Going out on Top

I’ve loved NFL football for 25 years. I have a collection of gumball mini-helmets representing all 32 teams. I once hoped that my children would have the initials “NFC” and “AFC.” When I was a kid, I used to play imaginary games in which the Seahawks finally won the Super Bowl. When I was a teenager, I bought season tickets in the Kingdome for $100 a seat (yes, $100 for the entire season) and hoped that I could witness a championship in person. In 2006, my father and I finished watching the Super Bowl in separate rooms, though we both were rooting for the Seahawks, because the painful nature of the game led us to bicker. And last year, after deep initial skepticism borne of perverse allegiance to the ever-dour Mike Holmgren, I began to wonder if Pete Carroll’s rah-rah shtick really could work in the pros.

Obviously, it has, and I couldn’t be happier. This Seahawks team played like no Seattle team since the George Karl-Gary Payton Sonics—with swagger, smarts, and abandon. And lucky for the Hawks, Peyton Manning is no Michael Jordan. I did not, could not, process the fact the Seattle was about to win its first “Big Four” professional sports championship since 19791 —three years before I was born—until well into the fourth quarter, long after the game had been decided. I had chosen to watch the Big Game alone in my basement, having turned down a dear friend’s invitation to a raucous, pro-Seahawks Super Bowl party. I was sure that the Seattle Sports Choke™ would bite us again. Then, with five minutes left, it dawned on me that said choke had suddenly ceased to exist. So I spent a lot of time yelling on the internet.

Joshua Trujillo, SeattlePI.com

In the last few days, my facebook feed has had self-congratulatory diarrhea. My profile pic features the Lombardi Trophy being outshined by Richard Sherman’s shades. My cover photo: Marshawn Lynch draped over a Duck Boat, throwing Skittles at the Victory Parade crowd. I’ve probably posted 20 Seahawks-related articles over the past 48 hours.

So yeah, I’m enjoying this. But I’m also done with it. With the NFL.

You’ve read this story before, and you’ll read it again. Many more times, probably. Until football, the United States of America, or humans are no more. Here’s hoping the first comes long before the rest.

Because I have loved football so much and for so long, I resisted giving it up. But with the overwhelming evidence demonstrating what repeated sub-concussive hits do to your brain, I can hardly watch any more. It’s not just the knockout hits, immobilization boards, and injury carts that bother me; I find myself wincing on contact with every play. It never troubled me that football players were physically debilitated in their middle age—perhaps that was cruel—but the notion that playing this game fundamentally alters their brains in ways they cannot detect while playing is a poison pill that I just won’t swallow. They don’t know the risks because they can’t. We can’t dismiss the damage as something they assume for generous compensation, because to receive that compensation they have to have been damaging their brain in exactly the same ways for at least 10 years before they become professionals. Even if you could understand CTE as 21-35 year old—really understand it in a way no one but those who are suffering from debilitating brain disease can—there is no possible way to even conceive of the trauma of that disability as a child playing Pop Warner.

Given my objections and the increasingly damning evidence, I should have given up football two years ago. But if not an addiction, watching the NFL is at the very least a profoundly ingrained ritual that has structured my life since I was a young boy. Without that championship that had so long eluded the Seahawks, I knew that the temptation of watching them now that they are a contender would be too great. So I made a deal with myself (and with my wife, a very patient baseball fan), that if the Seahawks could pull it off, could remove my hometown from the list of “most tortured sports cities”—at least for the next 20 years—then I would turn my back on CLink, turn down Always ComPete, tune out the LOB. If there were one way to beat the Seattle Sports Choke™, I figured it would be a self-sacrificial reverse jinx. Not that I believe in those things. Except that I do, and it worked.

I get that it’s selfish to wait until you’ve reached the mountaintop to step off the ride. Obviously this motivational tactic isn’t a practical solution, because only one team’s fans get to celebrate a championship each year. And I would be a hypocrite to suggest that other fans should give up the NFL cold turkey. So to all conscientious football lovers out there, but especially to Browns, Bills, Lions, and Chargers fans, I say: keep watching. Keep your ears open. And whatever Roger Goodell tells you about brain injury and the league’s concern for the welfare of its players, believe the opposite.

I am sure this fall will be very difficult, if not this May, when the NFL Draft takes place, or next week during the combine. (This is a joke. Nobody should watch the combine. Not even NFL GMs.) I am hopeful that the Super Bowl Championship afterglow will help give me strength. But I’m also hedging my bets—for the time being I will allow myself to watch college football. After all, if one is going to accumulate brain damage, one best accomplish the task under patently unfair labor policies masquerading as “amateurism.”

Richard Sherman, I miss you already. Thank you for letting me off at the top.

1. Unlike many others, I cherish the WNBA and certainly reveled in the Seattle Storm’s 2004 and 2010 championships. Still, I can’t deny that, when it comes to my manifestation of the city’s collective sports psyche—especially with regard to the perceived level of respect accorded Seattle by outsiders—a win in one of the “Big Four” leagues means considerably more. This seems to be based on media attention, which is predicated on male spectatorship. So, yes, it is fundamentally sexist. For that I am sorry.

Noah Cohan is a Seattle expatriate living in St. Louis, where he is a graduate student at Washington University (no, not the University of Washington, but Go Huskies!). In one way or another, he has dedicated his professional life to refuting this.


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