One of the most quoted routines of the late George Carlin was his explication of the differences between football and baseball. “Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.” I always think about that routine when each sport is beginning to stretch its legs to prepare for the start of a new season. Baseball’s spring training is all about the smell of freshly cut grass, about renewal, about being eternally young, about hope. Football’s training camp is about fighting for your right to exist, about weeding out the weak, about grueling two-a-days, about a boot camp where you’re expected to run until you puke and then get back up and run some more. It is about destroying yourself in order to live.
So much of the enjoyment of football is tied up in this notion of self-immolation: The sport doesn’t really work without it. The players, outside of the glamour positions on offense, are essentially anonymous and interchangeable. Player careers are so short—and NFL franchise rules make it so easy for them to be cut with no penalty—that most franchises don’t even have a signature star longer than a year or two. Fantasy football is so simple and easy to play that you can consider yourself a huge NFL fan but only know the names of about 8 percent of the players. Everyone covers their faces with masks, for crying out loud. The actual men who play the games are almost tangential to the experience: It is all about Team and Any Given Sunday and the National Football League. The NFL is about order, the organization over the individual. It is faux-military at its very essence.
We enjoy the NFL because we can forget what goes on behind the scenes, the brutal things these players do and put themselves through, the notion that they need to make themselves fatter and less healthy in order to better land on the quarterback with a crunch and put bounties on other teams’ stars. We enjoy the NFL because it looks so good on television that you can follow it linearly—just follow the ball—without having much idea of what’s actually going on. The NFL makes you believe you are an expert even though 99.999 percent of the millions who watch every Sunday couldn’t say the name of a single play.
The NFL wants you to think about what goes on behind the curtain as little as possible. I don’t blame them. There’s a lot to hide back there. I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.
Last May, Jets linebacker Bart Scott said something curious. “I don’t want my son to play football,” Scott said. “I play football so he won’t have to. With what is going on, I don’t know if it’s really worth it … I don’t want to have to deal with him getting a concussion and what it would be like later in life.” It is worth noting that Bart Scott is not some pearl-clutching punter sitting idly by as those big scary football players do brutal things to each other. He is one of the more powerful, violent linebackers in the NFL, famous for uttering WWE-esque screams during an ESPN interview after the Jets’ upset playoff win over the New England Patriots. (He would later appear in an actual WWE event.) He is no sensitive violet. And he’s talking about his job like an old coal miner with black lung who just doesn’t want his children to have the same horrible life he had.
Football is a violent sport, and always has been, but over the past few years, the increasing evidence of widespread concussion-related brain damage (and the suicides of several high-profile players, including Hall of Famer Junior Seau) is reaching a saturation point. Earlier this summer, Terry Bradshaw—who is paid handsomely to talk about football by one of the NFL’s major television partners—told Jay Leno that he believes football will be less popular than soccer in ten years because of worries about head injuries. Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, who retired in part because of his own repeated concussions, said he wouldn’t allow his children to play football either. It has led some to wonder if the sport will eventually become a niche sport, like ultimate fighting (which, for what it’s worth, is awfully lucrative for a “niche” sport). Ask Penn State: Institutions can crumble frighteningly quickly. Earlier this year, two economists for Grantland war-gamed a scenario in which football could be eradicated in ten to fifteen years, mired in an unstoppable downward spiral of lawsuits, universities (starting with the Ivy League and spreading to the Berkeleys of the world) dropping the sport, and corporate sponsors (the real lifeblood of the NFL) finally realizing they can’t have their brand associated with what some would consider human cockfighting.
This still seems fantastical: The NFL is the biggest, most watched, most profitable sport in the United States, and the coverage of the 2012 season kickoff and beyond will be as massive and overwhelming as it always is. (Including in this magazine.) But as the evidence mounts and the voices become louder, every NFL observer has to, at one point, ask himself: Is it immoral to be a football fan? Can an intelligent, engaged, socially conscious person put the way he sees the world in every other context aside because he enjoys watching the Giants on Sunday? Those are legitimate questions, because you can’t just pretend anymore. Every time there’s a big hit on the field, I can’t keep my human side—the part that wonders what that’ll mean for the player when he’s 45—quiet anymore. Forget your own kid playing football. The question is whether anyone’s kid should.
If this all seems a little histrionic, maybe it is. Maybe when the crowd gets roaring and the NFL Films theme gets blaring and they start chanting “j-e-t-s, Jets, Jets, Jets!,” I won’t feel this way. Maybe I’ll get back into the spirit like I always have. We’ve all made the bargain, the trade of entertainment for what is right and just, for a long time now. But more and more, it feels like an unfair deal. Not just for the players, but for us. Being a fan of football is being a fan of violence and self-destruction. Maybe we’ll all be able to get over it and accept the game for what it is, and understand that the players have made their own Faustian bargain. But that won’t change the facts. There are no big TV contracts or player salaries without fans tuning in. We’re all part of the problem.