I am a huge football fan. It is certainly my favorite sport to watch, might be my favorite sport to play, and definitely is the one I follow the most. Every Sunday since I can remember has been filled watching the 49ers (or other teams) play. It is an obsession and a passion.
This love of the game has been putting me at a dilemma as of late. The news about the Jonathan Martin story, which exposed not only the knack for bullying within the NFL, but how deep this “warrior culture” (as Brian Phillips put it) runs has put a proverbial pebble in my shoe for the love of the game . This, combined with the information about concussions, the suicides, and the general violent nature of the sport have got me questioning its value in my life.
During the last 49ers game, 3 players were removed for injuries, 2 of which suffered concussions. This, combined with the fact that they lost and that it was probably the most boring football game I’ve ever watched (the Panthers squeaked out a 10-9 victory), made it hard for me to see just what I loved about the game.
Normally, I love all the moving parts. I love offensive linemen opening up holes for running backs to burst through. Quarterbacks dropping back and hitting the open receiver. Watching the linebacker chase down the quarterback or the corner make a play on a ball. I even love the big hits that safeties give receivers or when the defensive lineman gets free and goes after the unsuspecting quarterback. From casually playing and watching over the years, these plays fill me with excitement. But now these are being overshadowed by deeper problems.
When you look at the violent nature of the sport in general, the longterm consequences of the hits to the head, the militaristic way that teams are run, and the potential that all of these have to affect players off of the field (which there may or may not be evidence for) it becomes harder to support. I love sports and what they can do for people, but does football take this away? I am increasingly not able to find anything that I value both on the field and off. At what point do you abandon something you love because of what it is doing? This is always a tricky question when it comes to people, is it as tricky when it’s a sport?
Writing for Grantland, the aforementioned Brian Phillips discusses this tension and how football becomes a sort of substitute for our gentle lives, a vicarious way to feel tough. He writes:
“I love football — it’s so much fun, it’s beautiful, it’s thrilling, it’s an excuse to drunk-tweet in the mid-afternoon — but it has also become the major theater of American masculine crackup. It’s as if we’re a nation of gentle accountants and customer-service reps who’ve retained this one venue where we can air-guitar the berserk discourse of a warrior race. We’re Klingons, but only on Sundays. The Marines have a strict anti-hazing policy, but we need our fantasy warrior-avatars to be unrestrained and indestructible. We demand that they comply with an increasingly shrill and dehumanizing value set that we communicate by yelling PLAY THROUGH PAIN and THAT GUY IS A SOLDIER and THE TRENCHES and GO TO WAR WITH THESE GUYS and NEVER BACK DOWN. We love coaches who never sleep, stars who live to win, transition graphics that take out the electrical grid in Kandahar. We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.”
What if I don’t watch football to participate in this warrior mentality? I’m still complicit right?
And listen I know that football would continue without me. I know that these players are participating on their own will (though I’m sure some feel as if they have no other option). I love the sport, I do. I think it is a beautiful game (sorry soccer). Does the beauty and creativity and athleticism of football outweigh the ugly violence or is this brute competitiveness at its core?
For now I continue to watch. I mean, its all but ingrained into my soul. However, I tread lightly. I watch without the loud cheer behind a player getting crushed. I push for continued player safety, not lamenting all the rule changes that “tame” the sport. I support any pushes to make the locker room a safer place for players psychologically. I probably won’t let my future children play until their brains are more fully developed. I will continue to question football as the sport and society progress, with time answers will become more clear, maybe we will discover – is football too broken to be fixed?