We have a new coach, a second-year quarterback, a strong defense to which we added a couple of key free agents, plus a highly regarded draft pick, and we just traded for one of the three best pass rushers in football. It’s a new NFL season and there is hope for my Bears!
Thing is, for the first time since about 1978, I’m not really enjoying the NFL. Which is hard and weird and sad because it isn’t really their fault. The NFL has many, many gunshot wounds in its feet — labor issues, economic inequality, the staggering idiocy of the league’s response to protests, the dismaying lack of response from both players and the management to basically every transgression committed off the field by anyone involved in the league in any way — but for me the heart of the problem is one very simple thing:
I no longer enjoy watching this game.
There’s nothing political about it. The rule changes to make the game safer (with an eye toward favoring safety that increases scoring) have just rendered the game … uninteresting.
I realize this sounds callous. I’m very capable of callousness, but in this case the motivation is more complicated than that. I have two competing ideas in my head when I watch the NFL now:
What made this game compelling was the violence, and without hard-hitting defense, it’s dull, like watching the Home Run Derby.
I 100% support outlawing hard-hitting defense because I am not OK watching humans shorten their lives for my entertainment.
Put another way: Confusing as it is, I am wholly supportive of the changes that in my opinion have ruined the sport.
Put a third way, this time by my attorney, when discussing whether or not to fold our fantasy league: “It isn’t fun to cheer anymore because you basically have to yell ‘Tackle him! But not too hard!‘”
I miss the simpler bloodlust, the days of rooting for my guys to just annihilate their guys. No one roots for injuries (except maybe to Green Bay’s players) but the frenzied howling for a huge sack on third-and-long was exhilarating — and it kinda isn’t anymore. I liked seeing guys get knocked down, but even more I like seeing them get up. I don’t want to be watching when someone dies.
I’m not nannying them. I’ve thought about this. I am comfortable with people taking physical risks for my entertainment. I like watching pro wrestling, Jackie Chan movies, and pole dancing. Tear an ACL, break a bone, get arthritis in both hips by 40, fine. But I was in a museum earlier today, the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame, and I watched a grainy clip of Rocky Marciano defeating some poor slob by KTFO, and I thought, “I just watched someone get dementia.” That’s a taller order, enjoying knockouts and huge hits with that knowledge.
And I loved the NFL. I had played in the same Fantasy League since 1998. I worked for ESPN for eight years. I have been watching Bears games with my dad my whole life. (I will continue doing that last one.) This feels like a real loss for me, this loss of interest, though I am allowing for the possibility that we just need some time apart.
I do not feel bad it took me or the whole rest of the world this long to realize that concussions might have cumulative consequences in the long term. It wasn’t intuitive, the idea that a few dozen bell-ringers could leave you unable to remember your own name years later. I’m not ashamed or anything. That’s not the best illustration of the problem. The guys who were my heroes when I was 11 are going. I don’t beat myself up for not seeing something obvious that no one else did. But now my childhood idols are going on ESPN and telling stories of the damage the game did to them, and it’s hard to watch. I’m not as much younger than them now as I once was. I had a poster of Jim McMahon in my room in 1985 when I was 11. He was diagnosed with dementia in 2012, when he was 53.