and reporting like what I could find on Grantland. It then added a Thursday night game, which is rarely compelling, and only infrequently accessible. Just over three years ago my partner and I bought a house and moved in together, along with our two young girls, and my reality became that I couldn’t watch “the game,” or even “a game,” every Sunday like I used to. A year or so after that, I decided that even when a game I wanted to watch actually was televised in my DC-area market, I wasn’t going to center my Sunday around it.

Even as I prioritized other things in my life, I watched football when I could. It’s a great sport–the power and doggedness of Marshawn Lynch carrying would-be-tacklers for another 3 yards, the touch on an Aaron Rodgers back-shoulder fade to Jordy Nelson, the closing speed of Richard Sherman. And it’s a hard one to escape. NFL football, to me, is sitting in the shop with my dad watching Montana and Rice and Taylor and Sherrard and Craig and Lott and Jones and Cofer and Young and Owens; it’s Monday Night Football over burgers and tater tots, and Sunday afternoons at The Grad; it’s watching my contemporaries at Cal go pro and show up in the starting lineups; it’s begrudgingly embracing the Packers because Aaron Rodgers is from my hometown, and my community college, and my college alma mater, and doing so even as I spent a year in Minnesota; it’s phone calls across 2000 or 3000 miles to talk to my dad or my brother or my college roommate about the game or a free agent deal; it’s what I fleetingly dreamed of during the two years I played high school football, and especially during the two weeks in which I was good. I still thrill when I recall stretching my fingertips to grasp that leather, or driving a shoulder into a ball carrier’s ribs and feeling his feet leave the ground.

But here I am. My 49ers are terrible, but even when they’re interesting, they aren’t broadcast where I live, and I get stuck with eastern teams I couldn’t care less about. The Packers had a good start to the season before Rodgers went down, and they showed up on TV occasionally, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t lately (for good reason). When there has been a matchup I’ve wanted to see this season, I haven’t been able to find it on TV, and I’m not going to buy some cable package just to watch the NFL. The league is everywhere, all the time, and I can’t see what I want to anyway. I realize it’s a business, and there may be no market for what I want (San Francisco, or really any West Coast teams) where I now live (Virginia), but I’m not totally convinced that location does matter, given the league’s blackout policies, and its enabling franchises to relocate for taxpayer-funded stadiums billionaire owners don’t have to pay for.

That saturation, the proposals to increase the number of games, the criticisms of players sitting out–they’re all ways of increasing the amount of product to generate additional profits, but done at the expense of the laborers, the players. Sure, a few make millions, but most don’t, and the guys who’ve spent 10 or 15 years chasing NFL dreams–even those who make it–are going to bear physical costs. CTE and other health problems have been evident for years, even as the NFL denies or dismisses them, or institutes protocols ostensibly to protect players even though fans watching on TV can see they don’t actually achieve that. Some of what we–I–love about the sport is the excitement and violence, how physical it is. But I have a conscience, too, and one that struggles to reconcile my love of the sport with the cost for its players.

We can add the league’s bumbling around issues like domestic violence and protests, where it’s clearly more concerned with its public image and trying to eliminate any contentious social or political discussions and keep stars on the field than with the rights or well-being of its players, or their families. The NFL acts when its bottom line is threatened, not at any other time or in response to any other pressure. Again, I’m disinclined to watch and generate revenue for a sport in which owners are trying to compel players to act one way (not protest), but oppose disciplinary actions for domestic abuse and other poor behaviors because discipline might cost a team victories.

Even through those issues, I remained uneasily invested, unwilling to withdraw completely. But this year one of my daughters has wanted to watch games with me, and I’ve been stuck in an even more awkward position. If we could watch the Vikings–she’s from Minnesota–I might be willing to dismiss my reservations in the interests of sharing some quality time with her. Instead, the team most consistently broadcast where we live is Washington. I am, among other things, a Native American historian, conscious of what that team’s nickname means historically, and to American Indians today. I cannot and will not in any way support that team until the name changes. Washington games were the first I refused to watch. To top it all off, this year the NFL decided to schedule the team to play on Thanksgiving Day, which is already a somewhat problematic holiday as many Americans celebrate it. And that games was against the Dallas Cowboys, just in case there was any remaining question that the NFL has absolutely no regard for the people it purports to “honor.” I realize the Supreme Court ruling earlier this year protected the right to use nicknames like this, but Dan Snyder and Roger Goodell emphasize the ruling, not that the court identified racial epithets as protected speech. Guys, those are bad. I can’t in good conscience cultivate any interest in that team, and given the television market in which I live, that league.

And so I’ve pretty much stopped watching this season, and I can’t honestly say that I miss it. I’ve used my Sunday afternoons to hang curtains in our library, build Lego sets with my daughter, nap, read the Washington Post, carve a pumpkin, work a couple of puzzles, repair the deck and the shed door, decorate a Christmas tree with my wife, take pictures of my girls during their riding lessons, cook some delicious meals, and do the housework I haven’t gotten to during the rest of the weekend, which I’ve spent shopping with kids and catching up on work and reading. Hell, it’s Sunday afternoon as I’m writing this.

I won’t pretend that I never liked football or the NFL, and I won’t pretend that I’m never going to watch it again. I also admit that I read about it–less today than a year ago, since now I haven’t seen what writers are discussing, but also hopefully more now than a year or two from now, when I will know fewer of and less about the players being written about. But for me, football has grown bigger and bigger in ways that make its flaws impossible to ignore or reconcile with my other priorities, and so that growth has made it a smaller and smaller part of my life.

Now, when do pitchers and catchers report?

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