I’m not watching football anymore. I just can’t. Let me explain.
I didn’t play organized football for very long. I started a new school in 8th grade and for some reason I thought playing on the football team would be a good way to meet people and make friends. Never mind that I was rail thin and maybe 100 pounds sopping wet in a wool sweater. Never mind that the only football I had played up to that point were touch games in the backyard with my friends and the occasional semi-organized game of flag football at summer camp. Never mind that constitutionally I was a better fit for the drama club than the poseur-macho culture of the middle school locker room. I played because I was a football fan – a NY Giants fan to be specific. I had posters of Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks and Joe Morris on the walls of my bedroom. Bill Parcells was the smartest man alive as far as I could tell. Those guys were my heroes. I lived and died every Sunday watching them play on TV and those rare occasions when I was able to go to a game at the Meadowlands were like religious pilgrimages. So, I played football.
I remember the first time I really got hit – got my “bell rung” as they say. It was at a practice where the coach had us get in two lines with the front of one line facing opposite of the other. The drill was that the two people at the front of each line would run and hit each other – no one was the defender or ball carrier – just straight-up collide in the middle and see who “wins.” I’m not sure if it was a physics experiment or if it had some instructional value about how to hit someone. I don’t remember whom I was up against, and I don’t even remember how ferociously or not I tried to hit them. What I do remember is not only getting knocked on my ass, but the force of the collision slamming into my head and as I got up off the ground slowly, my ears were ringing and the laughing and hooting of the coaches and players was coming through only dimly. I was confused. I was a little disoriented. Did I have a minor concussion? Maybe. Maybe not. People didn’t really seem too concerned about that in-general back then.
I didn’t play football when we started high school the next year. But I was every bit as much a football fan and remained so for many, many years. Some of my favorite father-son moments with my dad occurred around the New York Giants. I was able to instantly bond with my father-in-law over the New York Giants. Even though we live in Washington with its Football Team With a Racist Name, I made sure my son was a Giants fan. I can’t count how many male friendships over the years have been solidified over football talk in-general and the G-men specifically. But throughout that time while I was dimly aware of the violent nature of the game, its reality and consequences were out of view. Sure, there were guys whose knees were shot and tragic stories like Lyle Alzado’s whose health was ruined by steroids, but they were aberrations.
But over the past decade the revelations about the lingering impact of multiple concussions on the physical and mental health of professional football players has changed something for me. These men are doing permanent harm to themselves for my entertainment, harm that persists long after the season is over, long after their career is done, long after we’ve all moved on to the newest crop of faster, stronger players who repeat the same story with exponential violence.
People say, “But certainly these men knew football is a dangerous sport? No one forced them to play. They’re well compensated and with that kind of compensation sometimes comes consequences.” This ignores the fact that fan dollars and gargantuan television contracts feed the system that creates that kind of cruel logic. It ignores the fact that the NFL has gone to extreme lengths to keep the truth of the situation from both players and fans.
That’s why I won’t watch anymore.
William C. Rhoden put it bluntly in this weekend’s Times when writing about the recent settlement of a lawsuit between the NFL and a group of 4,500 former players who claimed to suffer lingering health effects from concussions.
The settlement has put all of us who watch pro football on a moral hot seat. Former players have taken the money, leaving the fans three ways to rationalize their addictive zeal for these weekly spectacles:
■ You love the product and don’t really care about its costs.
■ You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.
■ You will walk away.
Rhoden says he is going to continue to watch “as a cultural critic who thinks that football is merely evidence of erosion in the American soul.” When you’re a New York Times columnist I guess you can get away with that.
But I’m walking away. And not without regrets.
I love the game – the strategy, the execution, the disciplined aggression and the intense rivalries. Football teams are our modern American tribes and this decision leaves me tribe-less, which is a lonely way to be.
I haven’t watched a game these past two weeks. I haven’t watched highlights on SportsCenter or listened to the chatter about the Washington Football Team With The Racist Name on talk radio. I’ve avoided even reading about the games on the news websites I frequent.
And I’ve had several awkward conversations with friends that went something like this:
“Did you watch the game?”
“No, I’m not watching anymore. I just can’t bear it with everything we know about concussions. I feel dirty.”
“But I heard it was a pretty awful game.”
“Yeah. We got creamed. I gotta go.”
I can tell people don’t want to hear it.
I don’t want to hear it.
Does it really matter if one Giants fan doesn’t watch? Ratings are higher than they’ve ever been, so I guess not.
But I can’t be a part of this anymore.