I spent Thursday night moping around the house. The Seahawks were playing and I was not watching.
Seven months ago, in a piece for this fair site, I vowed to boycott the NFL. As the season approached, despite Bill Simmons’ assertion that no one would, I was confident that I could do it. The news about CTE is too devastating, and the NFL’s efforts to address head injuries are too paltry, its leadership utterly tone-deaf.
Firm in my convictions, I didn’t expect to react emotionally to cutting myself off. I think the comparisons between sports consumption and addiction—often leveled by critics of sport—shamefully underestimate and undermine the struggle of true chemical dependency. On Thursday night, I suppose it’s possible that I missed the dopamine that football’s aesthetic, competitive, and narrative aspects trigger in my (fortunately undamaged) brain. And since my online social networks are largely sports-centric, I certainly felt left out of an ongoing conversation of which I relished being a part. So, while I wouldn’t call what I was suffering withdrawal, I was grumpy. After the long expanse of baseball season, the siren song of football—never truly sung in the preseason or during college football’s soft entrée—was wailing. I was tied to the mast.
My bad mood spread into Friday morning as I realized that the first full weekend of the NFL season was spreading out before me, and that I would miss out. To fortify myself, I sought solidarity in Steve Almond’s new book, Against Football. I did not put it down until I had finished it.
The book is accessible and incisive. It is premised on the fact that Almond has always been, to this point in his life, a “rabid” fan. It initially served as a means of bonding him to his father, as it does for so many of us, and soon wrapped him in a narrative landscape that provided “aggression…a coherent, even heroic, context.” He knows the game and part of him still loves it. His moral qualms with the game emanate from a place of intimate familiarity, not life-long disaffection, intellectual distaste, or a personal history of psychic injury. Though he had long objected to the NFL’s treatment of women, LGBTQ Americans, and African-Americans, as well as its endless pursuit of corporate welfare—all of which he outlines in detail—the last straw for Almond, as for me, is the recent damning evidence about what football does to your brain. The difference between damage to our bodies and damage to our brains is a matter of kind, not degree, he asserts: “if we cannot think, no matter how vigorous the body, we vanish.”
I’ll admit, reading Against Football gave me reassurance undoubtedly born of self-righteousness. But the book also gave me pause. First, I worry about Almond’s tone. “The point of this book isn’t to shit on your happiness,” he writes, and he addresses imagined disapproving readers throughout. But the book is a self-acknowledged “manifesto,” and Almond writes with his hair on fire, framing everything on moral terms. It gives the book urgency—an urgency that I also feel, but fear will be met with defensiveness so fierce as to prevent reflection. No polemic or accusation of immorality is going to convince people who love football to stop watching it. Football’s very essence encourages aggressively binaristic thinking, and minds don’t usually truly change when they are told they must.
I also wonder if Almond takes his argument too far, insofar as he occasionally seems to condemn the broader culture of sports. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, and $300 million stadium subsidies are not intrinsic to any sport, even football. Britney Griner, Mo’Ne Davis, Michael Sam, the Giants/Jets privately funded stadium, and the increasing outcry against the Washington football team’s name all give me hope that progress is being made, albeit in fits and starts. I am also inclined to defend the other spectator sports, though they all contain violence to some degree, because that violence is incidental while football’s violence is intrinsic to the sport. Say what you will about rule changes, player fines, and technology updates, nothing short of transmogrification into flag football or ultimate frisbee will eliminate the sub-concussive hits that are the true deviltry here. Even ice hockey, for all of its violence, could be meaningfully altered to eliminate most of the contact that causes brain damage and still be recognizable (we call this “Olympic Hockey,” for some reason). Football cannot. It is a singular case.
But there is one important similarity between football and other spectator sports that might explain why even those who recognize football’s flaws assert its inevitability and affirm their continued consumption: the endless renewal of its narrative. There is something so comforting about the fact that these games are refreshed every year, that they stretch back into our pasts, and that their weekly rhythms are predictable. If you’ve been watching football—or any sport—your whole life, following the game is natural. It’s doesn’t feel like addiction, it feels like breathing.
That’s why it takes more than a reminder that football’s violence is pathological to break the habit. It takes something jarring, in addition to reflection, to convince someone to make the change. For Steve Almond, it was his mother’s (temporary) dementia and the realization of just how devastating brain impairment is for families. For me, it was the much more mundane realization that a Seahawks championship could change the way I understood my own fandom: that absent the hunger to have my hometown respected as a sports locale—a rather perversely shallow ideal, I’ll admit—I could rethink my priorities as a fan. In part because they are personal to the viewer, jarring events like these break the game’s narrative continuity and offer a chance to listen to that part of our brain normally washed under by the ebb and flow of the seasonal tide.
Maybe because the reason for my reconsideration was so shallow, I don’t feel like I can tell the people reading this to stop watching the NFL, as Steve Almond does. But I do think you should reflect on your fandom, on the pleasure that football’s continuous narrative brings you, and what it might take to disrupt that sense of comfort. Sports are some of the best narratives we have, and even better for being so widely shared. I felt that stronger than ever on Thursday night. But if we ignore the human costs of producing those narratives—if we think of the players as disposable in the way the commissioner and league owners want us to—we’re not being very good viewers.