One man breaks up with the sport he used to love.
I never thought it would come to this. We’ve enjoyed such a long relationship, and I’ve loved you so deeply, so intensely. I was sure that ours was a relationship that would last a lifetime.
To be fair, it was a rocky beginning. I had no interest in sports as a child. Athletics, in my mind, were the domain of the cruel and unintelligent, and I aspired to be neither. But I grew up in Southern Indiana during the heyday of the Indiana University basketball team and at the tail end of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine era, so basketball and baseball were hard to escape. And they were easy to watch; I could mostly figure out how those sports worked just by flipping on the TV, sitting back, and observing the game. But football was much harder for me to understand. A field goal in football wasn’t like a field goal in basketball; a punt was nothing like a bunt. It wasn’t until I started attending my church youth group’s Super Bowl parties—back before you forced everyone to use the name “Big Game parties”—that someone actually sat me down and walked me through what was going on. Then I discovered how complex and rich the game was. Football was a thinking man’s game, as heavy on strategy as chess.
I went off to St. Louis for college. Every Sunday afternoon of my freshmen year, I hung out with my friends Michael and Allen, watching back-to-back games all afternoon while munching on pizza and Doritos. (This was before you created network Sunday Night Football so that people could watch back-to-back-to-back games.) I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend a Sunday: football, friends, and food.
A couple of years later, after Michael and Allen graduated, I was grocery shopping when I stumbled upon a magazine describing something called “fantasy football.” I bought the issue, read it thoroughly. and set about starting a fantasy-football league on campus. It didn’t take long to put together a league including both students and professors. For one entire autumn—a friend begged me to take over the next year—I spent two hours every Tuesday sitting in the library, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch open to the sports page, as I calculated the fantasy scores for my league’s eight teams. Then I posted the handwritten results on a corkboard in Presidents’ Hall.
Every week. That’s dedication. That’s love.
At around this time, St. Louis was in the grip of expansion fever. Our city was one of five (joining Memphis, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Jacksonville) hoping that you would bestow upon them one of a pair of expansion teams. St. Louis was a frontrunner almost the whole way, with a stadium already underway, thousands of residents having ponied up thousands of dollars each for personal seat licenses in order to fund the stadium. Then in-fighting broke out amongst the ownership group and the deal fell apart. Charlotte and Jacksonville won the expansion contest. And boy, were St. Louisans pissed. They’d already lost their beloved Cardinals because you okayed a move to Phoenix, and now they’d lost out on their best chance at an NFL franchise. But not to worry, the Los Angeles Rams had grown tired of their stadium and were looking for a new home. Some suggested they move to St. Louis, but many in my town didn’t want the Rams and their legacy of losing.
And then the Rams came. And then the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars found near-instant success, the beneficiaries of the unusually generous expansion-draft procedure you had set up that year. And then St. Louisans were really pissed. They should have had an expansion team. They should be the ones winning.
But I latched on to the Rams as soon as it was announced they were moving to my town. I was grateful to you, dear NFL, for believing in my city. And, soon enough, you rewarded my loyalty—my St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans (who had until a couple of years before been known as the Houston Oilers) in Super Bowl XXXIV.
A year later, I renewed my interest in fantasy football, the growth of online leagues saving me the two hours a week with the sports page. I gathered together friends and strangers and commissioned a league. For ten years.
That’s loyalty. That’s love.
I eventually moved to Minneapolis. I didn’t even try to fantasize about buying tickets to a Vikings game. For, despite my loyalty to you, despite the countless hours in front of the TV, despite the burgers I bought at the local bar after you moved Monday Night Football to cable and I could no longer watch the “game of the week” at home, to actually witness a game in person was never within my reach. NFL tickets were the domain of the wealthy, and I didn’t know a single person who could afford them. I could, however, afford baseball tickets, so I saw the Twins. And I could afford basketball tickets, but, ugh, I did not want to see the Timberwolves. But baseball and basketball weren’t my greatest loves. You were my favorite league. And still you held me at a distance.
I remember when one of your own, Michael Vick, was charged for dog-fighting. You booted him out of the league. And I was proud of you for doing the right thing. And then you got on board with breast-cancer awareness and spent your Octobers decked out in pink, a color I thought you hated. And I was proud of you for thinking beyond yourself.
I had friends who hated you. They told me you were obsessed with building new stadiums, of divesting cities of precious revenue. That your game was nothing but brutish bullying, a sport of mindless violence. That your only concern was with getting rich. But because I loved you, I defended you.
I had even constructed a narrative that both explained your worrisome ways and justified your existence in my life. Humans had engaged in organized sports for thousands of years, so my argument went, as a means of channeling our most violent tendencies. Athletics were a civilizing force. It gave us—you gave us—modern-day gladiators whom we could cheer on. Football was the perfect substitute for war, I argued. Nobody gets hurt (mostly). The players are paid well to compensate for the fact that they lose nearly twenty years from their lifespan, a just recompense for their sacrifice.
But somewhere along the way, my affection started to fade. Maybe it was when you took Michael Vick back into the fold. Or when I discovered that your breast-cancer-awareness campaign is a money-making venture that doesn’t really contribute to breast-cancer treatment or research (though this is usually the case with such campaigns). Or your insistence on using a racist name for one of your teams.
But those are hardly the only reasons I fell out of love with you. There are so, so many more. There’s the fact that former players have come out as sufferers of permanent brain damage thanks to playing for you, and that you spent decades covering it all up. Heck, a few weeks ago, a quarterback was obviously playing with a concussion and you did nothing at all. (And speaking of coming out, how the heck does Michael Sam not land a position on any team at all, at a time when there are so many awful defenses?)
Then there’s the situation down in Dallas, where you’re harboring a man who beats women. Your players are held up as role models, yet you gave this man a slap on the wrist for doing a lot more than slapping. You’ve done next to nothing about this. And this is hardly an isolated incident.
And then there’s my beloved Minneapolis (where I no longer live), getting an ugly, ridiculously expensive stadium at a time when there is disinvestment across much of the city. Oh, and it’s an environmental disaster, to boot. Yes, the Metrodome collapsed. But you are run by billionaires. I think they can spare a bit of cash for a stadium.
Okay, I have a confession to make. I’ve been disloyal to you. But only in response to your disloyalty to your fans, your players, and the cities where you play. What did you expect, that I would stick around forever despite your abuse? So I’ve been seeing someone else. Been flirting with them for twenty years, actually, and over time, they’ve got more and more of my attention.
My new love is Major League Soccer. And MLS simply doesn’t have your personality issues. They don’t support poor (or even illegal) behavior among their players. No racist club branding, either. They’re clean-cut and family-friendly, and they have a bright future. They’re not perfect—they’ve got stadium issues of their own—but at least I don’t feel like I have to defend my being an MLS fan.
I admit, you’re going to be hard to leave. I’ll probably check up on you from time to time. I have to admit that this past season, I’ve remained curious about how long the Panthers would stay undefeated. But you don’t really have my attention or love anymore. In a way, I feel like I wasted over thirty years of my life with you. But eventually you live and learn, I suppose. I pick up, I move on, and I ponder the lessons learned.
My dearest NFL, I want the best for you. I truly do. I hope you’ll shape up, that you’ll treat your players and fans and hosts well. But until I see some major changes in you, we’re through.
Photo: Flickr/Mr. Usaji
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