Since I was one of those Minnesota kids dragging my boots in the snow as I dived like Cris Carter to keep my feet inbounds for a backyard pass from my dad, and since I was one of those Minnesota teens staring incredulously at the screen in my friend’s basement as Gary Anderson’s kick sailed wide, and since I was also one of those Minnesota men who found the Vikings bar in an adopted city to bask in the fellowship of other fans even as Brett Favre’s final pass and Blair Walsh’s frozen kick went awry, and since I love Minnesota and have loved football, I, like so many American boys and girls bred on its violent grace that giveth but mostly taketh away—particularly in Minnesota—for all these reasons, I have struggled especially to tell people that I now choose not to watch the Vikings, that I haven’t watched them going on three years, which is what I want to write about now, as well as the old impulse that still lives in my bloodstream, the one that brought me to watch the last Sunday’s divisional playoff and catch the franchise’s most extraordinary catch.
Those lasting images—Stefon Diggs rising high as New Orleans Saints defender Marcus Williams dives harmlessly past; Diggs catching, landing, sprinting for the game-winning score—have already stamped themselves into Viking, NFL, and Minnesota lore. Kids across the state, and grownups, too are reenacting the play in backyards and parking lots, telling the story of where they were. Author Nick Hornby once wrote about sport’s potential to deliver “unexpected delirium,” which is exactly what I felt on Sunday night.
But I had other feelings, too, including that I had gone back on something I believe in.
For a long time, as the flags flew, I did not decide to stop watching football—until I finally did.
Problems with football that I started noticing and naming over years came together when I read Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond. Almond, a lifelong Oakland Raiders fan, writes from the point of view of someone who has loved the game and simultaneously refuses to ignore what is plain to see: our growing understanding of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE); the NFL’s billionaire owners who take public money to fund luxury stadiums; the racism, sexism, and homophobia—both explicit and implicit—in the game and its fandom; the racial overtones of ownership (including fans and their fantasy ownership); the absurdity of NFL salaries, ticket prices, and TV contracts; the league’s alternate sense of justice that chooses whom and how to punish its players—and front offices—for their crimes or behaviors; the NFL’s militant patriotism and patriotic militarism; and the vast industry of energy and attention—around the clock and calendar—that we, collectively, devote to this sport.
Almond develops each of these in his book, but I’ll leave them in brief here because what I really want to talk about are the image and voice battling the “Minneapolis Miracle” catch in my current consciousness; the straw that ultimately broke me enough to choose against how I had been raised, against watching football.
It was the image of Philando Castile, killed by a St. Paul police officer in his car in the summer of 2016. The dashcam video was released online—perhaps you saw it, too—showing how Castile was pulled over and shot, shot again and again, until he died.
Later, I listened to Valerie Castile, her voice full of a mother’s grief and anger. She talked about her son, including his love for Minnesota, an outline of our state the only tattoo on his body, slain by the state. I can’t now locate the video of her saying it, but I also can’t un-hear when she insisted that the city of Minneapolis, which was spending a billion dollars on a new football stadium, also deliver a funeral worthy of her son, too.
Castile reminded me how much of our attention and resources were being poured into the stadium while injustice went unpunished. As I saw U.S. Bank stadium eclipse more of the Minneapolis skyline, its titanic outline began to look more like a billion-dollar tombstone. What else could that money—much of it public—have built? What conversations—about race, inequality, and community—were sacrificed at its altar?
When I stopped watching football, I hoped to have those conversations. Some spoke and many agreed—in fact, beyond Almond, I’ve found an eager community willing to challenge the mores of football, not to eradicate the game, but hopefully to salvage it (and our humanity, too). The same summer that Philando Castile was killed, Colin Kaepernick took a knee for Alton Sterling and led a resurgence of athlete-activists peacefully leveraging their platforms of influence to wake us up.
But the majority of those I told about my decision, including close friends and family, just half-smiled as if to say: Your choice, not mine.
Then why did I tune in to the division championship on Sunday night? Why was that desire to watch still in me, and what did it mean when I, too, reveled in Diggs’ catch?
Sports, with that unexpected delirium, have a unique ability to uplift the collective. Diggs’ catch spread like electricity through millions of fans in real-time, imprinting itself in our shared consciousness. You didn’t just see the play; you felt it, lived it. Minnesotans will remember that catch the rest of our lives; we may tell about it to our children.
Too often we conflate what we love about sports with victory. Rather, I think we most love the characters that overcome the odds to defeat something larger than them through sport. Call them underdogs, Davids against Goliath. We love the Miracle-on-Ice team like we love the Mighty Ducks.
What then is the character of the Minnesota Vikings? Aside from the “Minnesota” on their jersey, who or what do they stand for? More importantly, who are we when we cheer for them?
Today we celebrate history’s great athlete-activists like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, or Billie Jean King. Yet each was condemned in their time. It seems society only loves the alignment of sport and justice in hindsight. What if we embraced it right now?
Today in Minnesota we have a team of such character. The Minnesota Lynx are 4-time WNBA champions, a dynasty, Goliaths in their sport—and yet Davids in this country. Rooting for the Lynx, we get to cheer on women, black women, and LGBTQ women. For a nation reeling from misogyny and white supremacy, it matters whom we cheer for.
Additionally, Lynx players stand against injustice from on-court protests of police brutality to off-court advocacy for prison reform (and their league does not blackball them for doing so).
With the Lynx, I can square my humanity with my sport, embrace the thrill of victory and the achievement of character over something larger, individuals and a team against systems. To paraphrase a current politician and apply it to something he never would: I’ll never get tired of winning so much like that.
Yet though the Minnesota Lynx are beloved for a women’s basketball team—thanks to their on-court victories—they don’t receive nearly as much money, time, or attention as the state’s professional male teams. They are the most winning Minnesota franchise this decade, yet on a recent trip to the Mall of America, I couldn’t even find a Lynx jersey or hat to purchase.
Minnesotans do love the Lynx, but not like they love the Vikings. I know this because I built my connection to football across every backyard pass and crushing loss. It’s this history that resonated so strongly as I watched Diggs dash into the history books. Sports can liberate something in our shared spirit that is more than victory, more than violence. I watched alone, yet I felt connected to each and every other fan. I felt connected to each past version of myself, as well.
What good could we turn that energy toward? What more could we ask of our owners, politicians, athletes, and fellow fans?
I know girls across the state are building the same legacy of love and inspiration with the Minnesota Lynx, and I hope that parents are encouraging their sons to do the same.
Over the next few weeks, all the vapid economy of the Super Bowl will envelop the Twin Cities, one long infomercial selling the game of football at a premium price. Who profits? Who wins? What debt do we owe to our most vulnerable? What team are you on?
The answer depends on how we tell the story, and it depends on those kids reenacting the “Minneapolis Miracle.”
In the elation of victory, we like to think that we, too, are Diggs, leaping high over the problems of the world, temporarily leaving the orbit of our daily losses that threaten to take us down. We have to see that we are also Marcus Williams, taking our eyes off the target, doomed to instant replay.
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