Done With Football

The author as a young football fan, circa 1972.

The author as a young football fan, circa 1972.

“If it’s the ultimate game,” Duane Thomas, the enigmatic former Dallas Cowboys star running back once famously said, “why do they play it every year?” That’s the decidedly minority view, but count me among those who didn’t watch the Super Bowl. I stopped following football a few years ago.

It wasn’t easy to walk away from the game I loved, but I couldn’t be party any longer to the traumatic violence that has precipitated incidences of the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which has tragically derailed and in some cases ended an increasing number of football players’ lives.

I have also become alienated from the culture that surrounds football, which is marked by excessive drinking, vulgarity and hostility, dangerously misplaced vicariousness, and arrested adolescence, which encourages adults to dress like ten-year-old boys. Although this behavior is also associated with less violent sports such as soccer and baseball, the interaction of our current fan culture with football’s extreme aggression is a particularly volatile and disconcerting mix.

My stance on football may surprise and perhaps disappoint some whom recall I was the Sports Editor of my college newspaper THE FAIRFIELD MIRROR and loved the game.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s as a fan of Washington’s pro team (I won’t use their nickname).   My experiences rooting for Washington’s team shaped me as a person and writer, and I wouldn’t exchange them for anything.

My fall Sundays then were spent at RFK rooting for Washington. From the third grade until I finished high school, I scarcely missed a game there. Especially as a young child being amid the RFK crowd impressed me greatly.

I don’t mean to discount the real problems and divisions DC had then by over-sentimentalizing RFK’s glory days, but our team if superficially and fleetingly pulled together our city in a way other institutions couldn’t. When the team did well, and the bleachers swayed, it was easy to get caught up in the exhilaration.

I reveled in Washington’ s Super Bowl victories in the 80’s and 90’s, and retain my affection for Washington’s greats- Sonny, Billy, Riggo, and many others whose exploits I cheered, but the hit on Ravens’ running back Willis McGahee in the January 2009 AFC Championship game disaffected me from football.

A vicious helmet to helmet hit laid out McGahee. There was a time when these injuries happened when the crowd would grow library quiet, waiting anxiously to find out if player would be okay.

That night in Pittsburgh however, the stadium loudspeakers blared CCR’s BAD MOON RISING, and the fans whooped and hollered as if to say, bring out the stretcher already; let’s get on with the game. The hit was bad enough but the crowd’s unseemly reaction convinced me I didn’t want to be part of a culture that encouraged that kind of behavior.

While this culture factors into my decision to stop following football, CTE’s devastating impact most critically affects my choice not to follow football anymore. Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, and Junior Seau’s stories highlight that impact.

Dave Duerson was an all-pro safety on the Bears 1986 championship team. He experienced extreme headaches and dizziness during his career. After 10 concussions, in retirement the bright, articulate man couldn’t put together coherent sentences and suffered short-term memory losses. At 50, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the chest.

The center on the great ‘70’s Steeler teams, Mike Webster, after he retired became prone to short-term memory losses and uncharacteristically violent outbursts, which distanced him from his family and led to his divorce. After bad investments exhausted his savings, Webster was reduced to living in his truck before a heart attack at 50 ended his misery.

Linebacker Junior Seau was recently elected on the first ballot to the Hall of Fame after a 15-year career with the Chargers and Patriots in the ‘90s and ‘00s. During his career he experienced dizziness and insomnia, but grew more erratic after he retired. He withdrew from his family. He abused alcohol and pills, made bad business decisions and gambled attempting to reverse losses. Only 43 Seau, like Duerson, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.

Although I still admire players who make one hand catches or jump over the line to block kicks, I don’t want to derive pleasure and joy when others suffer gratuitously. I don’t however judge others who remain football fans.

I only hope to give persons something about which to think. Sometimes, that’s all a writer can do. And if persons think twice about letting their kids play football or develop qualms about watching football because of what I said, that’s lagniappe.