For the past few months I have been trying to give up watching football, which is not like me trying to give up watching professional bowling or professional poker players. This relationship goes back to my days as a youth. As a kid every Sunday, while playing the fantasy game I invented with football cards, I watched the Chicago Bears and the likes of Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and later endured the Slow-mo Bob Avellini era. I even tried to play football at our small high school. My father summarized my football skills best by referring to me as “a tackling dummy for the varsity.”
So why goodbye to football? There are a lot of reasons when I think about it. Here they are listed in order of importance.
Reason 1. Once you know the long term health implications for those who play the game I feel complicit in continuing to support the sport with my viewership. I know the pros get paid a lot of money, but the average player's career is short (less than 3 years). College players don't get paid at all supposedly, and the expenses of high school football are a strain on most local education budgets.
Moreover, the hypocrisy of all the sportscasters and commentators who talk about the violence of the game while repeating video clip after video clip of collisions has become too much to endure. Players sacrifice their long term health so I can be entertained. I wonder if some day centuries from now, people will look at football stadiums like we look at the Roman Coliseum and the days of gladiators and Christian-eating lions. Will they wonder how a civilization could be so barbaric?
Reason 2. Speaking of hypocrisy, the relationship to the military and football is troublesome. Every football broadcast honors the veterans who serve and gives them special tickets and camera time. Then there are beer commercials including a promotion that for every bottle cap I redeem 10 cents goes to a veteran's family. I am not criticizing soldiers or helping their families. My complaint is that these “salutes to the military” just mask over the real problems and don't question why we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place. If you've read Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn's Long Half Time Walk (2012) you realize that football celebrations of the combat soldier serve more to disguise our own guilt than to benefit the troubled war veteran. Though I didn't think it was a great novel per se, I thought its message was clear and important.
Reason 4. Baseball players get dirtier than football players. Every Boston sports fan knows that second baseman Dustin Pedroia has a dirtier uniform than quarterback Tom Brady. Even though a few weeks ago when players tromped in the snow like school children, it was nothing like when they played in the mud and slop to the point you could not read the numbers on their uniforms. Clear, crisp, non-staining turf sterilizes the sport and hides the danger.
Reason 5. Being a Bears fan requires that person who must always live in denial that for the most part the team is never that good. Even though the team has won it all on twice in the last half century, for the most part the city – drunk, and dressed in Bear hats and furry paws thinks the franchise has a glorious history, but it's really a tradition seeped in mediocrity.
But all this personal reflection maybe for naught. Like the ~16 million other viewers, I too was drawn to the recent Monday night game played in single-digit temperatures between the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys. At half time they retired the jersey of Mike Ditka who played on the 1963 championship team and coached the 1985 Super Bowl Bears. (The Chicago Tribune did an article earlier this year that many of the players did not end up being honored like Iron Mike, but with health problems). I remember when Ditka played. (His 1963 football card is shown here.) I have been watching football a long time. This is not surprise because for most of us it goes back a long way.
To hear Wilfred Sheed tell it in his essay “The Origin of Football and Other American Species” which appears in his collection Baseball and Lesser Sports (1991), football started at the beginning of human time:
When man's first sport came grunting out of the woods, one fancies it consisted mostly of shoving, gouging, and mauling—very much like American football today. Early man, to judge from the pretty pictures, was superbly designed for football. His head virtually was a helmet, and a pointed one at that; and his thick neck, long arms and grasping fingers suggest that evolution had precisely football in mind for him, and nothing but football.
Yes, I want to say goodbye, but the primordial pull of football will always be there for me. It's our national sport for a reason. But every addiction has it setbacks, it co-dependencies, and feel good moments, why should watching football be any different?