It's true. I gave up the NFL for one whole season. At first, I must admit it was hard. It was extraordinarily hard. Those first Sundays, I would turn on the game almost by reflex. Then I would turn it off and forced myself out of the apartment to find a distraction. But, as time passed, I learned to fill my weekends with other activities and personal pursuits. Like what? Well, the obvious. I read more. But, that's not all. I finished the first draft of my novel. I listened to a lot of podcasts and even started working on one of my own. So yeah, it got a lot easier to let go of the game.
Before you start laughing or wind up your fingers to begin writing an offensive tweet, understand that I don't hate football. Politics did not play a role in my decision. And I'm not going to proselytize that everyone should do the same.
I will admit that I watched one college game this season. I just had to put that out there. But that was because I have a rivalry with one of my coworkers at the office. She's a Michigan alumn, and I'm a former employee at the University of Florida. So, the Gator/Wolverines game is more about office bragging rights. And I don't apologize about that, though it may seem hypocritical. I'm glad I watched it because throughout the game I struggled with the feeling that led me to take this drastic action in the first place.
Let me further explain how I got here.
Over the past few years, stories of former players damaged by careers spent bashing their heads against each other have made a lot of noise in the headlines. Eventually, the three letters CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) became a symbol of a growing divide over the sport. It hasn't slowed the NFL or the viewership, but it is scaring a lot of people. Participation in youth football is down. It's also declining for high school football. Then there were the deaths; the players who took their own lives because they felt something was wrong. Some of these players avoided shooting themselves in the head to protect their brain for research. Junior Seau. Dave Duerson. Andre Waters. The studies are still new. There are a lot of questions. But, story after story comes out of players struggling to remember, struggling to control their emotions and even losing the ability to do simple daily tasks. All of these plucked away at my conscience.
There are two specific and recent moments that I can point to that were the final straw.
The first came during the 2016 playoffs in the game between my team, the Miami Dolphins, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. For Fins fans this was a glorious experience. It was the first time in ages we'd been to the postseason. And our quarterback was backup Matt Moore, who was playing like a seasoned starter. During the first half, Moore took one of the most violent hits I had seen in years. Linebacker Bud Dupree launched his helmet under Moore's chin and sent the guy into Lalaland.
My first reaction was, whoa! But, it was my second reaction that now bothers me. I wanted Moore back in the game. Even as I watched the images of his limp body on the ground slowly brought up, and saw that blank stare in his sunken eyes I yelled at the television: "God no! We can't win without him." Yeah, I straight up thought his health be damned, we need him on the field.
An NFL investigation later found the team did not put Moore through the concussion protocol and allowed a player who appeared damaged to return to the game too quickly.
You may be saying, 'but that's the game. These men know the risk. It's free will.' I would argue no, they are not wholly doing anything out of free will.
What if these folks are playing for praise? Maybe you thought I was going to say money. The argument against that is, players from decades ago played for far less. My case is this: a big part of it is the glory. I keep thinking back to the movie "The Wrestler." The tragedy of Mickey Rourke's character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is that even when the doctors tell him to hang it up, he returns to the ring for one more hoorah. It was the love he received from the crowd (be it a small one) that filled his heart, which by the way was the part of him at highest risk of injury. Athletes struggle with retirement because they miss the camaraderie, they crave the feeling of belonging. I also believe it's because they need the roar of the crowd, the thousands of fans cheering their name each time they step on the field.
We are the crowd. We are the source of that love.
Thus, are we not complicit? Do we not demand that these men beat each other into a pulp for our gratification? One of my favorite players of all time was Junior Seau. What I loved most about him was that ultra-violent rage he unleashed each time he hit a running back or quarterback. I loved how he hit people. Did he do it out of his own free will? Did I not play a role by cheering for him to hurt others, and eventually himself?
The second reason I quit the NFL this year: Nick Buoniconti. He is the Hall of Fame linebacker from the Dolphins team that went undefeated and won the SuperBowl in 1972. Buoniconti has been telling parents not to let their kids play the game. And that must not be sitting well with league owners. In 2017 the former player's family released a video of Buoniconti struggling to put on a t-shirt.
This video hurt to watch. I have to divulge this fact; my grandmother died of Alzheimer's, so watching someone lose the ability to perform the most basic tasks brings back too many bad memories. Buoniconti's warning is not falling on deaf ears with me.
The season is about over. I am not going to watch the Super Bowl. And it's not because my team is not playing. The Dolphins haven't reached this point in the season in decades. I won't watch it because I made a promise to skip the entire season. And I'm not sure if I return to the game again next year. Maybe I'll convince myself that other people's pain is their choice and I have nothing to do with it. Perhaps I'll be able to free myself of the guilt considering the fact I never made these players put on the helmet. Then again, maybe I find other things to do with my Sundays from now on.