At the Raiders’ final preseason game this past week, Marshawn Lynch’s jersey was the most common thing in sight. This is his first season in Oakland, coming from the Seattle Seahawks, but he’s a hometown boy who made good and came back. In an odd moment of intra-team unity, both Raiders and Seahawks fans were sporting his jersey and clothing line, and cheering for his mom as she was honored before the kickoff.
I was there with another Oakland native, my son, for his first-ever NFL game. As the national anthem played I instructed him to stand with the rest of the crowd, and as another local butchered the tune we searched awkwardly for where the flag was on the field. Lynch, though, was sitting. No one cared. The game moved on to a Raiders loss.
I got home, dragged my punch-drunk five-year-old into his bed, and flipped my computer to see a post demanding that I “Boycott the NFL.” The petition has been crossing my social media feed recently. I pondered the thought, and without clicking, knew the list of grievances was long. I weighed the injustices of the league in the depths of my mind and sought the guidance of wisdom.
I’ve yet to see anyone I know who watches football sign or promote such petitions. If it would make me look good to my friends I might sign a petition to boycott all sorts of services I don’t use, like Whole Foods or yoga pants. But since I turn to the NFL for bits of joy each fall it would be quite something to ask me to give it up cold. Here, dear reader, lay my thoughts as I decided whether to offer up my Sunday afternoons of hoping for a moment of transcendent joy, or to abstain.
The Concussion Kerfuffle
Concussions, as anyone following the sport now knows, are common and dangerous to players’ long-term health. There is only so much any helmet can do to protect you when a 300-pound linebacker flies through the air at full speed. For far too long, the NFL shamefully tried to cover up what they were learning about the long-term implications of this. But at this point, no one is in the dark. Hell, no one has been in the dark since another Raider, Jack Tatum, slammed into Darryl Stingley in a preseason game in ‘78, paralyzing Darryl for life.
The NFL responded to that tragic moment by doing basically nothing. Football is dangerous. In its best moments it doesn’t pretend not to be. Concussions are among those dangers. Yet people wonder: Should we let it be played at all? If it is played should we watch?
I’ve got a daughter I’m excited to watch play soccer one day. Troublingly, the same data that tell you about football concussions show that girls suffer from more and worse concussions than men do, and youth soccer is no shelter. But I’m not going to stop my kids from playing sports. Sports are dangerous, but it is calculated risk.
Danger is not new. Not too long ago, football was lethal. Not in the “this will be quite bad for you when you’re 65” modern sense of the word lethal, but in the “actual imminent death” usage. However, the game adapted and moved on. Perhaps the game will adapt again, perhaps we will move on, perhaps we won’t.
I wonder how much the coastal obsession with immortality plays into the concussion fears. The same people who are paying for regular vampiric blood transfusions seem to have forgotten the other kinds of immortality that are accessible to everyone, not just billionaires. Like the kind Bruce Springsteen sings about, which moves the hearts of people the world over, the immortality of glory. As long as that’s on offer, people will keep playing and I, for one, will keep watching.
Then There’s the Insufferable Colin Kaepernick
Colin “One L” Kaepernick is yet another reason the boycott is on. After his last season where he bravely led the 49ers to a mere 12 losses, he chose to leave his contract with the team to test his value on the free-agent market where he remains unsigned. One L put up some numbers, though, leading an offense that scored 198 points with him under center, leaving him just behind the average losing quarterback by a mere 16 points. One L was so close to being an average loser, but he wasn’t going to stop there, he was destined for greatness.
As he learned in pop-warner football, he took a knee. That’s right, dear reader, One L had the guts to make a stand for racial justice by ignoring the flag and anthem of one of the most diverse and just nations on earth. One L is easy to mock. But I think he should be on the field.
Even average NFL-caliber quarterbacks are incredibly hard to find. One L is proven, to boot. His losses last season stem as much from insane ownership, terrible coaching, and a dysfunctional locker-room as they do his play (which actually was pretty solid: only he, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Randall Cunningham, and Marcus Mariota have passed for three touchdowns and rushed for 100 yards in a single game).
One L should get to play, and I wish him well. If he doesn’t, before we go blaming the NFL for being the racist organization people seem to wish it were, let’s reflect a bit more. One L’s decision to take a knee and speak out about racial injustice led to a media firestorm. It isn’t too much to call it a PR nightmare. This is far too common in modern America.
The script is similar: employee speaks out, story goes viral, employee is fired. It almost doesn’t matter what the issue is, and I don’t blame anyone for firing an employee who brings in bad press. Look, One L, you took a knee for injustice. I feel you, and I still love watching you play. But injustice is a fickle mistress, so just because you’re not getting paid millions to win about as many games as the average schlub on the streets of New York, don’t expect anyone to shed tears over you—particularly when there are real injustices in the world (hint: most of them aren’t on the fields of the NFL).
As for Domestic Violence and General Unruliness
Then there are the ever-present frustrations about the lack of discipline for players or employees accused or convicted of everything from cheating to rape to murder. I am sympathetic to this line of argument, until I realize that some people can’t talk about anything else.
Recently Derek Carr, the Raiders quarterback, signed a contract deal, the largest contract in NFL history, and in an interview he talked about his commitment to tithe—give at least ten percent of his earnings to church—first thing. It is quite a testament to virtue to do so publicly, as opposed to other quarterbacks who use their moment in the limelight to promote beer companies in which they have an ownership stake. Immediately after Carr’s interview, critical responses rolled in: why can’t the NFL do the right thing and discipline players who misbehave off-field!
Yes, sure, but these voices miss the point. There are bad actors in the NFL organization. But there is also Derek Carr. If we insist on boycotting every organization that is imperfect, even glaringly imperfect, we’ll soon run out of not only places to patronize, but also places to work. This is the classic insistence that no one can have fun until everyone is having fun, which we are more used to hearing from toddlers than from grown adults. The better approach would be to recognize that humans are flawed (sadly, even Carr) and our institutions are no better. This is no reason to deprive yourself of the joy of the game.
Of course most of the people I’ve seen who are excited for the boycott are of the “I only watch English Premier League Association Football” variety of peculiarly American sports jerks. These goons look down their noses at the rest of us. That makes sense because, of course, the English Premier League would never have reason to be accused of racism, corruption, or bribery, nor of being beholden to an even bigger, worse organization.
Okay, Here Are the Good Reasons to Not Watch Football
Having reviewed these frustrations, let me give you some good reasons to not watch the NFL: if you don’t enjoy football, for example, it makes sense for you not to watch. Or if you need to get something done around the house, that’s a very good reason to turn off the game. Or if you’ve got a great book on hand that you’d like to finish reading, I’m in full support. I might even sign a petition if good books were at stake.
Even if you simply want to spend a bit more time with your family or friends—although if that’s the goal, why not keep the game on in the background anyway, at least in the den. Odds are, someone in your family will be joining me watching this season. Honestly, the more I meditate on it the more I realize: everyone should watch the NFL this season.
As the weather turns cold and the mid-season “Game of Thrones” lull sets in, you’ll want to tune in to some excitement, and I’ve got just the thing. It’s a story, of sorts. It is about a team that hasn’t brought a championship home in almost 40 years. They’ve just announced a planned move, so this may be their last season to bring one home before they leave.
They’re led by as virtuous an evangelical as ever grew up in the region, quarterback Derek Carr. They are coached by Jack Del Rio, a devoted Roman Catholic who played for the local high school just down the road. He still shows up to watch his alma mater play on some Friday nights. To top it off, they signed the most down of all home-grown players this offseason, the one and only Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch.
The Raiders have a shot at bringing home the Lombardi trophy to their down-at-luck city before upping stakes. My son was aglow watching the game last week. Oh, the pageantry, the intensity, the—there’s just no other word—glory.