The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How do you prick the conscience of an NFL fan? The problem with uncritical football fandom.

Denver Broncos fans react to a turnover as they watch their team’s NFL Super Bowl XLVIII against the Seattle Seahawks at LoDo’s Bar and Grill in Denver in this Feb. 2, 2014 file photo. (Marc Piscotty/Reuters/Files)

Like Peyton Manning, everyone at the Super Bowl party I attended Sunday night drank a lot of celebratory beer. My San Antonio neighborhood happens to have a bunch of Denver Broncos fans, and as the game wound to its dramatic close, we cheered loud and hard and pretended there would be no consequences the next day.

I’m a little hoarse Monday morning, a bit worse for wear. Still, when I woke up I mostly just wanted to keep the party going — hear some player reactions, read my friends’ #DenverBroncos tweets and watch Manning ride off into the sunset.

Broncos beat Panthers, 24-10, to win Super Bowl 50

That’s football fandom in America. We cheer loud, we cheer hard, we act like there’s no tomorrow. We pretend there are no consequences for our football devotion.

But we’re in the tomorrow. We’ve been in it for a while, actually, and it’s only our pretending that is keeping the football party going.

Take Manning — he’s worse for wear today, too, and it’s not just from drinking too much Budweiser. The sun really is setting for him, and only his family will know the darkness that is to come. What will it be like to live with Manning if he continues to lose feeling in his fingers? How will his 4-year-old twins feel if their father’s degeneration is as rapid and severe as, say, Jim McMahon’s? Manning barely managed to make it through the season; how well can he manage a long football afterlife?

Maybe it’s tough to feel bad for rich football players. But I’d suggest that if you don’t feel compunction about watching football by now, it’s because you’re paying the wrong kind of attention.

How do you prick the conscience of an NFL fan? I’ve thought about this question a lot. In recent years, I’ve tried (here, here, countless emails, etc.) to engage football fans in examining their consciences. I’ve mostly failed, if my friends’ Facebook and Twitter posts every Sunday are any indication. In an era of so much bad news about the National Football League, simple, uncritical football fandom continues unabated.

The game’s problems are legion and well-documented. The list of players who died with CTE or are dealing with lifelong pain grows and grows, and it includes household names like McMahon and Tony Dorsett.

Besides ravaged bodies, there are billionaire owners who get rich off taxpayer investments that are never returned, plus a general culture of misogyny, violence, greed and mindless spectacle — what Ben Fountain has called a “hysterical yoking of sex and patriotism.” Behind all this is the powerful NFL, which denies, obfuscates, scapegoats — all of this quite in the open — and keeps the carnage carnival going.

NFL, former players settle concussion lawsuits

After several years of bad news about football, ratings and revenue continue to grow. We don’t just keep watching; we keep watching more.

Why don’t football fans feel more conflicted about supporting a sport that damages and sometimes destroys bodies? Is it because football players are well-paid? Is it because we think the players must know what they’re getting into? Those are the rejoinders football’s critics hear most often. Both are canards.

Sure, the NFL offers significant financial incentives, but most football players whose bodies are ravaged by the game — from high school players to college players to thousands of nameless NFL hangers-on — never see pro-ball riches. And many of those who do — and their loved ones — have lived to regret their playing years. As for knowing what you’re getting into, well, “knowing” looks different at 22 years old than it will at 40 or 50.

Maybe the problem is that football fans do not see themselves as complicit in football’s problems. But how is football sustained, except by our consensus? Our attention is what pays for the game. Fans’ support of football is as basic to its violence as blocking and tackling.

None of this amounts to an argument that football should go away. And as much as I respect fans who have decided to boycott the game — I’ve been among their number for most of the last three seasons — I’ve come to believe that fans should not go away, either. That’s too simple. Football is a gorgeous, fascinating, exciting sport. Its players are athletic marvels. And while football culture has plenty of problems, the game also produces enormous cultural goods.

For many young people, football is an ideal context for character formation. Football coaches and older players are role models for thousands of boys and girls. And while their stories are usually relegated to end-of-SportsCenter kickers, lots of professional players and coaches quietly use their wealth and influence to do good for people in need.

But if football is a game worth having, then it is a game worth saving. The NFL isn’t going to save it — the NFL is just going to protect itself, which is not the same thing as protecting the sport of football or the people who play it. Protecting the game and its players is up to the fans. We can help football by the kind and quality of attention we give to the game. We can’t just celebrate; we have to scrutinize. Be a fan, but be a critic, too, paying attention to all that the game is and does.

If I could convince every football fan to do one thing differently, it would be to see the players as regular human beings. Not stars. Not superhumans. Regular humans. Underneath those pads, jerseys and piles of cash is flesh and blood — sons, fathers, brothers.

‘League of Denial,’ on concussions in the NFL, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

Get past the superficial coverage of Fox, CBS and ESPN. Read “League of Denial” and its deep reporting on football players in retirement. Read “Slow Getting Up,” Nate Jackson’s page-turning memoir of his career as a Denver Bronco. Read the beautiful reporting of Jeanne Marie Laskas in GQ.

Arguments against football are not what emerge from these accounts; what emerges from them is people, people like the ones you’re still cheering on Sundays who are facing futures they can’t yet fathom but must live into.

By all means, celebrate the Broncos’ victory, or mourn the Panthers’ loss, or hope for your team’s chances in 2016. But if you care about football, celebrate, mourn and hope with the people who play the game, too.

Patton Dodd (@pattondodd) is the executive director of media and communications at The H.E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas. The views expressed here are his own.

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