Hi. My name is Tommy…and I’m a football fan.
Chorus: Hi Tommy.
I’m not ashamed of it. Growing up in Texas, I have practically been living and breathing football since I was in grade school, not that I think it would make any difference had I grown up elsewhere. I would still love it. We had junior high school games on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. High school games on Friday nights. College games on Saturdays. NFL on Sundays and Monday nights. We played it constantly, either organized, or more likely disorganized. We watched it constantly. We still do. We talked about it constantly. We still do. Bleeding scrapes and broken bones couldn’t keep us away. The bright lights! Winning state! A national championship! The Super Bowl! It all gets me excited. During the fall months, I organize my schedule around it. I pay for cable primarily as a means of watching games, and nothing makes me happier than some late night West Coast college game that doesn’t mean a thing, but keeps me in football into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Football is everywhere. It’s making money hand over fist at every level. And it’s only gotten bigger. It’s only gotten more popular. And while I will always have a fondness and a soft spot in my heart for baseball and its rich history, make no doubt about it, football is America’s pastime.
And lately, it’s been doing everything in its power to dissuade me from watching it. With every consecutive controversy, every subsequent violent incident, every crime or misdemeanor swept to the side for the sake of the dollar, I grow more and more disenfranchised…and that makes me one sad dude.
Ever since NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s joke of a punishment, a 2-game suspension, was doled out to Baltimore running back Ray Rice for a highly public domestic violence incident last July, football has been slipping downward in a heap of bad PR and completely warranted criticism. Amidst of sea of violence against women, child abuse, concussion-linked suicide, racial slurs, drugs, guns, and money, money, money, it gets increasingly more difficult to support the institutions that both entertain and infuriate.
And Ray Rice was just the catalyst.
In the days and weeks that followed, there was the story of Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy who was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend and yet was still on the field in week 1 (his case is on appeal). Then you have another defensive end, San Francisco’s Ray McDonald who is accused of domestic abuse (the investigation is ongoing). And then there’s celebrated Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson charged with child abuse. And then you have Arizona running back Jonathan Dwyer charged with assault against his wife and booked for aggravated assault against his son. It just keeps going on and on, and we’re asking questions about whether or not these guys will be playing, or if they’ll be benched, rather than why they are not in jail. These horrible stories are coming with such frequency that the old ones are reopening and bleeding again. In 2012, Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his wife and then killed himself. Autopsy results have shown significant brain damage to Belcher, most likely the result of multiple concussions. That same year, former San Diego and New England linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide, and the autopsy found brain damage to him has well.
There’s also always the ongoing debacle of that team in our nation’s capital and their racial slur of a name and mascot.
To all of this, add a group of team owners who seem as detached from reality as the most bloated members of the 1%, an assortment of characters just as fallible and unlikable as the millionaires they buy and trade, whether it be arrest for cocaine possession (Indianapolis’ Jim Irsay) or allegations of sexual assault (Dallas’ Jerry Jones). And then there’s the arrogant, bumbling liar of a commissioner.
And that’s just the NFL.
College ball is certainly not without its own corruption, its own crimes, its own insidious problems. Remember the child and sex-abuse scandal at Penn State from a couple of years ago involving former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, and the football culture that turned a blind eye to all of it? It was everywhere, and it was just awful. I hate to think that utter devotion to a game and to the dollars it generates would make people ignore child abuse…but it did. And yet, last month the NCAA dropped its own imposed sanctions on the school, lifting the post-season bowl ban and restoring the program’s scholarships, as if all is forgiven and all is forgotten. It makes me sick, and it makes me wonder who is powerful and coercive enough to make that happen, to just make it disappear.
That is the climate of the sport. Coaches are criticized for cutting (good) players who have broken rules or laws, or failed academically. Others keep their kids in the game after an obvious injury (see Brady Hoke at Michigan), and then it’s argued that it would not be a big deal if the team were to have a winning record.
I love college football, but it’s time to re-realize that these players are students, college kids, and not the professional employees or cash cows their schools and football programs turn them into.
And it doesn’t stop there. I’m sure right at this moment, literally hundreds of high school athletes are being swept and rushed through the system based entirely on their football prowess. Braun over brains, forever and ever.
So yeah, football is making it really hard for me to love it these days.
But damn it, there is still good out there. This is one instance when you can hate the player, but not the game. There is still a reason why it’s so great, despite what its contributors have done to it. Here are some reasons why I still love the game, if not the institutions:
1. When I was in junior high, a bunch of neighborhood kids were playing a pick-up game of football in an empty field. When picking teams, I chose a little girl whom I had never seen before to be on my side. I don’t think anybody knew who she was. Maybe she was a new kid in the area, or maybe she’d just never come out to play before. I have no idea. Anyway, being that she was easily five years younger than the rest of us, and a teeny tiny little thing, no one on the opposing side covered her while we were on offense. So, on the next play, I had her run a straight route all the way to our self-marked end zone and chucked the ball to her. She was uncovered and caught the ball for a touchdown. On our next possession, I had her run the exact same route, and passed it to her again with the exact same result. The other team covered her after that, but we won anyway. That little girl caught everything thrown to her like some kind of miniature Jerry Rice, and although she was very quiet, she was all smiles after that first catch. I don’t remember ever seeing her again, but obviously I’ve never forgotten her.
2. In high school, I was one of those idiots with no shirt on and a letter painted on my chest, standing in the freezing cold with only adrenaline to keep me warm. There’s something glorious about acting the fool with a group of likeminded dopes.
3. College football tailgate parties. If the mood is right, the whole thing just feels like one gigantic, communal block party. I’ve become fast friends with people I’ve never met before while partying and watching football, though that may just me an offshoot of all the beer and BBQ. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun.
4. Just going to a game and experiencing that charged atmosphere.
5. I’ve written about it before (here), but watching my family’s beloved New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl in February of 2010 proved to be the cathartic medicine we needed to help grieve the passing of my father the year before. He never thought it would happen. I am a fan because he was a fan before me.
6. This of course:
7. And finally, in this age of niche entertainment and endless forms of media and communication, something like a national championship game or the Super Bowl has fastly become one of the few remaining things that we can experience collectively as a culture. It’s something we all watch and feel simultaneously…even if we don’t ultimately care. And that’s special.
For now, I will continue to watch football based on the good things listed above, even though the ground gets shakier and shakier. I just can’t help myself. I hope I’m not part of the problem. Now, if only my teams will start winning.
On one final note of good news about the state of football, early last month the Cincinnati Bengals opted to keep defensive tackle Devon Still on as a member of their practice squad. This enabled Still to keep his health insurance which he desperately needs to help pay for the care of his 4-year old daughter Leah who is fighting cancer. Sales of Still’s jersey skyrocketed after the story broke, and the team has donated the proceeds from them to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in excess of $1 million. It was reported last week that the surgery to remove the tumor from Still’s daughter was successful.
There is always some good to be found somewhere.
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.