It’s easier to quit the NFL than you think

September 13, 2020

I didn’t watch one minute of football this weekend. Part of it is because I hooked the NBA playoffs directly into my veins, and paying attention to any other sport feels, in comparison, like sipping Robitussin. But the biggest part of it is that football from high school on up forces spectators and all other participants to grapple with morality in a way the other major American sports don’t, and I’ve reckoned I don’t want to be involved. You should treat yourself better and ditch football, too.

Deep down, you know your time would be better spent doing almost anything else. If you’re worried about losing out on the social aspect of fandom, believe me when I say it’s overblown and that if you’re like most people you’ll easily replace football with something else in your life.

Say you’re not a superfan, but you have been a football fan for decades and you don’t want to give up on talking about your team at family gatherings or with friends. Guess what: There's lots of shit your family and friends do that you have no interest in doing, and the world still goes 'round and they still love you. I have a family member who plays violin in a community orchestra. Do I talk to him about baroque music every time we meet? Reader, I do not. We talk about Trump, gardening, photography, cooking, our planet’s rapid human-driven deterioration, et cetera.

Five years ago, I quit watching college football because I could no longer rationalize away the exploitative nature of the enterprise. Taylor Branch is persuasive on the point, but you don’t need to read a magazine essay to understand that when Nick Saban is paid around $9 million per year while the University of Alabama’s football players are limited by NCAA rule from profiting off their performance more than room, board, training opportunities, and a college scholarship that comes with extremely limiting strings attached, that’s unfair. Moreover, in some locales, NCAA rules are backed by the power of law.

Even if you concede (I don’t) that Saban and the Crimson Tide machine are net positives for young football players who aspire to play in the NFL someday, do you contend the same for Vanderbilt? What about Washington State? The University of Southern Mississippi? The University of Idaho? San Jose State? City College of San Francisco? What, precisely, do young people gain from those various programs? Why do they even have football programs in the first place?

And all that’s before getting to the brain injury thing, which is more pronounced at the high school level, where young brains are under the supervision of coaches with a wider variety of competencies and sensitivity to concussions.

It turned out that I missed college football for exactly two hours, on the first Saturday of the season, and after that I found that spending my autumn Saturdays hiking through public parks and playing in a rec soccer league gave me more joy and satisfaction than arguing on Twitter about how polls don't respect the Pac-12.

I stuck with the NFL because it's more skilled football and because fantasy is addicting, but in the back half of the 2017 season, I experimented with ignoring football entirely. It turns out that life is still worth living if you don't know how many yards Joe Mixon got on the ground last week. You can still have conversations with other adults without forming an opinion on Jimmy Garoppolo. And most important, you're no longer contributing time, energy, and/or money to scumbags trying to sell you a lifestyle and moral perspective rooted in dominance politics, retrograde notions of people's place in society, and the sacrifice of young bodies and brains in a weekly spectacle.

Step away from football culture a bit, observe it through an outsider’s lens, and you’ll intuit, if not consciously realize, that, as David Roth put it in a brilliant essay for The Baffler: “The NFL is financially healthy and also pretty luridly out of its mind, increasingly given to grandiose delusion and stubborn denial and spasms of executive sadism. And lately, it’s declining—in ways that are obvious for even casual viewers and evident during an average Sunday’s slate of games and in ways that the league might not fully feel for generations.”

You know the games are going to suck because the rules are a mess. You know you're supporting an enterprise that preys on your deep-seated emotions and tribal impulses to separate you from your money. And if you’ve already started thinking that the NBA and MLB do that too, you’re correct, but also you know the men performing on NFL fields are destroying themselves in a way that’s fundamentally different from the wear and tear NBA players put on their knees or MLB players put on their arms.

You know that there are a trillion other things you could do with your life that are more productive and bring longer-lasting happiness. Why do you still watch?

Remember how public subsidies for NFL stadiums are a bad idea, but local governments keep doing it anyway? That if a team leaves a given city, it turns out the economic hit is minimal because people simply spend their entertainment dollars on other things? That's you and paying attention to the NFL.

All of which is to say: Give it three weeks. Quit for three weeks and make an effort to not care. Put your concerns and energy into something else, anything at all. You'll realize the NFL is just another toxic habit you can break. Set your weekends free.

(Photo: "Baker Mayfield" by Erik Drost. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)