A few years ago, I began to feel guilty about watching football. What started it were the revelations about brain damage we now know the game caused in many retired players. But there was plenty more — the cynical commercialization of the sport, its cultish celebration of violence and the more subtle ways in which football warps our societal attitudes about race, gender and sexual orientation.
The more I pondered it, the more I came to the conclusion that fans ultimately built our massive football industrial complex, and that means fans — people like me — are ultimately responsible for its corruptions. The moral logic is pretty simple: Until the game fundamentally changes, I have to stop watching.
But it is one thing to publicly renounce your favorite sport, and another thing entirely to go cold turkey. It’s August, the beginning of the beginning of the football season, and I’ve spent the month in cruel withdrawal, confronting the depth of my 40-year-old addiction.
To begin with, I’ve had to change my patterns of media consumption. Obviously, watching games is off limits, as is trolling the archived highlights on ESPN or the NFL Network.
The problem is, I’m a big enough sports fan in general that part of my daily routine is to check various sports websites every morning. Inevitably, there are a raft of articles and videos about football, which beckon to me. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I want to click on them, especially the ones about my beloved (if bungling) Oakland Raiders. But if I’m completely honest with myself, I can’t do that because each little click is an indirect (and sometimes a direct) form of sponsorship.
I also listen to sports talk radio when I drive, partly to distract myself from the frustration of being in traffic, but also because there’s some not-very-refined portion of my brain that revels in the bombast of the hosts as they roar about various trumped-up athletic scandals. For better or worse, I understand the world of sports. But sports talk radio is just about to go into full-time football mode. So I’ve had to reprogram the radio stations in my car.
The changes in my social patterns are going to be even more profound. At 5, my son Judah isn’t a football fan yet, and neither are his sisters, but most of my friends are fans, and we’ve long relied on weekend games as occasions to gather and kick back.
My neighbor Sean and I have used the ritual of watching games as a way of establishing a deeper friendship. This may sound odd to non-fans, but the games give us something low-key and carefree to bond over and the room to inch our way toward an intimacy that we might otherwise never find.
Sean is a thoughtful enough guy to understand why I’m no longer watching football. But every time we see each other, I feel apologetic, as if I’m betraying the Brotherhood. And I miss heading off to the neighborhood bar with him. It was something I looked forward to all week.
The pathetic part, obviously, is that we’re just in preseason. The tribal mania around football is barely cranked up. And I know that as the season builds to a climax, my decision to opt out of football is going to become that much more disruptive. Certain friendships are going to drift. I’ll have to cut myself off from all the hoopla and ritual of playoff and Super Bowl parties.
Here’s the real problem: Somehow, I’m going to have to retrain my brain to stop caring about football. In the abstract, this sounds like a great idea. I’ll have more time for my kids and my wife and my creative work. But in reality, I turned to football precisely because, like a lot of men and women, I needed a refuge from the emotional pressures of family and work.
Of course, I’m going to try to funnel my fan energy into other games. There’s no shortage in our sports-mad nation. But in my heart of hearts, I still regard football as the most exciting game ever invented.
A lot of people criticize football. Not all of them recognize how deeply meaningful it can be to fans like me. Turning away from such a passion isn’t going to be as simple as yelling “Boycott!” and marching righteously into the sunset. Like kicking any habit, it’s going to require constant vigilance, a day-by-day effort to resist temptation.
But sacrifice is what makes my effort meaningful, I know. The cost of moral progress — for me — is inconvenience and even grief. My hope is that I’ll slowly adjust to a life without football and find the joys it provided me in other allegiances, ones that allow me to sleep a little easier. And yes, I realize that one fan’s rehab may not change football, and that in the larger moral scheme of things, depriving myself of a decadent form of entertainment ranks as a minor First World problem. Still, fans need to recognize that the game isn’t going to change until we force the issue by walking away.
Rest assured, I’m bracing myself for the fall. As Judah warned me when I told him of my decision, “It’s a rough business, Papa. Because you like watching the game.”
Steve Almond is the author of the forthcoming book “Against Football.”
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