It’s actually more like one big troublesome thing with five subsections.
I was eleven years old in 1984 when I declared myself a Chicago Bears fan. What drew me to the Bears were the weirdos. The team was made up of the kinds of guys you might meet while riding the “L” (our elevated train) on New Year’s Eve. Any NFL fan of my generation knows these characters, and I won’t belabor descriptions: Jim McMahon, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Mike Singletary, Buddy Ryan, Mike Ditka. Walter Payton was in the prime of his career. By the next season, 1985, when the Bears were ransacking the league and carrying a circus show anywhere they went, the entire city had fallen so hard that the team had become central to Chicago’s identity. Virtually everyone was a fan. My grandmother’s friends, for example, would sit with her at Sunday tea and, in anticipation of that week’s game, discuss the “genius” of using William “The Refrigerator” Perry as a goal line running back. My Lithuanian grandmother: “Why don’t all of a teams take like this fat man, give ball to always make it touch down?”
Even though the Bears quickly fell from the history book to the joke book, fielding a clown car of quarterbacks over two decades, allowing the much-loathed Terrell Owens to set single-game records against them, I was hopelessly addicted after 1985. With the exception of the years I lived in Europe, 1996-1999, I have watched every single Bears game since the 1984 NFC Championship. During those European years, NFL games were among the things that filled me with nostalgia for America. Once my wife and I had moved to the States, I actually turned her into a fan, primarily by telling her the dramatic history of the Bears, explaining how each Sunday was a new chapter intimately tied to my identity as a Chicagoan.
But since having children, my perspective has been changing. As I change, I feel the game is also changing, and not in a way that makes it any more interesting. I’m wondering if it would be better for me and my family if I stopped watching NFL games. I don’t just mean that the game takes up three or four valuable hours on Sundays. Here are my concerns:
#1: Expressions of Nationalism
Ok, this is an American game. We invented it. We’re proud of it. It gives us a chance to feel cool about being American. But why isn’t it enough to sing the national anthem or “God Bless America” before a game? Must we turn it into blatant recruitment, have representatives from our military present, unfurl field-sized Star Spangled Banners and then fly fighter planes over the stadium? Before a game featuring the third-place Bears against the fourth-place Lions? Yes, the stadium is called Soldier Field. Yes, the game is a (not subtly homoerotic) metaphor for war. So is chess. Imagine a pair of Class C players squaring off in some tournament and, before the first move, a cavalry officer riding around and flashing his sword.
I invite Americans angry with me about this criticism to recall how they feel whenever they see Russian parades of missiles, tanks and marching soldiers, a smug tribunal looking on. The whole thing looks absurd. But it’s happening during a national holiday and in the middle of Moscow, not before a soccer match between bottom-feeding Alania and Mordovia.
This is related to the previous point. As the NFL comes to express our militarism, it has also come to express our obsession with litigation. A challenge flag gets thrown. The ref announces that the previous play, although a judgment has already been made, has gone to the appellate court. Talking heads weigh in. “To me it looks like he gets two feet down. But from this angle, it seems he doesn’t have control of the ball.” Each game features mini-trials. They suggest that litigation over every last detail of life is perfectly normal. In the meantime, the dead space is filled with ads, part of my next concern:
#3: The commercials
Do we remember the commercials from the 80’s? Miller gathered a host of goofy personalities, Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith, and had them make fools of themselves in a bar that might have been in Pittsburgh or Boston. It was stupid but fun. Now commercials, loads and loads of them, demand that we “man up” by drinking the world’s worst beer. The beer advert is followed by one for a stupid remake of a film that was stupid in the first place. After this we’re told that driving a truck makes us tough. At the end of the cycle, we’re reminded to watch Bill O’Reilly. Delude yourself, America, on every level.
#4: Brain damage
When I was a kid, I told my grandfather that I wanted to play football. He said to forget it. “You put your head in plastic and smash it against another plastic-encased head. It damages the brain. And you can’t replace your brain.” My grandfather was not an expert in encephalopathy, and this was long before Dave Duerson or Junior Seau killed themselves. He could tell it was bad just by watching.
The verdict is in: concussions have long term, very serious consequences. Several Chicago sports talk show hosts (I won’t name them) have expressed, as their careers are tied to interest in football, that they don’t care about the game’s dangers. It’s what they like about it; the violence is entertaining. They only demand that everyone speak openly about encephalopathy and keep from deluding themselves.
I don’t want to be that person. I’ve imagined my daughter and son asking me one day, “Dad, if you know these boys are hurting themselves, why are you watching them do it? Why do you like it?” Enjoy the game when you know brain damage can lead to suicide? Why should I demand that someone harm themselves simply for my own entertainment? How is that entertaining? Doesn’t it depend on denial?
#5: Where have the personalities gone?
The business of football has stripped it of so much color. Its players resemble the stretching robot in the FOX graphic. Interviews are cardboard and cliché. Reporters try desperately to trip players and coaches up to deliver drama or curiosity; to avoid it, players mutter lines scripted by team PR people. Fans worry more about how they have helped their fantasy football teams than about the players’ triumphs or failures.
We used to have characters like Jerry Glanville and Bum Philips—that’s a head coach whose first name was Bum. Joe Namath would routinely show up hung over to kick opponents’ asses. Phil Simms flipped Otis Wilson off in the end zone during a playoff game. John Madden would scream “He’s perpendicular!” when he meant, “He’s parallel to the ground.” After the Bears lost in the playoffs in 1986, John Drummond, a Chicago crime reporter, tried on live television to interview a horde of obviously drunk fans. It was nothing less than a mosh pit, and Drummond’s final sentence summed up the experience: “I felt like I was standing on the fulcrum of a tramp steamer!”
Perhaps its America that has lost personality and the NFL is simply reflecting it. If the NFL is our flagship game, it should work as a mirror of sorts, revealing our culture in ways the game does not consciously intend.
What does it say about the power of this game, however, when someone like me, troubled about what all of it means, is still looking forward to the next time the Bears take the field? As I complete this post, I’m already planning to finish other necessary work so that I’d have three or four hours to sit through the advertisements, the recruitment to military service, the corporate reminders that I am stupid and flawed, the reviews of ball spots and downed knees, the inevitable injuries, as I hope the Bears will come out of the mess with a win. If they win, I’ll feel good, at least for an evening, and wonder if I should believe this is finally the year. And if they lose, I’ll tune in to a radio show where fans call to gripe, and I’ll feel affinity with our community of losers. We sat through the game only to have our hopes crushed, as we knew they were bound to be crushed, if not this week then next. Yet each week, each season, despite our better knowledge, we come back for more.