Rick Reilly, of ESPN.com, wrote a column recently that spoke for countless Americans, myself included. We will watch NFL football. Yet we no longer feel good about doing so. It’s almost like being a drug addict. You’re not watching a beautiful game; you’re simply scratching an itch.
Football has been my favorite spectator sport throughout my life. Moreover, when I was a kid and it was time to play a pickup game, football would have been my sport of choice. During Jewish school, when I was supposed to be learning the Hebrew language or the Jewish faith, I was instead day-dreaming about an upcoming NFL game. If my team lost in an especially painful manner, I would go into my room and cry. Even as an adult, I once walked into my closet, threw my butt on the ground, and sat there for 30 minutes. During a trip to the upper Midwest, when my team was losing at halftime, I walked to the center of town without a winter coat on and made a phone call in the frigid cold – just to beat myself up over my team’s poor performance. (Well, OK, that was my college team, but any NFL addict needs a little passion for college football, and I have more than a little.)
Only a few years ago, I spent a couple of days at an NFL training camp in a town that might as well be called Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota. I had a great time watching the players stand around, run drills, and sign autographs. If they had been looking at a wall watching paint dry, I might have enjoyed that too. For each of the past 16 seasons, I have owned the NFL Sunday Ticket, which entitled me to watch any regular season football game no matter who was playing. Based on any definition, I have been a loyal fan to “the shield” (i.e. the NFL insignia).
This year, for the first time, I am starting a season without the NFL Sunday Ticket. I am no longer paying a plug nickel to the league. Will I watch games on TV? Sure. But not nearly as many of them. I can no longer name all the players on any NFL roster. Nor do I care to.
The way I feel, I haven’t left the league. The league has left me. It left me when it refused to go public about the full consequences of repeated concussions. It left me when it refused to impose stiff penalties for players who repeatedly endanger other players’ lives with dirty hits. It left me when it decided to impose significant punishments for minor transgressions, but minor punishments for domestic violence. It left me when it condoned bullying in NFL locker rooms. It left me when it fined players for wearing low socks or orange shoes, but has refused to take a stand against team names that are racist. (See, e.g., my local team, where the billionaire white-skinned owner employs primarily brown-skinned men to fight for the “Redskins”.)
I realize that there is only so much that the NFL can do to clean up its sport. The game is inherently dangerous, and it will always involve more violence than, say, golf. But this being the 21st century, the league has an obligation to at least do its best to stay within the bounds of sanity. Ray Rice is filmed dragging a woman out of an elevator after knocking her unconscious, and he gets a two-game suspension. Brandon Meriweather is filmed spearing another player – his sixth offense for a dangerous hit – and he gets a two-game suspension. Meanwhile, multiple players have been suspended for entire seasons for smoking pot.
The NFL talks about getting tough on concussions. But right now, Wes Welker, who has been concussed three times in the past 10 months, is preparing to go for four. And Darrius Hayward-Bey, whose career has included five concussions, is heading back to the field as the well. Is the NFL standing in their way? Heck no. It’s not like they are preparing to violate the league’s uniform policies by wearing the wrong socks – then the league would step in.
In 2012 and 2013, NFL players suffered a total of roughly 500 concussions. We now have reason to believe that a number of the men who suffered these blows will ultimately undergo terrible physical and psychological anguish as a result, and some may even take their own lives. Does the league care? Ask the next guy who Brandon Meriweather spears when he finishes serving his two-game suspension.
Periodically, fans hear rumblings that the league wants to increase the season from 16 games to 18 games. That’s two more head-banging balls a year. Just what the gladiators need, right? The fans aren’t clamoring for more games. The fans like it when the players can stay healthy for as many seasons as possible before the players finally “give in to father time” and prepare themselves for a life of such symptoms as: “headache, confusion, memory loss, loss of consciousness, vision change, hearing change, mood change, fatigue, [and] malaise.” Those symptoms are taken from the NFL Player Concussion Pamphlet. And they only reference the head injuries. As we all know, many a player has so mangled his knees or his feet that he has had to retire before he could destroy his brain. Some can never again walk without a limp, but at least they’re not suffering from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” like the players who have had their “bells rung” a few times too many.
In 2012, when the NFL players suffered over 250 concussions, Roger Goodell, the league Commissioner, “earned” over $44 million. A tiny fraction of that money came from my NFL Sunday Ticket revenues. Well, my fellow addicts, I can’t claim to have clean hands here. I’ll surely watch some games, and because of folks like me, the league will command higher advertising dollars. But at least I won’t be tossing them the big bucks any more. I don’t plan on going to any games. And I don’t plan on buying any more merchandise. If the league wants more of my support, it had better change its priorities. And its Commissioner.
I wonder who feels worse – Goodell, for accepting $44 million per year for running his league into the ground, or the player who wakes up every morning with his ears ringing, eyes blurry, and head aching. I think I’d rather be the guy with the injured brain but the clear conscience.