Opting out of the NFL

I may do a year-in-review post a bit later, but for the moment I feel like writing a bit about a minor item of 2014, in most ways: turning aside from the NFL.

I suppose the arc of my interest in the NFL spanned about 20 years. Up until high school I never took particular interest in sports, as participant or spectator. Then… peer pressure, I guess? I wasn’t drinking, smoking or taking part in any other illicit activities, but I also wasn’t comfortable with isolating myself completely from the mainstream of my peers. Adopting a team* popular among some of their number worked for me.

I think the NFL must have been the first sport/league of which I really developed a functional understanding. The NES classic Tecmo Super Bowl was undoubtedly a great help here. The 1990 season has remained my baseline for evaluating NFL affairs ever since, in a lot of ways. I still bust out this 8-bit masterpiece from time to time, too. I played a couple games of “Tecmo” just last night in fact.

In 2014, though, that has been about it for NFL stuff.

After 20 years, I simply did not return from the (period formerly known as the) off-season this year. Just didn’t really feel like it.

There is no one reason, as usual. The revolting spectacle of millionaires vs billionaires in a greed-off a couple of years ago was probably a big shove. Since then, as most observers would acknowledge, the NFL has been through a series of scandals adequate to prompt “will football survive” essays. The league’s predictable stonewalling has not exactly fed or watered my enthusiasm for it, nor has the continued extortion, by millionaires and billionaires, of public money.

I should emphasize that I don’t regard dropping out of NFL nation as a test of moral superiority. I have abandoned neither college football nor the NBA, each of which shares more than one of the NFL’s offenses. I can quibble about how the NFL seems worse, when all is added up, but the difference is ultimately quantitative rather than qualitative; if it’s wrong to be a fan of the NFL then it’s wrong to be a fan of those other entertainments. I can’t go quite that far. All of them are compromised, certainly, but we live brief lives in a fundamentally compromised world, and on the list of Evils that People Should Stop Enabling, the NFL is a long way from the top. Even I don’t make it through the day on virtue and righteousness alone; if the NFL makes existence a bit more bearable for you, I think “go right ahead” is an entirely valid answer.

For me, frankly, it was remarkably easy to drop most “participation” in this particular three-letter phenomenon. I’ve never been a very active fan, anyway; never attended a single game. The unfailing incompetence of the Cleveland franchise has kept my investment in their fortunes low. I played two or three seasons of fantasy football, but retired from that years ago.

Looking back, a couple of Sports Illustrated columnists were probably my two strongest ties to the NFL, for years. Both of those ties eventually loosened, however. Paul Zimmerman’s Wednesday Power Rankings carried me over the hump throughout autumn for years, but the great Dr. Z was forced into retirement by health problems. His successors have done a decent job but they aren’t Dr. Z.

Peter King, whose Monday Morning Quarterback feature was really the center of the NFL universe for me, is going stronger than ever… though in some ways that’s exactly what lost me. I think I understand why they did it, but the expansion of King’s already sprawling MMQB column into an entire brand-portal site of its own just left me feeling a bit overwhelmed. The site’s refusal to distance itself from the obnoxious behavior of one player-contributor (whom I don’t feel like providing more free publicity) left a bad taste. This year, with all the other discomforts associated with the NFL, returning to the bewildering mess of MMQB just felt like more work than it would be worth. As a result it was, again, surprisingly easy to drop most of my association with the NFL.

Most, but not all. This year has been something of an education in how difficult it is to escape the NFL entirely, in our culture. If you read the news you see headlines about the NFL—not just at sporting news sites, or pandering quasi-sports publications like cleveland.com, but even the homepage of the BBC. I hardly watch television at all, but invariably I end up seeing NFL coverage on ESPN while I’m at the YMCA, where I also get to listen to the “Cleveland sports brain trust” vent about all the ways in which they know better than the management of the Browns, et al. (In fairness, the brain trust members’ judgment is probably no worse than the Browns management’s, but I would not consider it likely to be a whole lot better, either.)

I have very little casual conversation, myself, meanwhile and yet even I was finally drawn into the NFL once more by social pressure. At Christmas, I ended up faking my way through a conversation with my brother and even watching most of the last Monday night game… as noted, this isn’t a crusade on my part, and we have few enough points of contact so why have a stick up my ###, basically?

Still, the extent to which the NFL seems to extend into American life whether wished-for or not is sobering. In the sense (suggested by Alan Moore) of any belief system that binds people together, it truly is a religion, if not the religion of the nation. What else is left, after all? I really don’t know whether or not this will be enough to protect NFL football from a generational exodus—I think this year put paid to any notion of a sudden mass departure by active fans no matter how revolting the league’s scandals—but I do think that its absence would be a big enough deal to be both exciting and a little bit frightening to contemplate.

Although I’m still not completely abandoning the proposition (buried somewhere in my Twitter feed) that the NFL will become another partisan cultural divide… I invite other liberals to join me in getting ahead of the curve, by following the WNBA, which is apparently our sport. 🙂

* In Iowa, with no major league franchises but five (since the Rams moved back to St. Louis) NFL teams among bordering states, there’s pretty much complete freedom to assign one’s loyalty wherever one wishes. Which doesn’t really justify rooting for the Dallas Cowboys, but, y’know, adolescence is a time for exploring dumb enthusiasms. Some people outgrow them.

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