Thursday night at 8:30, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots—led by Tom Brady and his formidable cast of playmakers—will take on receiver Tyreek Hill and the far less talented Kansas City Chiefs’ supporting cast. The coaching genius of Bill Belichick versus Andy Reid, who has somehow used all of his timeouts before the game even started. An indomitable football force versus a team waiting for an excuse to start its rookie quarterback.
You can tell where this is going. The NFL’s season opener is still a day away, yet both of these teams have been under the spotlight for the whole offseason—further proof that the NFL has cemented itself as a true year-round news fixture.
Here’s the problem: No matter how much the league and its affiliates attempt to sanitize its image, the NFL is becoming a hard product to enjoy.
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league office announced that there would be more emphasis on allowing players to express themselves on the field prior to this season, as touchdown dances and freedom to choose cleat color will be permitted—within reason. That minute amendment to the rulebook now constitutes earth-shattering NFL news in the league’s eyes.
Never mind that this is a league that still employs Geno Smith while Colin Kaepernick drifts aimlessly from tryout to tryout. Yes, the same Smith that missed half a season after a teammate punched him in the jaw is on an NFL roster, but Kaepernick is a “distraction.”
The Kaepernick situation is one of a number of reasons being an NFL fan has become challenging.
When it comes to the games that are actually nationally televised, commitment to player safety seems like lip service. 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton had to endure several helmet-to-helmet hits that went unflagged in last season’s opener.
Each game features an ad spot with the NFL thanking its fans, because the game wouldn’t be possible without its crazy devotees. Where was that gratitude when the Rams, Chargers and Raiders decided to relocate to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, thus ripping out the still-beating hearts of their long-suffering, but loyal, fanbases?
Add in the Ezekiel Elliott controversy, the rare domestic violence case that doesn’t get swept under the rug because the player in question a star running back for “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys, and it’s hard not the watch the NFL without feeling… unclean. Elliott’s six-game ban was ultimately upheld Tuesday night, yet he will still play this weekend vs. the Giants—and on primetime Sunday Night Football nonetheless.
Worse yet, this culture seems to be permeating every level of the sport. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League thought they could get away with hiring Art Briles to a coaching position last week. That same Art Briles looked the other way while his players at Baylor were committing egregious acts of harassment and sexual assault. Whoops? (It’s also worth noting that Duke will play Baylor this season, and many of those accused student-athletes will take the field).
Don’t get me wrong, there is a great deal that is still uncommon and worth celebrating about football. JJ Watt ran 40 yards in 4.84 seconds at nearly 300 pounds, and raised $18 million for Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston. That combination of traits is not of this Earth.
For my part, I have an emotional attachment to football.
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It’s the first sport I fell in love with watching, and now, I have a sports column, so you can do the math there. I’ve watched every draft since 2011, when my hometown Carolina Panthers selected Newton first overall. I never feel more American than when I sit down to watch all three Thanksgiving games back-to-back once a year. That’s why I can’t tear myself away from the television on Sunday afternoons so easily.
Although I support most players in this game—gifted men trying to use their talents to make a living the best they can—it feels like more and more of a chore to try and justify how I can support an enterprise that very obviously doesn’t care about the welfare of its players, or the behaviors that it tacitly supports.
I’ll try my best to divorce myself from my favorite brand of casual violence, but I’m not entirely sure I can make that promise. And if conflicted people like me are still so wedded to the game, that must mean that there will be a market for football when and if the NFL decides to take an actual stand on behalf of its players and the social values it ought to represent.
So crack down consistently on assault, flag illegal hits on defenseless players, let players use what natural remedies they can as opposed to addictive painkillers, and just let Antonio Brown twerk. I’ll contribute by sending a signal to the league, eschewing a game a week in favor of seeing the outside world on a Sunday afternoon.
Besides, what’s the point of watching this season anyway? The Patriots are steamrolling everyone.