Young fans play while tailgating in the parking lot of Gillette Stadium before an NFL preseason football game. (Winslow Townson/Associated Press)
Columnist

The epiphany came last weekend, and then dread followed. While shopping for soccer cleats, my 5-year-old son looked up and said, “Dad, the sport I really want to play and care about is football.”

Heart, meet stomach. It’s amazing how children can crystallize your beliefs. For years, I have had these conflicting emotions about how and why I cover football — particularly the NFL — but one little boy’s comment cut through the mixed feelings.

“No,” I thought. “Hell no. I’ll find a way to destroy the game before you invest your mind — and definitely your body — in that misguided sport.”

“Well, Miles, we’ll see,” I actually said. “That’s a few years away. Maybe you can play some flag football when you get a little older.”

He moved on and started obsessing over some toy. If only it were that easy for the rest of us to transition from America’s favorite troubled pastime.

This isn’t merely about the dangers of playing football. My son stirred some deeper thoughts. It’s not that I hate the game; it’s that my distrust of its stewards is at an all-time high, and the NFL leads the way with its clumsy, reckless and self-serving leadership. The problem isn’t one thing. It’s the whole buffet.

I dread the start of another NFL season. I dread it because obsession is about to drown out concern again. I dread that my work is about to help fuel this obsession. Every sport has issues, but the attention the NFL receives and the money it makes allow for blind arrogance to take over every fall and winter. The NFL has suffered some dings to its popularity, but the damage is minor thus far, barely noticeable, which means the league will go on abusing responsibility and creating an awful example for how to maintain the game.

The issues are vast and diverse. They include the NFL’s ongoing failure to commit to a more responsible way to do objective research and protect its players from the effects of concussions and brain injuries caused by playing football. And the limited resources and lack of compassion given to retired athletes who wrecked their bodies to provide entertainment. And the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and the overall NFL ambivalence toward its players’ legitimate concerns about equality and social justice. And the confusing and contradictory way that the league disciplines its players, from Tom Brady to Ezekiel Elliott, which consistently shows that it is more concerned about perception than fairness or rehabilitation. And the culture of fighting the players over every dime, which leads to contentious contract negotiations even for stars such as Le’Veon Bell and Aaron Donald .

All of these grievances fall under one huge, disheartening umbrella: The NFL doesn’t respect humanity. Not like it should.

When Miles mentioned wanting to care about football, it opened my mind. As a parent, you become very alert when your child expresses an interest. More than anything, you want them to spend time on something worthwhile. But it’s impossible for me to want my son to devote himself to football when there are so many indications that the game, at its highest level, doesn’t care about its participants.

This is why many people have decided to boycott this season. You saw the rally to support Kaepernick in New York last month. On Change.org, there is a #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition, and more than 176,000 have signed it and pledged not to watch any games until the free agent quarterback is signed to a contract. That’s a sizable number, and over a long period, the movement could become larger and make the NFL’s pockets lighter. But the truth is that this season will go on without them, the league will make a ton of money, and shortsighted owners will continue to treat a considerable portion of their workforce and their fan base like they don’t matter.

If my job weren’t so tied to covering the NFL, I would boycott it. I would endure my kids watching reruns of “PAW Patrol” and “Peppa Pig” on Sundays. Instead, I will spend the next four months bouncing around NFL stadiums, and the good of the sport will consume me. The competition, the close games in the fourth quarter, the stunning athleticism, the teamwork, the passion and intensity — those things make the game so riveting.

Football is a wonderful sport if played correctly and if its stewards handle the game with care. It is physical and violent, but it avoids a savage reputation when the players are treated like valuable human beings and not disposable entertainment commodities. During his 11 years as NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell often has referenced “protecting the shield,” which is his way of saying that his job is to maintain the integrity of the game. But the players hold the shield. With its actions, the NFL keeps undermining the people behind the shield.

Because of that poor example, my love-hate relationship with the NFL is tilting toward the latter. I have two sons. I don’t want either of them to inherit my love for a game that treats its players like toys and its fans like breathing dollar bills.

Tradition can be a source of pride and ignorance. It’s important to believe in and connect to something greater than you, something that has history and feels eternal, but it’s foolish to do those things out of mindless habit. My children won’t love the NFL simply because Mom and Dad watched a lot of games and they drifted into the obsession.

In the Brewer household, the NFL will have to earn that tradition. Daddy may be locked into a lifetime deal, but for my children, it’s time to renegotiate the contract terms.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.