When ESPN commissioned a study that found incredible rates of painkiller addiction among NFL players, a nation of burrowed ostriches shrugged their feathers.
True fans possess an enormous capacity to live through their football heroes, but they retain an even greater capacity to do so without empathy. Just last week, Bears quarterback Jay Culter was all but put in stocks for leaving a game due to a torn MCL. Fans burned his jersey as though Cutler “quit” out of feminine frailty, as though this professional QB had concocted some elaborate, cowardly, fan-jobbing conspiracy. The public violently, irrationally demands that a player play, even with knee ligaments dangling. No wonder so many of these athletes gobble painkillers in a manner that would trump a toilet-bound Elvis.
So, we fans are part of the problem. And by “part of the problem,” I mean “the entire problem.” Unless the NFL is radically altered, it will continue to be a concussion mill. The league is not stopping, the rules of physics are not changing. So long as bodies collide, dementia, suicide, and cripplingly accelerated death will be a byproduct. Deep down, we fans grasp this. Then we grasp a remote, and watch more football than ever before. We know the ugly truth and we are the cause of continued ugliness.
At a certain point, we are — in part — defined by this tendency. That America endorses the NFL’s pain party starts to say something about the country. Such as: American culture is replete with couch-jockeys who feel more masculine for having watched other people destroy themseves. Or: American culture is fine with perpetuating a system of destruction, so long as a few, mostly poor people are involved. In many ways, our attitudes towards fetishized athletes mirror our attitudes towards those glorious troops whom we only support with platitudes. This is not good.
I’ve heard the counter arguments. Yes, football players choose their lot. Yes, they have agency. But really, what does it say about us — that this is the lot we most often choose? Are we a nation so insecure, so stupid, as to wholly embrace a sport of gladitorial violence?
(I can already hear friends, calling me a “pussy” for possibly caring.)
My goal is not to be didactic, but instead, to be honest. The NFL has also tattooed my American brain with a gladitorial stain. To my detriment, I watch football as much as anyone. Every Sunday, I sneak off to a sports bar for my San Diego Chargers — a team owned by a major Republican donor — in favor of spending time with my oft-neglected girlfriend. A week from now, I’ll probably be recapping the Super Bowl in this space. I am addicted to the NFL, like so many of my countrymen. And sadly, I’m more concerned with copping oblong jollies than with the fate of those destroyed in the process.
Next Sunday, the much-concussed Ben Roethlisberger may get a Super Bowl ring to complement his rape allegations. There will be a lot of discussion of how this reflects a change in character, how he may not have been really all that bad to begin with. This is a mistake. Our celebration of the game says more about our character than does his performance in it.