There are few things in this world that I love more than football. I have been a fan and avid watcher of the sport for more than three decades. Some of my fondest memories involve games watched with my father or with friends. I have spent my hard-earned money on tickets and merchandise, and countless hours reading about my favorite team and even playing fantasy football. I have been a loyal consumer of the product that the NFL has been selling, and it has brought me great joy.
So, why are they driving me away?
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I guess I always knew there was a dark side. After all, this is a sport based on violence and brutality. Sure, there is strategy involved, but that strategy still involves gigantic men destroying their bodies. And, the ungodly amount of money involved cannot help but corrupt those who run the league. But, somehow, I was always able to ignore all of that because I loved watching the game so much. I have been a loyal fan, willing to turn a blind eye.
But, I cannot pretend to be blind anymore.
Today’s news about Ray Rice is the tipping point perhaps, but it is merely one of many illustrations of just how corrupt the NFL has become. Like any big business, they are driven by profit, and as long as the money keeps rolling in, they are willing to condone just about any sort of behavior.
Let’s look at the Rice situation. Here is a player who was seen as one of the league’s “good guys.” He played well for a team that won the Super Bowl just a few years ago. But, he committed the fatal error of doing something awful and getting caught. To the league, the action does not matter nearly as much as the getting caught. It would be foolish to believe that Rice is the first player to abuse his partner. He just happened to do it on camera. So, since the league could not ignore it, they did the least they could possibly do to quiet the critics. They condemned his behavior and suspended him for 2 games. They told us just how seriously they take the issue of domestic violence, then suspended Rice for just one-eighth of the season. And, they were more than willing to sweep the entire incident under the rug. But, the public, to their credit, would not let them. After the uproar that followed what was seen as a far-too-lenient punishment, the league vowed to re-evaluate their policy on domestic violence. They decided that a six-game suspension should apply to any future incidents. And, again, they were willing to consider the matter settled. But, today, after more video evidence was leaked, revealing just how brutally Rice attacked his then-fiancée, they were again pressured into action. Ray Rice was released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league. There is a real possibility that he never plays football professionally again. But, even after all that, Rice still lands on his feet. He does not face any criminal punishment, and he has millions of dollars to cushion his fall.
And, the NFL comes out on top. By allowing all the blame to fall on Ray Rice (and absurdly trying to blame his fiancée for being abused), the league gets to keep selling its product to a fan base that cannot get enough. This is not to say that Rice should not be blamed. Of course he should. He should be blamed, he should be punished, and he should go to jail. But, the NFL should be blamed, as well, not for the assault, but certainly for how they dealt with it. They did as little as they could, trying to protect themselves and their product. That is the game they play. For the product is all that matters.
This single-minded focus on the game and the profits they reap is what allows them to stand behind a team owner in support of a racist team name. It is what allows them to condemn the use of illegal (but harmless) drugs like marijuana while pumping their players full of dangerous prescription painkillers. It is what allows them to ignore the countless brain injuries caused by years of players slamming themselves into each other as hard as they can. It is what allows them to play their game in stadiums owned by billionaires and paid for by public funds taken away from education or infrastructure. They address only what they are forced to, only those bits of the darkness that creep out into the light.
I love football, but I don’t like it anymore. When I see a big hit, I don’t cheer. I wonder whether the player is destroying his brain and his body. When I see an owner in his luxury box, I think about fans who can’t afford tickets into the stadium they are paying for. When I see a player doing charity work and photo-ops, I wonder whether he shows the same kind of compassion to his wife. Yet, despite all this, I still watch, because I love football.
So, why is the NFL trying to drive me away? How difficult would it be to actually do the right thing? Why not condemn the owner of the team with the racist name rather than the woman who was beaten by a man who just so happens to be famous for playing football? Why not embrace efforts to protect the players who make the league possible? Why not reach out to the fans who spend the money that has made the league so profitable and address their concerns? We don’t want much. We just want to watch football without feeling like we’re supporting all the awful things that happen under the league’s watch. Is that too much to ask?