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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why I Won't Watch Football This Year

In the wake of Junior Seau's death, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, whose intelligence I admire, and whose opinions on sports and social issues I respect, about football's "safety issues." I told him that I didn't know if I would be able to watch the sport anymore. His last words on the matter were, "Well, we don't have to decide right away." Football season doesn't start until September, after all.

But our conversation was not isolated: Seau's death has brought the discussion of violence in football, and more specifically CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease associated with multiple concussions), into the national spotlight yet again.

Shortly after my friend and I spoke, I read an interview in The Atlantic with Sean Pamphilon- who is currently working on "The United States of Football"- in which the filmmaker talks about the sport's societal allure, and admits that he won't stop watching, even as he prays his son will never play. (While he's admittedly not religious, he would "get religion on that one.")

He also condemns the hypocrisy of our reactions to a player getting injured (" soon as [the player] gets carted off the field, it's like the volume comes back on") immediately after explaining that he now watches football for the "physical poetry" of twenty-two athletes working together on each play, as opposed to watching for its violence. To Pamphilon, "it's not about the hitting. It's about the choreography, the intricacies of it."

By adhering strictly to Pamphilon's principles of viewership, we might celebrate teams of bank robbers on jobs well done: they plan, choreograph, practice, and then physically work together in pursuit of a common goal. If we stretch his logic further, maybe we could set up grandstands on the peripheries of war zones and charge admission? Bombs, after all, are intricately designed, pilots possess tremendous physical prowess, and offensives are often meticulously organized. 

But I imagine that Pamphilon and I (along with the vast majority of citizens), because we have a societal conscience, are in agreement about the fact that these are inane suggestions.

Then I turned to Charles P. Pierce; in addressing the libertarian argument for football about "allowing people to take risks with their own bodies," Pierce writes for Grantland: "we all owe each other a debt as members of a political and social commonwealth not to profit from the pain and suffering of each other, no matter who inflicts it or how accidental or deliberate that might be." I believe he is right. In the same paragraph he goes on to say that while he enjoys football, "[he] can't enjoy it blindly anymore. [He] can't enjoy it with a clear conscience." 

Whatever their reasons, these two intelligent, articulate, thoughtful, and influential men have- one in a national magazine, the other on a successful sports website- acknowledged the pervasive violence in football, and the devastating effects it can have on its participants (Pierce goes further by upbraiding the NFL for failing its societal obligations), and in the same breaths announced that they will continue to enjoy the sport as active viewers.

I thought back to the words of my friend. "We don't have to decide right away."

It's true that football season doesn't start until the fall. But I don't want to risk being lulled into complacency by the offseason. The Daily Beast reminds us how little we still know about concussions, but our ignorance is no longer justification for inaction. There is no disputing the fact that football, as we know it, is not safe: players are suffering injuries so mentally debilitating that they are taking their own lives. Upon retirement, they are not being provided with adequate care. And the steps taken to date by the NFL to address these issues have been the equivalent of band-aids on gunshot wounds- too little, and too late.

I have been an avid football fan for about two decades. I have waved a black-and-gold towel in bars, I have played in fantasy leagues, I have gone to games. The following is not easy for me to say:

I am not going to watch football this year.

Should the NFL and college football get serious about protecting the well-being of their players (and maybe Seau's death will prove the catalyst for this change), perhaps I will reconsider. However, in my current state of awareness, I feel that by devoting any more time or money to football in its current state I would be complicit in supporting an organization, immersed in a culture of violence, which seems more indebted to its advertisers, marketers, attendance numbers, merchandisers, and gamblers, than to the players who provide the very product it is selling.

In the meantime, I'll pass. And if baseball and basketball aren't enough, in case I feel the need for a sport to fill the void, perhaps I'll turn to soccer, or as the rest of the world likes to call it, well, football. Or volleyball. Or maybe ultimate frisbee. There are concerts in the athleticism and intricacies of strategy in those games, too.

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