The left and the right seem to agree on at least one thing: they are both fed up with the NFL.
Each side has its own reasons. Concerns about the long-term implications of traumatic brain injuries are more likely to come from blue-state America, while complaints about high-paid NFL players refusing to stand for the national anthem is more likely to come from red-state Americans.
Expect bans on youth football to catch on in blue-state America. For example, a New York lawmaker wants to ban tackle football in that state. Others are voting on football with their feet and walking away from the game: “I'm a big football fan,” President Obama said a few years ago, “but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”
To paraphrase Jerry Glanville, the NFL will stand for “Not for long” if parents decide to keep their kids on the sidelines. Regardless, expect brain injuries, coupled with high-profile cases of domestic violence, to lead more bleeding-heart liberals to find it morally repugnant to celebrate a sport that causes irrefutable and documentable brain damage.
For red-staters, personally boycotting the NFL (by refusing to watch or go to games) is a different sort of political statement. Colin Kaepernick’s insistence on kneeling during the national anthem seems to have been a sort of tipping point. John Hawkins, who runs RightWingNews and is a conservative columnist for Townhall.com, had this to say when I asked him about the NFL. “When I was a kid, I wrote a Christmas letter to my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he said. “I used to not just play, but win fantasy football leagues with my friends. Now, I don't watch the NFL at all. Not even the Super Bowl, and I don't miss it one bit. I can't make ESPN less liberal, and I can't stop NFL players from disrespecting the flag, but I can refuse to give them my money.” It’s still a wildly popular sport, but the NFL amazingly has managed to alienate people on both sides of the political spectrum.
There are other reasons for giving up on football. Even alt-right leader Richard Spencer recently voiced an interesting argument against the sport, suggesting that fans are “covering up some hole in ourselves” by fervently rooting for a team. Spencer would presumably prefer for tribalism to be based on skin color, rather than on some arbitrary factor such as which professional city drafted a given player some particular year. Sports teams are perhaps the last politically correct form of tribalism left for your standard white dude to partake in, and perhaps Spencer sees this as competition. Or maybe he just doesn’t like all those black players?
Regardless, his first point has some merit: Why am I burning so many calories worrying about football games when I should be focused on my friends and family and work? To be sure, people need a diversion. And it’s true that football provides an opportunity to network and talk to other people about a shared interest. But how many hours of my life—how many Sunday afternoons—have been frittered away in front of a TV, watching overgrown millionaires play a child’s game?
This doesn’t even count the emotional toll. Studies indicate that you’re actually more likely to have a heart attack after your team loses a big game. Is it healthy to have so much invested in the fate of a fairly trivial game? How many of us are so emotionally invested in our communities or churches or families that it impacts our health? As my old college professor used to say, the Romans distracted the citizenry with bread and circuses. We get distracted with football and pizza.
For all these reasons, I’ve made a decision: With the NFL set to kick off the 2017 season tonight, I am joining a growing chorus of Americans who are tuning out, at least for a season. I’m not calling myself a hero, and I’m not suggesting that I am at the vanguard of this movement. And I suffer no illusions that the NFL will know or care that I’m engaging in this exercise of passive resistance.
My decision comes with a few caveats.
First, none of the things above will deter me from watching baseball, a sport that does not take the same physical toll on players and is not (for now) plagued by the same level of politicization. Further, its tradition as America’s pastime transcends its status as a mere sport.
Second, I may backslide. The flesh is weak. There’s a reason football is so popular. It’s an incredibly compelling spectacle—one that is especially good for TV viewing. As one liberal colleague told me when I mentioned quitting cold turkey, “I'm wavering, but it's a hard drug to kick.”
It’s possible—er, likely—that I will relapse. I’m not going to go out of my way to watch football anymore, but I’m also not going to be a fanatic about it. If I happen to be at a party and a game is on, I will probably watch it. And in the unlikely event my Redskins (yes, the team with the politically incorrect name) go on a tear and make the playoffs, all bets are off. And unlike John Hawkins, I probably will watch the Super Bowl.
Truth be told, I think one of the reasons that I’m not too worried about making this sacrifice is that there are so many other things competing for my attention. I rarely watch TV shows when they actually air, preferring to watch Netflix on my own schedule. No longer a passive viewer, but still not a cable TV cord-cutter, watching football and enduring TV ads has slowly lost its allure.
This is a long way of saying that all sorts of political and cultural factors have conspired to bring me to this place. Whether it’s concussions, Colin Kaepernick, or changing technology, I don’t know that I would have taken this drastic step even a few years ago.
I’ll end this with a rare appeal. Do you agree with me? Do you want to pledge to join this movement to turn off, tune out, and drop out? Is this a trend or am I just a lone voice crying in the wilderness? I want to hear from you. Tweet me @mattklewis.