Why I said goodbye to the NFL

OTL Discussion On Vincent/Peterson Audio Tape
OTL Discussion On Vincent/Peterson Audio Tape

The Cauldron

I've been a New Orleans Saints fan since 1987 - for tenuous and obscure reasons owing mainly to timing and a running back named Reuben Mayes - and a football fan longer than that, but I do not know what the Saints' current record is, nor even which NFL teams are having good seasons. I don't know who is on top of the NFC South. I don't know what kind of a year Drew Brees is having. I don't know who's playing in this week's Thursday Nighter. I don't know anything, frankly, because I have not watched an NFL game this year.

I'm not sure if ours is a moral universe. I suspect it is not. I suspect we live our lives in a vacuum and then we die, and that notions of decorum and civility and kindness are constructs that we have developed over time to suit the particulars of our interactions, to help us move more efficiently and, maybe, even happily through our lives until our personal timelines end, and the world beats on without us.

But I value many of the ways we have devised to ease our passage. I don't want to say morals because that's a loaded word, one that seems to have its fingers in judgment and competing versions of religion, or spirituality anyway. So, no, I don't think I'm a moralist. I hope I recognize that there are a lot of different ways to live one's life. There are a couple of rules, I think, but even rules is a strong word. Guidelines. Maybe Best Practices. Or maybe just this: Right and wrong are hazy concepts, except when they aren't. And they tend to defer to the more tangible notion of kindness.

We were all really upset with the NFL back in the early part of the season. Maybe you remember this. I barely do. But we were angry because it was obvious that a culture of violence and misogyny permeated the league, that Commissioner Roger Goodell and the powers that be were perfectly happy to let certain things slide in order to maintain the game's cultural dominance, and a grand campaign of CYA was undertaken, much of it centered on whether or not anybody knew there was footage of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancee from inside the elevator, or when they knew it.

This was stupid, of course. Is there anybody here who really thinks anything took the NFL by surprise? The NFL is a megalithic nation-state whose influence crosses borders and supersedes that of virtually all law enforcement organizations. Someone within it saw that tape. But Goodell said they didn't, and then the football hype machine eventually kicked into regular-season form, and I guess some exciting games happened, so they were basically let off the hook.

Anyway, the point is, I said to myself that I was done with all of it. It was maybe a final straw. I'd already found myself a bit wishy-washy about the whole package a year earlier, as much as I liked watching Drew Brees chuck touchdown passes. But all the things you probably already know - Bountygate, concussions and CTE, the way women are treated as ornaments on broadcasts, the massive militaristic ritual enacted on my TV every Sunday - had piled up and conspired to take a bit of a shine off the whole experience for me. So when all the news of domestic violence came out at the tail end of last summer, I decided to leave it be. I was going to wash my hands of the NFL.

Of course, the thing with any such stance is that, like a jumpshot or a promise, it's all about the follow-through. Naturally, with all this extra time to devote to the question, I was able to retroactively identify the three things NFL football brought to my life.

1. Entertainment

This requires scant explanation. There are a million YouTube-able moments that would provide all the exegesis necessary to prove the assertion "NFL football is very entertaining." As Steve Almond has said, football "hits the Doritos bliss point." It is perfectly engineered for excitement. I was sufficiently entertained.

2. Ritual

Each game day morning, I would drink from the same Saints coffee mug - purchased for me several years ago by a friend in an airport gift shop on a day that saw the Saints win. The mug was only used on game days. This was important. I would wear my Drew Brees jersey and, if cold, over it I'd layer the ugly XL Reebok Saints hoody my parents bought me one Christmas. Then I'd put on a Saints cap - a white or a black one, depending on which uniforms the team was wearing that day.

Understand that I never believed that any of these things actually delivered victory to my team, of course. I just found something very comforting to surrender to ritual. The ritual of the game. The ritual of Sunday.

Sundays possess a rhythm all their own which is, in subtle and delicious ways, unique among the days of the week. This is even truer when football is involved. I've never been one to sit down and watch football coverage from noon until midnight each Sunday the way my father did.

Growing up, that was Sundays at my house: church in the morning, home in time to watch Steve Sabol on NFL Films Presents, then the pregame, and then the 1:00 p.m. contest, followed by the 4:00 offering, and then 60 Minutes. It kind of astonishes me that this was the norm - sitting still for eight hours of football coverage (though, to be fair, he often ironed his shirts for the week during the late game) - but I would chalk it up to generational differences.

Would, that is, if I didn't know folks my own age who do just that even now. Which is fine. If you want to consume sporting entertainment in eight- or - since the advent of the Sunday night game - 12-hour chunks, that's a thing you can do. It's all there, readily available, and I can see the draw.

As I got older and began to set the parameters of my own life, though, I found that couldn't sit still that long, not with an easy conscience. There were just a lot of things that needed doing, and Sundays were a good day to do them. I was more likely to tinker in the garage, hang a new curtain rod, do some yardwork, then roast a pork loin for dinner, or improvise a shepherd's pie. While much of this was going on, I would have a game on in the background. If the Saints game was on, I might find something to do that would allow me to be nearer the TV.

But even if I was not wholly dedicated to watching the games, their mere presence provided some measure of comfort - the sound of a football game a TV, heard from the next room, the announcer's rising voice calling you in to catch the replay of something amazing or unexpected. The other game scores crawling along the bottom of the screen. The way the second game would, as the season wore on, be the signal for night to descend.

I expect it called back to those Sundays with Dad, at least in part. It was ritual, and though I was not partaking of the whole ceremony, I was at least making a gesture. Football - especially when it dovetailed with other factors, like a light snow falling, my children playing together harmoniously, the smell of Sunday dinner cooking - held in its leathery hands the ability to deliver me contentment.

3. Social connection

I once found myself in a dank little bar called The Triangle in Hancock, Maryland. Hancock is located in the skinniest part of Maryland. You could wind up and wheel and release and hit West Virginia with a rock without doing any damage to your rotator cuff. It was a Monday night, the first Monday night of the NFL season, to be precise.

I had managed to find the worst motel room in the Western hemisphere, and soon after I realized this, I decided to hit The Triangle, which was a short stumble away. I figured that getting to sleep in that room would require getting a little bit drunk. So in I went.

It quickly became apparent that everybody in that bar knew everybody else in that bar, except me. Me in my buttoned-down collared shirt. Me and my obviously alien ways. It is in such moments that we realize just how many subtle but very real symbols we carry and wear that mark who we are, and who we are not.

Who I was, was someone who was not a resident of Hancock, Maryland. But the TVs were on - showing the first of the two season-opening Monday Night games - and who I was was somebody who knew a little bit about football. Once I made that clear, a half a beer in, I was welcomed. The man next to me debated replays with me, when he wasn't once again cueing up "Rooster" by Alice in Chains on the CD jukebox. He indicated that he accepted my presence in his happy place by punching me repeatedly in the shoulder, hard.

Another man, a local business owner, had many questions about football in Canada. He must have liked me, too, because as the night wore on, he, with the bartender's OK, went out to his car to get something I had to try, which turned out to be a bourbon-based, honey-flavored liqueur, which we shot back and chased with more Coors.

That was probably a foolish thing for me to have agreed to do, but the game was on and "Rooster" was playing real loud and everybody was laughing and backslapping and, by God, who were we but fellow football fans? Steadfast friendships are formed from lesser stuff, at least it seemed to me that night.

I now wonder, half-jokingly, if I'd have survived that night if it weren't for my ability to talk football. At the very least, I'd have had nothing to talk about with the people in that bar, and so might have wound up attempting the foolish trick of falling asleep in that motel room while sober.

Other examples: I have significantly less to talk about with the guys with whom I play pickup basketball. My telephone conversations with Dad are about ten or fifteen minutes shorter than they were this time last year, because we're not talking about my Saints or his Patriots. I have spent a lot less time with friends in crappy local sports bars, pawing away at semi-warm fries or wings, sucking back semi-warm beer, watching primetime games. And, say what you want about any of those things, but I'll contend that was a decent way to pass an evening.(AP)Do I no longer watch football? Or do I no longer watch NFL football? I don't know. I'm still trying to tease out just how broad my objections are, to be frank. All those things I said above are true about every version of American-style football, whether you're talking NCAA, or CFL, or high school. Many of them, in truth, can be said about just about any professional sport, and it may very well be that my continuing addictions to baseball and basketball constitute the very worst hypocrisy. But the specific focus of my decision, the hinge upon which it all turned, was the weaselly way in which the NFL handled its obvious problem with gender violence.

I don't care if you watch NFL football. We all make choices, and I don't think that choosing to watch Russell Wilson dodge sacks makes you a bad person any more than I believe that deciding not to watch the NFL makes me a good person. These are just choices, and I don't know what impact such choices can have. None, I suspect.

I am one less page view. I am one less viewer. I have never bought tickets, and my merchandise purchases were negligible. I'm not out trying to convince others to change their habits, and even if I were to do that, what practical effect could that have? The NFL is such a cultural behemoth that, sadly, a few people quibbling over its handling of the off-field actions of its players won't make a lick of real difference.

But here's what I think: I think choice is sometimes important as nothing more than choice. The exercise of will. I'm no paragon of virtue; I don't typically boycott products, even when I know they are offered by undeniably evil corporations. I use too much hot water and I buy my kids' winter boots at Walmart. But I want to be better, and if it turns out that I can make such a decision and stick to it - follow through - it will perhaps prove instructive, providing me a schematic I might apply to other areas of my life.

That's likely hoping for too much, but regardless, I'm happy that I asked myself a question, arrived at an answer, and made a choice based thereon. It might seem silly or a bit overblown to subject something ultimately frivolous to epistemological inquiry - and, yes, OK, moral reasoning - but I think that anything that means a lot to you is worth investigating in these ways.

In the end, if ones asks these questions and arrives at answers that satisfy himself, then he can truly enjoy that thing, whatever it is.

It's a small, unimportant thing, the game of football, but for a long, long time, it was a large part of my life. Which inherently means that this exercise has been an inquiry into self, too; an effort to eliminate something dear from my life and gauge the results of its absence. Piecemeal self-negation, if you will. A slow removal of certain Jenga blocks in order to see how many can be taken away before I topple altogether.

But maybe it's even more than that. Maybe I'm asking the question: Is it right for me to watch the NFL? Maybe it's just reassuring to know that it's okay to ask such questions.

There is no clear answer here, and that doesn't much concern me; some things can't or shouldn't be clear, or definite. I can't adequately define love, but I couldn't live in a universe devoid of it. Perhaps the point of such self-inquiry is to silently arrive at greater awareness, and then to assimilate that knowledge without proselytizing to our fellow citizens. For each of us to arrive at these things independently, in our own private darknesses. I guess that's possible. If so, I have to accept the possibility that by broadcasting my journey into self-discovery here, you might deem my inquiry to have been a futile one.

And that's fine by me.

Related links:
Yeah, so, about those preseason NFL predictions
Should we really be lauding LeBron James?
When an athlete's self-awareness goes awry
Julian Edelman and the Patriot way

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