NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just gave his pre-Super Bowl press conference. He dodged questions about player health and safety and when he did touch on it he made ridiculous claims. When asked about how NFL players are dying young, often to suicide, due to CTE and repetitive head trauma, he said "There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.“ Oh.
Whenever Goodell says stuff like that – whenever he ignores the bleedin’ obvious and sidesteps the mortally serious – people mock him and register their outrage. “How dare he insult our intelligence like that?!” the media and a decent part of the public shout. And then, for the most part, they continue to watch football, purchase NFL-licensed products and otherwise enrich Roger Goodell, the league’s 32 owners and its affiliated businesses. I am certain the Super Bowl’s ratings will be quite impressive on Sunday.
It doesn’t have to be that way. People really can give up the NFL if they want to. I did. And you can too.
I spend a lot of time on Twitter and on my baseball blog making fun of football. I call it dumb and lame and basically portray it as a waste of time and an unworthy pursuit. But that’s exaggeration for comedic and, admittedly, trolling effect. I played youth football and continued to play it until my sophomore year in high school. I watched football, college and pro, from the time I was seven years old until just a few years ago. I watched it pretty incessantly.
I thought then and still think that parts of the game are simply beautiful. People wax poetic about baseball all the time, but there are very few things in sports as beautiful as a Barry Sanders touchdown run. Few things as fierce and visceral as Lawrence Taylor rushing the passer. Few things that provide a metaphor for humanity like linemen engaging in battle with one another, picking themselves up from the turf, gathering themselves and going right back at it again, all to lay the groundwork for teammates at glory positions who aren’t hit as hard or as often.
But my love of football began to get complicated the more I learned about the toll the game took on its players. And the more I learned about just how little the NFL and those 32 owners seem to really care about it. Football players’ careers are very, very short. Their contracts are not guaranteed. Their post-playing benefits and healthcare are lacking. While some are paid well for a short period of time and while some emerge from the game apparently unscathed, a huge number of football players are chewed up and spit out for our entertainment.
I’m not sure when this dynamic first started to become a problem for me. I can’t remember a single tipping point. It may have been when Steelers’ center Mike Webster died. It may have been when I read a story about William “Refrigerator” Perry’s unfortunate post-career circumstances. Certainly the fact that I had begun a full-time job writing about another sport cut into the capacity I had to care about other sports. All I know is that, a few years ago, on NFL’s Opening Day, I decided not to turn on a game. I haven’t watched or seriously followed the NFL since. A year or two after that, when I reached a similar point with college football and the way its players are exploited by the NCAA, I gave that up too. Not an easy thing to do when you’re an Ohio State alum who lives in Columbus, Ohio, but I did it and I don’t miss it at all.
I don’t offer this to be all high-horse about things. I am not saying that, if you truly love football, you are obligated to give it up or should feel bad if you don’t. Like what you like and enjoy what you enjoy and appreciate that no one lives a perfect life. God knows I consume a lot of products that aren’t produced in ways that I’m happy with. I’m typing this on a computer and I’ll later read responses to it on a phone that are almost certainly made with exploited labor. If I’m a good boy I’ll strap on my probably sweatshop-made Nikes and run on the treadmill for a while. It’s also worth noting that my employer makes a LOT of money off of the NFL and I may not have the job that I do if it weren’t for that money. All of us are guilty, to greater or lesser degrees, of contributing to suffering of some form or another. Or in some cases profiting off of it. We should try to do better in this regard, even if it’s understandable that we don’t always do so.
All I am saying is that if you, like me, get to a point where you simply can’t reconcile the enjoyment of football with the suffering it puts its players through or if the suffering starts to eclipse that enjoyment for you, you can simply give it up. You can. It’s not that hard. You won’t be left behind culturally. You will not be privy to some conversations you used to be privy to, but you’ll find others. Your Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays) won’t have some set appointment anymore, but you’ll find other things to do. It’s a hell of a lot easier than quitting drinking or smoking or something.
Then, with all of that extra time you have, we can talk about how to buy fewer products that cause suffering. Sundays are good for that.