A few weeks ago a friend posed a thoughtful question along these lines: “what cultural practices are we engaged in now that, when we look back on them in a few decades, we will regret having taken part in?” It is difficult to conceive that slavery was once an accepted part of our community, and a century ago a majority of the population was content that women could not vote. What will we be similarly embarrassed about in coming decades? There are lots of large and small candidates.
My own vote was football.
I enjoy watching football; it is the only sport to which I routinely pay attention. The combination of strategy and execution in each game, even the various off-season moves capture me. I like the draft, the signings, the personalities, the controversies. But over the last few seasons I have been unable to escape the violence.
Football has always been about large fast objects changing the direction of other last fast objects to advance the ball. But recently, for me at least, the pure physics of the sport has surrendered to a growing brutality in its execution. Football today seems less like chess and more like assault. We appear to be on the cusp of a widespread diagnosis of lingering brain trauma among players whose bodies have been pummeled by larger men hitting them at greater speeds. Signs that these players may have been, and may still be, at risk must not be understated by the sport’s governors or, by extension, fans like me. It is sad that commentators now routinely suggest that it is not the best teams that have playoff or bowl success but rather the ones that have been least ravaged by serious injury during the season.
Off-field violence among players has appeared to increase raising concerns that the brute passion so useful within the field of play, is bursting the confines of the game and making its way into player domestic relationships, sports celebrity expectations, and popular culture itself.
The observation that football players are America’s gladiators is unoriginal. But ancient Rome had as complicated a relationship to its gladiators as America does with its quarterbacks and linebackers. The gladiatorial code spoke to bravery and honor, even in death, values the Empire largely revered, and the original contests were usually ceremonial and commemorative events. But the gladiator spectacles gradually became costlier, more self-indulgent and cruel, no longer linked to a shared value but instead cynical political entertainment exploiting the bloodlust of the crowd until the advent of Christianity as the Empire’s state religion dulled the appeal of the contests in the 4th and early 5th centuries.
American football is not the same. It does not applaud cruelty. Not yet anyway. But it is now a costly, indulgent, powerful commercial spectacle increasingly associated with violence, on and off field, and unless the game itself can recover its soul we fans will demean ourselves when our passion as spectators requires these men and boys to forfeit their physical and mental health, shorten their lives, and restrict to the field of play that cultivated aggression without which they cannot achieve athletic success.
Perhaps I will discover that the incidence of domestic and other physical violence among football players is no higher than other similarly situated populations, and possibly we will learn that the rate of head trauma has been overstated and the game can be made safer than it currently appears. I hope so, because local sports loyalty is one of the few remaining unifying, democratic, non-partisan endeavors and football still rules local sports loyalty.
But I am not going to wait. This year I have chosen a tiny little private boycott. I will not watch the live broadcast of any professional game. This is not a moral crusade; I won’t avert my eyes from football reporting during the local sportscast, and I’m not recruiting for a big cultural movement. I’ll still read the NFL coverage every week and even give myself a free pass for the Super Bowl. But until then I deliberately refuse to watch a game live until I can convince myself that decades from now I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren, without shame, that I did so. I do this not because I don’t like football but rather because I like it very much.
As I related my intentions recently someone said “if the Cowboys are 6-2 at midpoint of the season we’ll see if you keep your promise.” It’s a good point.
But I just don’t think that’s a big risk this year….