A Football Life
I like football. For those who know me, this is hardly a revelation. I’m a rabid Baltimore Ravens fan. But only because my beloved Baltimore Colts stole out of town by cover of darkness in 1984 as the arch-villain of my childhood, owner Robert Irsay, moved them to Indianapolis.
I grew up cheering for Colts quarterback Bert Jones, eating at the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Restaurant, and I even have a stadium seat from the old Memorial Stadium in my living room. Fine, that last part is only wishful thinking — my wife long ago exiled my prized possession to the screened-in porch.
So why am I suddenly struggling to find my usual unfettered joy in the Sunday afternoon NFL ritual? For years, after a full morning at church, I would look forward to planting myself on the sofa and reveling in the pageantry and strategy of professional football. When I served a downtown Baltimore parish I would even occasionally walk straight from church to the stadium to catch a game.
I still enjoy football and I still watch it every week, but something has changed. Something that has nothing to do with the fact that the Ravens are mired in a dreadful season while I live in the increasingly large shadow of Tom Brady and the Patriots. I mean, I don’t even want to go see my barber anymore for fear of the ribbing I’ll take from the owner. And I desperately need a haircut!
The reality is that nothing has changed — except our own comprehension. When I see a bone-crushing, helmet-to-helmet hit on a receiver going across the middle, I no longer think “Wow! He absolutely demolished that guy! What a play!” All I can see is the receiver’s brain rattling around his cranium and wonder whether that’s the hit that will cause him to slur his words in his 40s. Acronyms like TD and QB have been replaced by the one that really matters: CTE — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
A number of people I know and respect have sworn off watching football on moral grounds. These aren’t folks on a moral crusade against a violent game they despise. Some of these people have been lifelong fans, some played the game themselves at high levels. Some have publicly announced their intentions on social media, some have simply and quietly turned off their televisions. Some are parents of children entering youth football age, some have never had kids. But what they have in common is the ability to see beyond the glitz and glamour to examine their own hearts.
I admit, I’m not there. I still watch football and (mostly) enjoy it. But their discomfort with the culture of violence has given me pause. And I’m grateful for their witness, a witness that may well turn out to be prophetic.
Who knows what the future holds for the National Football League? If I were a betting man, and I’m not (I don’t even play fantasy football), my guess is that in another generation or two professional football will look very different, both in terms of the game itself and the demographic it attracts. While the NFL is currently atop the world in viewership and income, don’t forget boxing and horse racing were once the top two revenue-generating sports in America. They’ve been shuttled to the periphery of athletic consciousness, a place football may well end up.
In the meantime, along with much of America, I’m left to my own self-justifications. Though phrases like “the players knew the risk when they signed up” and “football builds character” ring increasingly hollow.