The Fantasy of Football

I root for a team whose all star quarterback should probably be in jail. I spend a great deal of my time and energy in watching games suppressing the revulsion I feel about rooting for a man whose actions I have found to be reprehensible. It affects the way I feel about the game and the way I feel about myself.

Yet and still I watch.

Every year around this time I put some defensive statement about the fact that I enjoy football out into my social network. It’s usually snarky, to a degree, but it I try to also respect my friends who take ethical stands against the game or who simply don’t enjoy it. My defensiveness comes from a twinge of gilt in my own conscience.

And still I watch.

This week has been a tough one for the football apologists. Video of running back Ray Rice (of the hated Baltimore Ravens!) was released showing the athlete leveling his then fiance (now wife) with a punch before dragging her out of an elevator. It’s a brutal thing to behold. The week ended with allegations star running back Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings… to whom I am ambivalent) abusing his four year old in the name of discipline. I hope to write more in the future about this particular form of discipline (spoiler alert, I’m against it) but for now I can say that it felt like another black eye for the league that I enjoy.

Thursday night the Ravens played my beloved Steelers. Many fans showed up wearing Rice’s jersey. The team seemed galvanized by the incident. The Ravens dominated the Steelers. Several players after the game stated that they won for their former teammate who had since been released from his contract. Then Sunday rolled around. I set my fantasy team line up and watched a half of a game with my son. We then went outside and threw a football around for about a half hour. I watched another half of football Sunday night and a half on Monday night after work.

I still watch.

I started watching when I was about 12. Don’t get me wrong, football was always on in the background. I grew up in Pittsburgh, a drinking city with a football problem. The city of champions. Everyone here bleeds black and gold (not “yellow”, Wiz Khalifa!). But I personally started getting into it after I started playing it. It was quite by accident that I ended up in the sport. My mother thought she was signing me up for baseball. When we found out it was football, I decided to give it a try, which shocked everyone because I was a scrawny nerd. Oh, how things have changed! I started to love football when the chalkboard came out. I realized that there was strategy involved and not just brute force. I loved the way that plays were designed. I loved the idea of synchronizing eleven moving parts in order to achieve a goal. I realized that my coaches were chess players moving human chess pieces and not just meatheads.

Other things happened too. I, skinny kid who always escaped to worlds in his head, began to live into my body. I discovered that I was fast. I discovered that I could be strong. I discovered that I had some coordination. It gave me confidence that I hadn’t had before. I, the loner kid who played on his own, began to have teammates and friends. I socialized. I communicated. I found a communal identity. When professional athletes retire, they often say that what they miss most is the locker room. On some very small level, I get that. Football connected me to my brother and stepfather. My brother was an obvious athlete. Playing the game gave us something in common. It gave us something to talk about We gathered around the TV as a family on Sundays. It was one thing we did as a family.

And yes, football taught me how to hit. Which for me, as a child of abuse, was a great gift. I learned that there was a time to hit and that there were proper outlets for aggression. From the snap of the ball to the blow of the whistle I could hit the guy across from me as hard as I had been hit and it was okay. When the whistle blew, it was over. When the game ended, that guy I was hitting was my friend and classmate again.

For lots of reasons, I was never a great football player. I didn’t play past my sophomore year of high school, but I developed a love for the game. That love got ramped up when I moved out of Pittsburgh for the first time for seminary. Watching the Steelers connected me to home. I was 24 and had never experienced homesickness before. The Steelers gave me tastes of Pittsburgh. Plus, Steelers fans are everywhere. There’s a Steelers bar in every NFL city. It didn’t hurt that we were really freaking good those years! When we won the Super Bowl in ’06 it felt like I was connected to the whole city from thousands of miles away. I started playing Madden to get my fix of the game during the offseason. I started watching the draft. I started watching college football. I started playing fantasy football. If this sounds like the confessions of a drug addict, it some times feels that way as well.

The players in the NFL have been compared to modern day gladiators. If so, then the 325 million dollars that was won by former players in the class action suit related to head injuries was the Spartacus rebellion. Sure, it looked like it might threaten the empire, but ultimately it did nothing but show the might of Rome. Historians show that after Spartacus’ war, slave owners had more control over their slaves, not less. The NFL is a juggernaut. College Football has become a feeder system, the minor leagues for the pro game. It is a big business. It is a big business owned by white men, profiting primarily off of black bodies. It is a game often played by men who used the sport to escape drug-infested streets or forgotten rural towns. It is a game where men will sacrifice their bodies for the sake of making a living for their families. For every $20 million dollar a year contract paid to Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers (white quarterbacks who rarely get hit) there are 50 $50,000 a year contracts paid to no name offensive lineman on the practice squad. It is a game where our national inequalities are put on display for all to see.

And it is a game where our national thirst for violence is put on display. Football, more than any other sport, is TV ready and it is easy to see our favorite athletes as mere characters on a show. The violence becomes less real until it becomes violence against a young woman in a bathroom, a fiance, a dog, or a four year old. Then it suddenly becomes very real. It’s fine when the gladiators stay in the arena. When the violence spills out of the stadium, the hand-wringing and navel-gazing begin.

I learned to hit. I don’t want my kids to learn to hit. Nor do I want them to learn to be hit. When the time comes, I will most likely steer my son towards track, basketball, or soccer. It’s hypocritical, I know. I love the game. I do not have an answer for my love of the game. I am conflicted. It connects me to so much of what I love and it simultaneously reminds me of so much of what I hate. At some point I suppose I might give it up. At some point, the ethical weight of being a fan of this most popular of sports will be too much for me to bear. I am torn apart every time that I watch…

…And still I watch.

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