Travis Timmons wanted to quit football. As a fan he didn’t want to be complicit in the head injuries so many players suffer. But then along came Russell Wilson.
I was ready to begin quitting the NFL. Seriously. Well, more like taking steps to quit football. I say steps, because—after all—how else do you quit something that has been a central part of your life and the lives of those around you, part of your earliest sports memories?
But then Russell Wilson was drafted and won the starting quarterback job for the Seahawks here in Seattle. A couple months later, my 12 step program for quitting football was abandoned. For now.
What happened? “Wilsonism” happened.
Over the course of 16 games, everyone in the metro area fell in love with Wilson. And how do you not when your quarterback does this? Or if you prefer a buffet for your eyes, feast on this pile of gridiron goodies from the rookie quarterback: here and here.
Here in Seattle, we even have a mini-cottage industry around the wholesome goodness of one Russell Wilson, who is described as a “brutal interview” by our local journalists. Wilson is a polished cliche conveyor belt when interviewed, but he’s also, unmistakably, an exemplary man (or simply human being). Here’s a list sampling his cliched quotes, hashtags, accomplishments and deeds:
- “Separation’s in the preparation!”
- “One pass at a time”
- “Go ‘Hawks!” (Wilson’s ubiquitous signature)
- “BVD Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23 NIV)” (BVD = bible verse of the week).
- Or, to get more serious, his weekly visits with his wife to the children’s hospital, where the couple volunteers.
- For every touchdown he scores this season, he will donate a couple thousand dollars.
- He travels Washington State with his kiddie football camp—proceeds from which are donated to the Ray Charles III Diabetes Association.
The Wilson persona is crystallized by ‘Hawks guard John Moffitt, who investigates whether Wilson is a robot in this can’t miss report.
We jest about Wilson being a robot because irony is a common shield when confronting a guy who seems like a genuinely good man—a man who quite publicly embraces his responsibility as the most important athlete in Seattle. What else do you say about seemingly sincere goodness and responsibility?
From a PR perspective, Wilson’s credentials and persona are impeccable. The man already deserves the city’s keys—football brilliance be damned. Beyond the gridiron, Wilson is a leader-in-waiting.
However, the Wilson-the-good-man persona certainly would be less significant without Wilson’s platform in the most visible job on the American sporting scene: quarterback. And for a Super Bowl contender to boot.
While I’ve heard the local sporting cognoscenti signal this particular TD pass against the Patriots as the “it” moment for Wilson, I would argue that the “take me to your leader” moment with Wilson came during his “clutch” last minute 97 yard drive to put the ‘Hawks up on the road in Chicago against the then-playoff-contender Bears. (The game went to overtime, but on the opening drive of the extra period Wilson led the Seahawks to a game-winning TD).
In football terms, what Wilson did in Soldier Field (one of the NFL’s hallowed grounds, symbolically consummating Wilson’s Bildungsroman narrative) is the kind of moment footballs fans live for: your team is on the road and your cold-blooded quarterback mercilessly leads the boys for back-to-back touchdown drives to beat a playoff-caliber opponent. And here, during a moment like this, sport becomes the acute proxy it is for that which we usually lack. Your quarterback becomes your leader.
Sports are funny. After his Chicago performance, Wilson became our faith-object: “In Russell We Trust” was the call we took into the playoffs. We believed.
But in what? This young man and his unflappable leadership over massive men playing a violent game. During his first season, we saw Wilson simply orchestrate games in the purest sense of this verb (even during some of the losses, thanks to last-minute Seahawk defensive meltdowns, e.g. the devastating overtime loss to the Falcons in the playoffs). The more success Wilson achieved, the more faith in him grew. It’s little wonder we were quick to elevate him, an affective response, only accentuated by his diminutive stature (5’ 11″). In sporting cliche speak, Wilson has a “chip on his shoulder”—a catalyst that sparks an insatiable appetite for work and responsibility.
Within the national narrative, Wilson’s diminutive height is the engine (i.e. “conflict”) driving his story’s plot—the plot of a man overcoming something, succeeding in spite of his limitations. Famously, Wilson was a 3rd round draft pick, who proceeded to beat out free agent pickup Matt Flynn for the starting job during training camp. (Hilariously, the ‘Hawks were only selling Flynn jerseys during training camp. Oops). So his success is that much more enjoyable. After all, quarterbacks like Peyton Manning seem to have these smooth narratives of success, accentuated by their (now) all-American golden boy quarterback bodies.
However, the “overcoming” narrative ignores the obvious: that Wilson is a very gifted athlete. After all, he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and played a couple of seasons in minor league baseball. At quarterback, he excelled at every level. (Those of us from Tallahassee, FL still tremble from Wilson-inflicted bad memories when he was at NC State.). Besides his diminutive height, Wilson’s body is high athletic art. He’s fast (a 4.5ish time in the 40). Some say the secret of his success are his massive hands, which are bigger than most quarterbacks in the NFL. So it’s not as if Wilson magically appeared, clinging to the talisman of a pure heart.
When it was all done last season, Wilson and the ‘Hawks rolled into the playoffs with an 11-5 record. He even made the Pro Bowl roster. Thus, we breathlessly await year two of the reign of Wilson.
Lest you call me saccharine (or worse!) for my Wilson paean, let me say that I find it necessary to carefully build up the Russell Wilson persona and narrative to set up what I will say next. After all, as one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, has observed writing about goodness oftentimes lacks a form of expression. But I’ll shut up with my Wilson hagiography for a bit and circle back to my opening hook: quitting football. You can probably guess where I’ll be going with this.
The experience of watching the NFL has changed. As evidence of the effects of concussions, head injuries, and especially CTE grows, many fans can’t help but watch football through this lens of awareness. Even the most avid fans can’t escape it, thanks to media coverage of Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, and others. The NFL has hastily tried to get its act together with a bevy of new “safety” rules, rhetoric about helmet technology, and commercials like this one that valorize the narrative of evolution and progress to reassure fans, especially parents of all the youngsters who, scampering onto Pop Warner fields, are the NFL’s pipeline of future gladiators.
Then there’s danger from within: the legion of former pros suing the league for damages. For a multi-billion dollar industry, the stakes are high, even if many football fans seem only to care about their weekly fantasy football lineup.
However, I’m not here to tread over the ground that’s being broken on the science of head injuries, CTE, and the low-level impacts that are seemingly so devastating to the human brain. Or the discussions about the nature of football as a sport with its “inherent” (rather than “accidental”) violence that cannot be legislated away without irrevocably changing the DNA of football. Or the somewhat abstracted ethical questions about consent and compensation, morally justifying the profession of football. Or even the debates (admittedly, fascinating) about the long term odds of football and the NFL surviving the head injury crisis, as some folks contemplate.
Instead of making some statement about this emerging body of knowledge, I want to focus on my own dilemma about continuing to watch the NFL. (For simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave college football out of the picture, since NFL players are, at least, paid professionals). Because, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, watching football can be viewed as “morally problematic” (start at 23:00). In the same interview with Fareed Zakaria, Gladwell states the ethical question like this: “Is it appropriate in the modern age to support/participate in a game that has such serious consequences for its players?”
To paraphrase Christ from the New Testament, this is a hard saying.
Gladwell’s question more or less describes my own dilemma. If you must, put away your concern with the assumptions about us enlightened moderns and the taboo we’ve placed on violence that Gladwell embeds in this question. For me, what remains is a visceral and affective packaging of football’s moral dilemma. See, I’ve been stuck. Part of me feels awful watching football, but a bigger part of me can’t quit watching.
My mind is stuck in this dichotomy, even during specific plays as they unfold on the television screen. On one hand, like any Seahawks fan, I love watching Marshawn Lynch punish defenders when he lowers his boom, flattening linebackers, safeties, and corners. A play like this defines the physical raison d’etre of football. And I’ve been raised by my culture to love these plays.
On the other hand, when Lynch’s punishing run ends, part of me wonders what Marshawn will be like at 55, or what the defenders—or Lynch’s teammates—will be like at 55. Or 45. I wonder what these players’ current and future brain scans will look like. As Lynch gets up after being tackled, I’m thinking about Duerson, about Andre Waters, or about Sean Pamphilon’s documentary, The United States of Football, which humanizes the be-helmeted demigods we watch on Sunday.
Because of this awareness, I can’t enjoy watching a vicious hit or collision like I used to. I cringe instead.
Personally, I experience the most revulsion when, to use an analogy, I imagine myself as a spectator in ancient Rome watching Gladiators compete in a death sport. As an NFL fan, I sometimes think the scene is similar: football is death. It’s just that death is delayed. It’s a far slower death. A death of certain human faculties. A death we don’t see, as players enter older age (or not). My moral revulsion is sparked when I think that I’m watching something that is slowly killing its participants. Or to paraphrase Gladwell, a sport in which CTE is the participants’ inheritance.
But I also know that this analogy is somewhat absurd. Other jobs are risky, accelerating a type of slow death. For example, my dad has been in the construction industry for about 25 years of brutal manual labor. God knows the horror this causes his body—the slow death to its faculties and functions. Yet I also know that my dad would prefer not to labor away in construction another day, if he had the choice.
However, even if I grant the argument that football players are consenting adults making fair compensation for the risks of playing football, I still can’t shake the gladiator analogy, especially the part played by those of us in the stands. We subsidize the whole spectacle with our Season Ticket cable packages, purchased merchandise, fantasy football betting pools, or our millions of clicks on websites and social media connected to the NFL.
And here the gladiator analogy reveals an irony about watching football. Those of us in the stands are spectators—watchers of spectacle. Of course, the concept of spectacle is intertwined with that of entertainment. Not surprisingly, many sports fans embrace the idea that we’re all just consuming entertainment, hence the constant backlash against anything smacking of politics or social reality (e.g. athletes tweeting reactions to the Trayvon Martin verdict) that makes its way into the sporting world. In these instances, sports fan embrace their role of entertainment-seekers with welcome arms. And, the thinking might go, if brawny monster-men consent to have their bodies and brains battered to provide me gridiron entertainment, then what’s the big deal? I have a trade to nail down in my fantasy league, jagoff.
In my mind, if football is “just” entertainment, then that gladiator analogy must be accepted, as must be my complicit role as part of the mob, quaffing my drink, eating my food, and screaming from the stands. If so, then I should return my ticket, as some like Ta-Nehisi Coates already have done.
I’ve followed Coates’ work for a number of years and, given my immense respect for his candid reflection and thinking, watched very closely as Coates went through a “losing my religion” journey and eventually gave up the NFL completely. Even though Coates makes it clear he doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow his lead, I couldn’t help but feel implicitly condemned, since I didn’t have the fiber to follow suit.
The furthest I got was vaguely thinking I would begin taking steps away from football. I started with college football, which was relatively easy after we moved from a college town like Tallahassee. However, the NFL was another matter. Ultimately, I found that I couldn’t quit it because of the communal meaning the league has for me.
First, there’s my family. We all watch the NFL on Sundays. We play in a fantasy league together. We talk football constantly. And we play football in the cul-de-sac every time I visit them in San Diego. Watching the NFL with my dad in the 80s is the earliest sports memory I have. Finally, when I stopped following sports in college, the NFL was the first sport I picked back up.
Second, there’s the whole country, who is mostly watching and talking about football. Quitting football is also quitting this communal (and national) experience. I’ve keenly experienced this communal phenomenon here in Seattle—an NFL town—where the Seahawks are loved with a fierce pride, representing our outpost corner of a city (also known as “South Alaska”!). In a region where community doesn’t come naturally to many people, the Seahawks are one of the prime catalysts for bringing people together. In Seattle, and the rest of the country, the NFL is the narrative most people seem to be following—certainly a larger following than any of our other cultural narratives, no matter how clogged Twitter gets with Game of Thrones, Girls, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad tweets.
Quitting football means leaving these layers of community and the narrative we all share. I think these elements, in particular, are what held me back the most and what I’d miss the most about quitting football. Because, frankly, I find soccer, baseball, and basketball (even Rugby!) to be more interesting sports to watch than football.
However, even these communal and narrative meanings were losing ground not so long ago, especially after the Tavaris Jackson-led Seahawks finished 7-9 during our first year in Seattle. At this point, I could envision weening myself off the game, going all in for soccer and baseball, and replacing the NFL narrative with the NBA (LeBron! CP3! Iceberg Slim!) narrative as the national sporting story I followed.
Then Russell Wilson became the starting quarterback during training camp.
Oddly enough, I watched him at that training camp for a day, but missed the event that was unfolding. He threw the ball with a wicked zip, but my friend and I were eyeballing Matt Flynn, given the money spent on him. However, soon enough I began realizing something was unfolding when I watched him shred the poor Kansas City Chiefs during a preseason game.
At some point, my thinking went something like this: “Forget the NFL’s communal narrative. Toss it aside. The NFL is worthwhile because Russell Wilson plays in it.” In terms of avant-garde aesthetics, Wilson running the ‘Hawks offense was the event unfolding for which I had no name yet. Suddenly, for me the value of watching the NFL resided, not merely in the communal narrative surrounding the game, but in the performance of Russell Wilson. Call it aesthetics, call it a narrative, call it whatever you want, but you must call it compelling. Not since I was a child did I jump around the living room watching sports as much as I did last season when Wilson led the ‘Hawks.
I don’t think I’m overstating my excitement about the Russell Wilson-led Seahawks. Everyone up here in the Northwest seems equally as excited about this diminutive leader of men. In fact, I think we are a bit scared of our excitement and anticipation of the ‘Hawks upcoming season. I’m hooked, we’re hooked.
And through the person of one football player, it’s become that much harder for me to quit football.
I’ll admit the conceit for this essay emerged after I briefly chatted with Sean Pamphilon (who’s based here in Seattle). I introduced myself to Sean after hearing Dave Zirin talk about his new book. Sean was gracious as I asked him about his upcoming documentary, and asked him if he was still able to watch the NFL after making it. He said something like it was getting much harder, but then—damnit—this Russell Wilson guy appeared, and like the junkies we are, we return to our drug of choice: the NFL. Unlike me, Sean was immediately blown away by Wilson in training camp.
This brief conversation stuck with me, because it helped crystallized how the game of football itself (rather than the attendant communal and narrative meanings surrounding it) draws us to the spectacle through the player-orchestrator. My own reaction to the Wilson-led Seahawks last year also help me understand the NFL’s power elsewhere: I imagined that fans in Green Bay felt similarly about Aaron Rodgers, fans in New England about Tom Brady, fans in Minnesota about Adrian Peterson, fans in New Orleans about Drew Brees, fans in D.C. about RGIII, or perhaps fans in Houston about J.J. Watt.
Yet, of course, human brains are still getting slapped like jello within the false promises of those face-masked helmets. But the majestic performance of a player, like Wilson, is too compelling; I don’t want to miss what he does during the next few years, because I don’t want to miss the limits he pushes of what’s possible in the concert between human body and the brain that transcends the faux-war we watch on the gridiron every Sunday. I imagine fans in other NFL cities feel the same way about their stars.
Hence the Russell Wilson problem.
Like many modern things, I think of sports (and probably every other cultural field) engaging in a Faustian bargain through which our cultural goods (e.g. the NFL) are delivered to us through instrumentalizing means (e.g. the battering of the brain of football performers in this case). Our gloriously violent and ubiquitous national sport costs someone something somewhere—and, as long as football is football, our experience of football’s power and raw beauty will always depend on another accepting this sort of self-immolation, the inheritance of CTE.
Yes, we’re all consenting adults here, but the bargain is unmistakable. I admire those like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who walk away from the NFL. But I can’t right now, not while Russell Wilson plays.
But for me, it gets even more complicated. I’m moving to Pittsburgh. As we get ready for the move, I’ve quickly learned that the Steelers are EVERYTHING to this city. Even friends who are not sports fans will blurt out something about the Steelers before anything else when they search for something to say about Pittsburgh. Outside of Green Bay, there is no other NFL city that so thoroughly identifies with its football team (you have no idea how many kitschy Steelers-covered basements and houses we saw when house-hunting!). For me, this passion is a problem, not in the least because I was raised as a Dallas Cowboys fan, but because our move takes me to a city in which the NFL’s power of communal narrative is felt more strongly than almost anywhere else. Already, I can’t imagine Pittsburgh without the Steelers and the NFL.
So I don’t know what happens next. But I realize my danger, because there will probably always be another Russell Wilson spit out by college football, who shakes the NFL to its core. There will always be another player to keep me returning to our sporting drug of choice. Yet even if there wasn’t, in a place like Pittsburgh there is still the abiding communal narrative.
Of course we don’t want to quit football. It simply has too much meaning for us. It’s too many things to too many people. However, we can start by acknowledging the deal we’re making with ourselves and the players behind those helmets and pads. And I can start by admitting that I’m too enthralled by the cultural wares of the sport (it’s power, aesthetics, communal narrative, and spectacle) to think clearly about the ethics of watching it. Besides, there’s the Russell Wilson problem.
Photo: AP/Rick Bowmer