I consider myself a football agnostic. Outside of the Todd Road Thanksgiving Bowl, I never played the sport as a kid. The liberal arts college I attended didn’t have a football program. Though I follow the NFL, I don’t have a favorite team. Yet for six months out of the year, every year, my week begins with Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback and ends with NBC’s Sunday Night Football. From the first snap of the NFL season to the last play of the Super Bowl, I consume encyclopedias’ worth of football analysis, trivia, and speculation, on top of the games themselves. Despite a minimal personal connection to football, I can explicate nearly all of its arcane ruleset, name its champions, coaches, competitors past and present. In my mind, removing the emotion and bias of fandom from the equation allows me to appreciate a platonic ideal of football, one in which abstract strategy and ruthless physicality combine to transform game into art. There’s tons of other stuff tied up in my obsession with football–nationalism, masculinity, a need for communal experience, escapism–but, as any fan of the sport will tell you, the murkier causes of fandom rarely register as relevant in the face of its simple, glorious effect: love. Like most Americans, I love football.
At the same time, I am aware that to love anything blindly isn’t to love it at all, so it was with a certain reluctance that I bought and read Steve Almond’s Against Football. Written as an ethical examination of football at all levels, from peewee to college to the NFL, Against Football builds an intelligent case against football’s primacy in our culture while acknowledging its ineffable value. Almond is himself a diehard football fan–a diehard Raiders fan, to quell any questions of his devotion to the sport–and many of his attacks against the game seem to leave scars on a very cherished part of himself. By the end of the book, football as an American institution seems as defendable as factory farming, financial deregulation, and income inequality. The NFL falls somewhere on the Scary-Evil Spectrum between Monsanto and The Third Reich. For those who don’t have time to read the book–or any book–I’ve assembled this list of My Five Favorite Absolutely Horrifying Things About Football. My son will play tennis.
My Five Favorite Absolutely Horrifying Things About Football
1. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is approximately 55.
No matter their position, retired NFL players have statistically exhibited life expectancy rates similar to those in the early 20th Century. Linemen fall victim to diabetes and heart disease. Persistent brain trauma destroys the nervous systems of quarterbacks and receivers. At the current rates of death, running backs should be placed in a body bag upon their retirement. This will only get worse.
2. Like its de-facto farm league, the NCAA, the NFL is an tax-exempt organization.
If you attended an NFL game this year, it’s likely that you paid more in taxes than the NFL did. The NFL operates as a tax exemption 501(c)6, a baffling reality made doubly baffling by the fact that more than 70% of NFL stadiums are completely built with taxpayer dollars. Making matters worse, most owners lease these publicly-built stadiums for pennies on the dollar. The owner of last year’s Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks, Paul Allen, leases the team’s stadium for $525,000 annually. Last year, he reported $200,000,000 in profit, on which he payed zero dollars in tax.
3. Richie Incognito is a hyper-repressed homosexual who was in gay-love with Jonathan Martin.
As is the case with other “traditionally masculine” institutions like the military and 4chan message boards, football creates a safe space for heterosexual males to express their unconscious homosexual yearnings in societally acceptable ways. (The homoerotic elements of football need not be enumerated here.) The example par excellence for this phenomenon was the bullying scandal involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Like a schoolgirl with a crush, Incognito sent Martin upwards of 30 text messages a day, pressured Martin into going on vacation with him, and adopted furiously homophobic hate language when Martin refused. Incognito’s final text before Martin disconnected his number: “I miss us.”
4. The sub-concussion epidemic is the real concussion epidemic.
Though Wes Welker’s 18 documented concussions are certainly disheartening, the 50,000 sub-concussions he has received over the course of his career will prove far more damaging to his longterm health. Having examined the brains of over 50 football players, neuroscientists now believe that sub-concussions, unfelt traumatic injuries to the brain, are driving the increased rates of dementia, depression, and suicide in NFL players. This will only get worse.
5. ALL OF THESE QUESTIONS
“What is the relationship between our nation’s racial history and our lust for football? What does it mean that football fever tends to run so hot in those states where slavery was legal and Jim Crow died hardest? What does it mean that millions of white fans cheer wildly for African-American men in the context of a football game when, if they encountered these same men on a darkened street, they might very well reach nervously for their cell phones? Is football a way of containing African-American rage? Is this why any African-American athlete who speaks too brashly or associates with friends from the old neighborhood has “character issues”? Does it relieve the racial guilt of white Americans to lavish so much money and adulation on a few African-American men? Is it an oblique form of financial restitution?
“And what does it mean that we give so much scrutiny to their bodies? That we think nothing of calling them “studs” and “beasts” and “specimens”? Are we turning them into fetish objects? Can anyone really watch the NFL Combine–in which young, mostly African-American men are made to run and jump and lift weights for the benefit of mostly old white coaches–and not see the visual echoes of the slave auction?”
P.S. The NFL helped the U.S. military kill Pat Tillman. Go Dolphins!