Unlike boxing, which has also drawn widespread criticism for brain injuries, football and its fans are too big to fail.
Sunday’s national holiday has me feeling stressed out. The holiday, of course, is the Super Bowl, as likely as Christmas to clear the streets and bring family together. But this year it reminds me of all the insults I received when I wrote about my decision to boycott the NFL this season. One reader called me a “nancy,” several called me a “nerd,” and someone even tweeted at me: “Hey @FuzzHogan, serious question: Do you have tits for hands?”
My kids and I mostly had fun with those insults—although we were taken aback by a few misogynistic, homophobic comments, like the question above. But now even the president is taking me on. Not me, personally, of course, but in The New Yorker last week he said that the long-term risks of serious brain injury taken by NFL players—the reason for my boycott—haven’t affected his interest in the game. “[T]here’s a little bit of caveat emptor,” he argued. “These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret.”
Though many folks are expressing serious concern about football’s impact on the brain, opting out of the country’s largest fan base isn’t easy. For me, who watched up to six hours—a week of pro football in years past, it was like quitting an addiction. You find yourself having relapses, hanging out with other addicts who are still using, making all kinds of rules to excuse a few hits.
So how did it go? In a sign of how badly I did, I’ll use the trusty Monday morning sports columnist scorecard:
On your average Sunday this past fall, I watched zero hours of professional football. Sounds like cold turkey, but read on. I have no NFL fans in my house, so the peer pressure was low. I did seek out the NFL once—for the conference championship games that decided which team would advance to the Super Bowl. While I watched neither game live, I watched recorded parts of both the next day while working out. I can report that the high just wasn’t as intense—but, man, the stuff was potent: the historic Broncos offense, the Manning-Brady rivalry, Silicon Valley against Seattle. But even all that didn’t produce the unique neural combination of relaxation and excitement that it once did. Then again, part of the reason I stopped watching in the first place was to reduce demand for a damaging product. In that, I failed. I stayed up to get the scores online and, hoping for a contact high, listened every week to The B.S. Report, a podcast during which Bill Simmons, the ESPN columnist and Grantland editor, discusses the week’s action. It’s a funny podcast, but all those clicks to download were telling the NFL, “keep it going, Fuzz is still a fan.”
Most addicts have an out—a back door that lets them get what they crave without blaming themselves. My out was something I called the “hospitality rule”: I’d watch football if it would be rude not to. I had 36 family members coming to my house for Thanksgiving this year. I couldn’t deny them their tradition, right? As a result of my “hospitality,” I caught a good bit of the Cowboys game and some of the other two games. Of course, plenty of those 36 Hogans never saw a play because they didn’t go into the TV room. At another family gathering, this clause let me see one of the Coolest Plays of the Year, when an Indianapolis Colts running back in the playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs fumbled on the one-yard line, and the ball bounced off a teammate’s helmet into the hands of his quarterback, whose name is actually Luck. Luck then leapt into the end zone, helping sustain one of the most remarkable comebacks of the year. Not only did I get that same old high, this play brought me back into the community of fans who retell the same amazing play for the rest of the week, brag to those who missed it, and get to feel like they were part of a special moment.
Special Teams: F
I watched a ton of college football. So not only am I supporting kids putting their brains on the line, but also, much like a cocaine addict helping to ruin a town somewhere in America, my participation in today’s football economy means some college athlete is putting himself at risk and not being properly compensated. (Some of my fellow Northwestern Wildcats are now asking to join a union, which could change that.)
Sadly, I can’t report that I did anything particularly special with my newfound free time. I now cook dinner on Sunday nights, help more around the house, and caught all the Oscar contenders on the big screen. But it’s not like I trained for a marathon or re-landscaped the backyard. My tools are still disorganized, and my pile of unread books is just as high.
My scorecard shows obvious room for improvement, but the big questions are: Did my abstention make any sort of difference? And, will I relapse?
If you’re old enough, you remember when boxing matches were on regular TV and dominated both the sports and news pages. At some point, watching retired champs slur their words and lose their memories caught up with the sport, and the cultural spotlight and fans turned away, reducing boxing to a small but dedicated group of spectators who pay big bucks per fight. If enough people choose, as I did, not to watch football, is that where the NFL is headed? Doubtful.
The difference is that boxing requires so little upfront investment: All a match takes are two boxers, their small team, and some gear at a gym or small arena. Football, however, requires dozens of men to be flown all over the country weekly, equipped from head to toe, and prepared by a huge coaching and training staff that works nearly 24/7.
So, if enough of us stop watching, or if enough moms don’t let their sons play, could the NFL just die? Don’t count on that, either. As a young columnist for my high school paper, I predicted soccer would overtake football (even though I was a bigger fan of football) in the U.S. by the year 2000. That was 32 years ago, and that prediction seems even sillier now than it did then. You could just as soon wish away cocaine.
The NFL has promised to take care of its retired players, and the president is right that the league’s players are grown men who, now at least, know the risks. But do I have to watch and enjoy them taking those risks? Like any addict, I’ll take it one season—maybe even one week—at a time. As for this Sunday, some friends invited us over, and I don’t think it was just to watch the commercials.
Fuzz Hogan is the managing editor of the New America Foundation. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.