I used to love the NFL.
I could list all the teams and their starting players in key positions. I could explain most of the rules and penalties. I would wear my secondhand jerseys on game days and devour the Sunday noon, Sunday afternoon, Sunday evening, and Monday night games. I made custom spreadsheets for my fantasy football teams. I could rattle off statistics about the undefeated ’72 Dolphins or the current league leaders in rushing yards or passing touchdowns.
Over time, I started to lose interest. My hometown team went through the bad end of the inevitable cycle. I got bored with the unreliability of my fantasy football teams. Life kept me busy with college and marriage and other hobbies, and I started to lose track of the never ending shuffle of players and teams. My wife had been a big football fan too, but she had lost interest as well.
Even if we no longer stayed up for Monday Night Football or cared that much about the Draft, we still watched the Superbowl! There was usually still a team or players we liked to root for, and if nothing else, it was the Superbowl! Everybody watches the Superbowl – over 100 million of us, anyway. Delicious food! Hilarious commercials! Talented athletes! The greatest cultural event of the great United States of America!
At the same time, I also was becoming more uncomfortable with the sport – and the Superbowl that seemed to epitomize the excesses of its essence. There was always the celebration of gluttony that accompanied the biggest sport in the world’s “biggest” nation, and the celebration of lust that permeated the half-time shows and commercials. But as long as I personally chose not to overeat at parties and personally tried to look away from the objectified women on the screen, I could feel like I wasn’t complicit in those activities and still be entertained by the purer fundamental aspects of the game itself.
But what if those fundamentals weren’t so pure after all? I knew from years of following the NFL that injuries were very common, but almost every form of sport and entertainment comes with acceptable risks. Still, I kept running into clues that the danger ran darker and deeper than I wanted to believe.
I knew Kurt Warner retired because of his concussions. I heard rumors that most running backs only lived to their 50’s. But it wasn’t until I came across an article called “Theater of Pain” that I was truly forced to confront the real, violent culture – not the sanitized display on the television – at the core of the sport.
The article talks about the immense injury rate and the players who act tough, not complain, and play through the pain whenever possible. I think a lot of people see that as a sort of macho toughness, but the details make it seem like a dangerous act (seriously, give it a read) . Matt Hasselbeck’s story haunts me to this day:
The worst injury I’ve ever had on the field… I’d broken a rib on the left and I’d broken a rib on the right. The rib on the right was right next to my aorta, and it was really dangerous for my health.. I couldn’t breathe at all, and I got up off the field because it was a two-minute situation — I didn’t want the team to have to take a time-out. I tried to run off the field, and when the trainers met me they saw I was, like, purple in the face…” (emphasis mine)
Hasselbeck used to be on my fantasy team! I never cared about his injuries, only how many touchdowns he was going to throw. Now that attitude made me sick. The article notes the military similarities, but in war there’s at least the pretense that a soldier is risking his life to defend my freedom. Hasselbeck was risking his life to help his team win a game. He was risking his life for the entertainment of the fans.
Suddenly football felt less like a safe outlet for sanctioned aggression and more like the gladiators in the Colosseum. That’s not masculinity. That’s stupidity. That’s barbarism. And I was suddenly very conflicted about viewing it as entertainment.
Was that an exaggeration? Players aren’t dying left and right out there. Besides, they volunteer for it and make millions at the same time. If I had been interested in the teams or the players last year, maybe I would have buried my concerns and sold my time once again to the greatest marketed event of the modern world.
But with no Rams or Vikings or Packers or Colts to keep me sucked in – I did the formerly unthinkable: I told my wife, “I think I don’t want to watch the Superbowl this year.” I explained why, and she agreed.
Since then, I’ve only learned more about the violence. I just read a new book called League of Denial that details new discoveries about the dangers of concussions. It’s only in the last decade that scientists have started examining the brains of former NFL players, discovering unique Alzheimer-like concentrations of “tau proteins” in bodies too young for Alzheimer’s, likely explaining why they became so crazy and pitiful before they died. Everyone in the NFL knew he might bend down at age 40 to pick up his daughter and feel some pain; he didn’t expect that he might not be able to recognize her. The hidden, long-term costs of bashing heads together thousands of times seem even more sinister than the obvious injuries.
It’s hard to know how serious the concussion crisis is. There are retired players who are doing fine; there are competing statistics on the Internet about whether or not their lifespans or suicide rates are worse than the general population; it’s hard to tease out the effects of steroids and drug abuse. But the evidence points to at least dozens, probably hundreds, and possibly thousands of football players having suffered brain damage as a result of repeatedly having their skulls slammed and neurons short-circuited (should we really be surprised?). And it’s not clear that rules changes, helmet upgrades, or even turning back the militarized culture can do much to alter that fundamental danger.
Violence was never the only thing that made me uncomfortable about the Superbowl. But there’s a funny thing about turning points. All those other things that used to make you a little comfortable before you crossed over (but not uncomfortable enough to change) now flip around to reinforce your new decision. Things like the celebration of lust.
If the Superbowl is the American culture’s greatest glorification of violence, its accompaniment is perhaps our greatest glorification of lust. The cheerleaders on the sidelines, the halftime shows from Janet Jackson to Beyoncé, the commercials from the implicit Budweiser to the explicit GoDaddy – all reinforce the cultural notions that men should desire, pursue, expect, and receive sexual satisfaction from women without ever loving and serving them.
The sport falsely believes its violence can be contained within sanctioned boundaries that use the human body to provide instant satisfaction and entertainment with no long-term consequences. Perhaps the same is true of lust. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Superbowl is said to bring a surge in sex trafficking to its host towns, as the spirit of lust that invites men to ogle smiling cheerleaders is the same insatiable spirit that drives them to less consensual means of pleasure.
Certainly, our culture celebrates lust in innumerable fashions, and it may be hopeless to expect consistency, even within my own personal choices of entertainment consumption. Still, the Superbowl seems to be a powerful symbol of some of its worst expressions, and if we’re going to challenge the status quo of glorified violence, we might as well get two vices for the price of one.
Or we can we stretch it to three?
Hey, man, slow down – it’s fine if you’re too wussy to watch a contact sport and it’s alright if you’re not strong enough to watch commercials without stumbling, but keep your blog post away from my party! I don’t eat too much at Superbowl parties, I just have a good time with my friends… Besides, it’s only one day a year, anyway, right?
OK, ok, gluttony may be the least destructive sin here, and the easiest to avoid without saying goodbye to the Big Game altogether. But in one of the world’s most obese nations, it still makes for a nice little sidekick.
Superbowl Sunday is apparently second only to Thanksgiving for food consumption, and it’s probably less healthy, what with the record pizza sales along with the (literally) tons of popcorn, millions of gallons of beer, and millions of pounds of potato chips. Is that yet another illustration of our relentless pursuit of instant satisfaction with no long-term consequences?
So that’s where we are today, choosing to opt out – maybe not from football altogether – but at least from the Superbowl, to take a stand against the excesses of our culture’s glorifications of gluttony, lust, and violence. We don’t think it makes us holier than our friends and family who don’t think it’s such a big deal. Maybe we’ll change our minds someday. But I wanted to write this post to explain the backstory to our decision, and to encourage you that if you’ve ever had similar misgivings, it’s okay to opt out, too.
UPDATE: My friend Eric Barfield responded with some interesting statistics about other dangerous sports and activities. I commented about the culture of playing through injuries and the potentially high damage from concussions that bothers me more than other sports, though I could be looking at things in a biased way right now. Thanks for giving me more to think about, Eric!