The other day at work, Josh asked if there was any interest in joining a product team fantasy football league. I said something about hating the NFL, and Eden asked why. I glibly started spouting off some recent PR calamities by the NFL, but I realized this is a thing worth writing out and explaining a bit clearer, because the sport of football and the NFL in particular need either serious revamping or to go away.
There isn’t much wrong with looking at the most recent bit of NFL blowback to understand immediately why the league, which markets itself as a public entertainment, cares more about money than its fans, its players, or society at large. On one hand, the league takes public money to build stadiums that can only be used for very specific types of events, while on the other hand it ignores society directly by saying being 1 milliliter over the limit of a substance that the New York Times just said should be legalized is worse than knocking out a women in an elevator. This is plainly and obviously awful, and it is just the most recent in a string of violent acts by men who have been taught by a sport to be violent. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is terrible, but off-field incidents and inconsequential punishments exist in all sports and in really all walks of life. In a world where no one was arrested for collapsing the U.S. economy, etc.
Like I said, this recent event and every incident like it that the NFL sweeps away to protect its stars and its revenue is terrible. What takes it to the next level is how very clearly the sport of football affects the people who play it, and by extension the people who watch it and support it.
When I was 6, I did not know much in my life. I knew I moved around a bunch growing up, I knew I lived in a place called Nashville that didn’t have any sports, and I knew I was born in Chicago. While Nashville didn’t have any professional sports in 1987, I liked sports a lot for reasons I still don’t quite understand. Being born in Chicago, I immediately determined that I liked the Chicago Bears in the way that children determine they like things – irrationally, unquestioning, wonderfully. I didn’t have many friends and didn’t really care about that, but I liked running around in my backyard pretending to play in the NFL – running around in my Bears Halloween costume pretending to score touchdowns and recreating celebrations I had watched on Sundays.
1987 is also when I got a Nintendo for Christmas. And 1989 is when I got Tecmo Bowl. And then I didn’t have to pretend anymore.
Tecmo Bowl didn’t have a full NFL license because no one knew what that meant yet, but it did have 12 popular teams with the right colors and the right names – the first game to use real names. In 1989, the Bears were still a pretty good team, with a lousy offense but a strong defense headed up by players I had watched and pretended to play with. They weren’t quite as good as New York, with Lawrence Taylor and his automatic blocked extra point, but Mike Singletary and Dave Duerson were really good and it was the team I rooted for. So, I played as Chicago, and I started telling my friends that Dave Duerson was faster than Ronnie Lott (he might have been!) and only second to Lawrence Taylor. And then my friends would come over and I would beat them with the Bears because my defense was excellent. And there was no more reason to play pretend in the backyard, because I had this Nintendo and it extended my imagination pretty damn well.
I grew older and I shook off the Chicago loyalty and started picking up local teams. I also continued to move around – San Antonio, Cleveland, and then on to adulthood. In my parents’ home, there is still a photo up of me, wearing my Bears Halloween costume, celebrating a touchdown like I had seen on Sunday.
In February 2011, Dave Duerson killed himself by a self-inflicted bullet to the chest. He was 50. He asked for his brain to be donated to research in his note to his wife and his son.
In order to play in the NFL, you have to make a high school team, which already is competitive. Then you have to make a college team, and then you have to be one of the 224 people drafted into the NFL (out of 110+ teams times 70+ players, and that only includes Division 1). To be clear, if you make the NFL, you have to care about football in a way few of us care about anything other than ourselves.
Dave Duerson looked at his love of football, his love for his family, his deteriorating mental state, and he had enough self-awareness to put a gun to his chest instead of his brain.
Football, and the NFL in particular, has a number of problems, but they are problems shared with all kinds of large organizations – low accountability, protecting immoral actors, caring about revenue above all else. When suicide is a better option than living with the effects of playing the game, then we have created a modern day gladiator, and each of us individually should reconsider spending time, money, brain space, and breath on the NFL.
In the 3 years since Dave Duerson shot himself, the NFL has done a little to address head trauma in its sport, but it seems pretty plain to me that there is no room to truly address head trauma in the NFL. It would be like addressing the hitting of baseballs with bats in MLB — head trauma is almost the core of the sport itself. I have also done shamefully little to relieve myself of the NFL, because as Josh pointed out, NFL football is packaged into easily consumed bites — not that many games, mostly on Sundays, a manageable number of teams — that makes it simple to put on in the background or watch while also being a dad. The Red Zone Channel, Sunday Ticket, and fantasy sports have only increased how consumable the NFL is, so escaping it is increasingly difficult.
However, in a world where players choose to kill themselves because they know their brains aren’t quite right, where the league gives the weakest punishments for the most heinous crimes — why am I still watching? Why are any of us? CBS sitcoms exist, Jerry Bruckheimer exists, The Bachelor exists — simple, mindless entertainment is not a good enough reason. Once we recognize that, it becomes easier to imagine the end of football.