Questioning the NFL and Football

In Sports & Society by Kelly Lytle

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I watched the NFL last Sunday. But I couldn’t enjoy it because I couldn’t focus on the game. Too many questions jingled my brain.

What if, I wondered, football mattered less to America? What if we didn’t care so much about this barbaric dance performed by athletic marvels under the watchful eyes of profit-minded owners?

A burning desire to do something different with my time besieged me while I sat in front of the TV. It made me curious, too.

The average attendance for a 2013 NFL home game was 68,339. Instead of gathering for a football game, could the same crowd ever congregate to perform one coordinated, charitable act for the host city? Would that make a difference?

Every Sunday, over 1 million people descend upon sixteen cities across America to attend NFL games. If everyone volunteered to read one book to one child on football Sundays, more than 17 million more books would be read to kids throughout the season.

I’m not condemning fanhood because I’ve been a football fanatic all my life. I’m just wondering if I need to think more critically about how I use my time and what I choose to support.

Most people know the NFL is under fire. Greg Hardy tossed his girlfriend onto a pile of “assault rifles or shotguns” and played during Week 1. Ray Rice knocked his then girlfriend (now wife) unconscious and received a two-game suspension. In the Rice case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell either failed to find, care to know, or care to act on evidence within his reach (or possession) until public opinion swung so far against him that he rushed through a knee-jerk domestic violence policy heavy on prosecution but light on prevention. Maybe, as Sociologist Harry Edwards has mentioned for the NBA, the NFL should require each team to sponsor a women’s shelter and for players to spend time sharing meals and learning the stories of those women and children.

As I watched the NFL on Sunday, I wondered why the league chose inaction in 2012 when Jovan Belcher’s horrific murder/suicide offered terrifying, conclusive evidence that the violent culture cultivated inside football had spilled dangerously outside the playing field.

I then asked myself why I never cared before.

If we’re being honest, though, should such heinous acts entirely surprise us? Violence, after all, helped build the NFL.

A generation of retired players now struggle to tie their shoes and sustain jobs. Some have knees that wobble and joints that throb. Some battle crippling narcotics addictions or stare into the abyss of depression every morning. Some wonder why the thoughts in their head yesterday are gone today.

The NFL trumpets the Herculean resolve of its game-day warriors in highlights and promotions. Where is the NFL, however, when Hercules is no longer a hero but simply a mentally disadvantaged, married father of two who struggles to cope with the sad reality that the game he loved turned him into a shell of the person he could have been? Sometimes the promise of cutting a check isn’t enough.

Yes, almost every former NFL player will admit they understood the risks to their bodies inherent in playing professional football. But maybe the NFL should reconsider pumping its players (and young male fans) full of bravado when the league isn’t able to help these men admit they need help reconciling and controlling their emotions.

Last Sunday, I wondered if “the NFL” has ever looked into a father’s eyes and realized that the glassy look in those eyes was merely the tip on an iceberg of suffering. Has “the NFL” ever cried alone at night after hearing a story of how that same father needed rescued at a grocery store because migraines, vertigo, and confusion—three unbeatable remnants of a life dedicated to football—meant he couldn’t drive home?

I have. And it sucks.

My point here is this: I love football, but I find it increasingly hard to support. Football embodies much of our country’s masculine persona. We relish the warriors who launch their bodies into harm’s way like kamikaze fighters hell-bent on destruction at any price. Every fall Sunday, we cheer the victory of one Gladiator over another in the trenches. We champion the game’s violence while paying lip service to how instilling this aggression in young boys warps their perspective on life, relationships, and the willingness to ask for (and accept) help for the rest of their lives.

Somehow, despite my questions, I can still justify watching the game. I’ve said many times that football teaches work ethic, self-sacrifice, teamwork, and perseverance better than anything I’ve experienced. It provides purpose and direction for its players, and it afforded me a lifetime of opportunities that I might not have had if my father had not played in the NFL. In my eyes, no sport embodies the picturesque imagery of athletic idols more than the sight of bodies splayed on a football field—some victorious, some not—all exhausted after another contest.

Still, I must ask, how long can these positives outweigh the negatives for me?

Sure, I’ll watch the NFL next Sunday and probably for many Sundays after that.

But my last question, and this is the most important one, is whether I should?

Photo (Flickr CC) by John Martinez Pavliga

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Kelly Lytle
In 4th grade, Kelly Lytle lied to his parents for three months before confessing that he broke their television remote control. He’s been telling tales ever since. Now, fueled by coffee and grounded in his love of storytelling, Kelly is the author of numerous stories; his work has appeared in the short story anthology, Something to Take on the Trip, and on the news site, Bonfire Impact. His first book, a memoir titled To Dad, From Kelly, details the lessons Kelly learned from his late father, former University of Michigan All-American and Denver Broncos running back, Rob Lytle. Kelly lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Kelly Lytle

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