The NFL kicks off this evening. Expectations are high and excitement is in the air, but this football fan finds himself wondering the following: If he really cares about NFL players, would he watch this or any other game this season?
The reality of the NFL is eerily similar to what boxing used to be—the more we’ve learned about the sport’s impact upon players the more thorny and complicated watching it has become. I’m emphasizing watching football on TV because the NFL’s largest source of income, by far, are the various contracts it maintains with media networks. Many of us will go to games this fall, and buy jerseys and other memorabilia, but the number one way most of us support the NFL is by turning on the TV on Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday…) With the season about to begin it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves What, exactly, are we supporting when we turn on a football game? ((I don’t feel compelled to spend much time listing football-alternatives. The point here isn’t what else could you watch instead of football. Besides, this is a very wired America, 2017, and there are quite literally millions of other ways to pass four hours on a Sunday, none of which you need me to tell you about.))
The appeals of football are many—its varied tactical complexities, the sheer physical virtuosity of its players, and of course its violence. It’s fun to watch a game with friends and family, it’s enjoyable to argue stats and debate trade options, and let’s not kid ourselves—we love it when a receiver gets laid out as he cuts across the middle of the field. Fantasy football leagues allow many of us to create our own teams, and then test our management skills against our fathers’. Football truly is an activity that can bring us together—nearly 112 million of us watched the Super Bowl this past year—and games can provide us with a sense of community and shared purpose that are generally positive and healthy.
Let’s shuffle all those positives to one side of the scale and look at what weighs down the other side. Before going further I’d like to emphasize that despite the fact that some of what I’m about to write might sound otherwise, I don’t believe NFL players are victims in any senses. They’re grown men who get paid huge amounts of money to play a sport they love. That fact is awesome for them; it also doesn’t negate a single thing that follows.
Most of us know that football is a horribly violent sport for the human body to endure. We know that there’s almost one reported concussion occurring in every single NFL game, to say nothing about practices, and we also know that all too many head injuries go unreported. We grimly read the NY Times article published this summer that outlined a 99% incidence of CTE among former NFL players
. We see 45yo ex-players who can’t walk down a flight of stairs, are aware of the increased incidences of ALS and dementia in former players, and know about Junior Seau’s suicide. We also know that no new piece of technology can offset any of the sport’s negative impacts ((If anything, it can be argued that reversing technology will actually improve players’ health, as less available protection demands less force when tackling)). In short, football is a guaranteed way to destroy the human body and brain.
We also know that the NFL is the highest earning sports league on the planet, set to rake in roughly $14-billion in income this year, and yet most NFL contracts do not provide players with guaranteed income in any traditional sense. Once a player gets injured or fails to perform as demanded, teams can effectively terminate his contract, end of story. We know that the NFL is a monopoly run by an autocrat who earns unimaginably more than any single player and who hands out vacillating punishments that slide across a moral compass whose true north appears to be magnetized to whimsy. We also know of the huge racial disparities in a league where roughly 70% of the players are black but only 1 owner is a minority. We also know that despite the Rooney Rule only 25% of coaches in the league are minorities this season, a number that is actually way up from historic norms. And we’re all too aware that the moment a black player such as Colin Kapernick, indisputably one of the better quarterbacks in the league, takes a political stand for black rights, he curiously does not have his contract renewed.
Those are all things we know about the game, good and bad. And we also know the following about ourselves: we vote with our remotes. Turning on a game, and thus being exposed to hours of paid advertisements, is the main way we support the NFL, which is a business that, once again, quite literally destroys its employees’ bodies and brains, has reactionary labor policies and a demonstrable and ongoing history of racial injustices.
We know all this crap about the NFL and still we’re counting down the clock to tonight’s kick-off. In truth, most of us would rather spend our time memorizing Aaron Rodgers’ completion percentages than we would like to think about any of the things I wrote in the above paragraphs. What, if anything, are we to do with this tension?
Perhaps it would help to step back from football for a moment. If any other business—say Walmart, or Amazon—had this much on the negative side of the scale, would you support it by shopping there? If we find such a thought odious, then how do we justify continuing to use our money to prop up a company with the NFL’s track record on labor, race, and health ((I see analogs here to current music-delivery services such as Spotify, YouTube and Pandora. We know those platforms screw over artists, and yet we really want to listen to whatever music we want, and for as little as possible (preferably free). Given the success of these services it’s clear that our desires for cheap music-on-demand outweigh our desires that artists earn incomes appropriate to their works.))?
A different way of thinking about this would be the following thought experiment. Imagine you have a 13yo son who wants to play football. Knowing what you know about the sports’ violent impact upon your imagined son’s body and brain, would you let him play? If your answer to this question is No, then what do you do with the fact that when you turn on the TV you’re saying Yes, only for someone else’s son?
The gut-ugly truth is that despite all that I’ve written I’m still not certain what I’m going to do when the season starts in a couple hours. I enjoy watching football. It’s fun and easy, and I like watching games with friends, drinking a couple beers and arguing about who’s a better QB: Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson (sorry Seattle, but it’s A.A.Ron all the way) There’s value in that to me. I also know that if the NFL is ever to change—and it desperately needs to change, for all the reasons outlined above—it’s only going to happen when I turn off my TV.