Quitting Football

After a mostly failed year-long quest to quit the game, it seems worth trying to figure out how and why football's hold is so powerful.
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I am trying to quit and I am failing.

I am stumbling through a paper positing a causal pathway between repetitive brain trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy; I am reading the rationales and avoidance strategies of declared football defectors; I am scheduling myself to be otherwise occupied on Sunday afternoons.

And then I am meeting up with friends watching some awful Thursday night NFL game; I am refreshing my phone’s fantasy football app, manic and desperate to assimilate new bits of statistical minutiae; I’m wondering if my alma mater’s longtime doormat of a football program might somehow miraculously make the inaugural college football playoff.

I am not an addict, and I am. There are unmistakable signs: increasing returns to consumption; disregard for previously established commitment devices; not-infrequent declarations of imminent cold turkey-dom. I can tell you why I don’t even like football, why I never really have, why the game’s inherent violence is barbaric and its culture repellent and its aesthetic not nearly as appealing as some readily available alternatives. But I’m still watching. I can’t totally help myself.

***

This starts in earnest with John Abraham. Abraham suffered the first reported concussion of his football career in Week 1 against the Chargers. Reports emerged that he was considering retirement. A five-time Pro Bowler, beginning his fifteenth season: an okay time to hang it up, all told. A little abrupt, maybe, and maybe not exactly the terms on which he’d like to leave the game. But no big tragedy, either.

Except then here’s Adam Schefter’s source, saying Abraham is dealing with memory loss and depression -- and has been for over a year. In other words, that Abraham is exhibiting telltale cognitive and behavioral signs of CTE, the ruling nightmare of football epidemiology. So the tragedy, it seemed, was not so much Abraham’s retirement as the fact that he played as long as he did.

Then, a sudden reversal. After being away from the Arizona Cardinals for their Week 2 win over the New York Giants, Abraham was reportedly back with the team. According to Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, Abraham would be ready to play as soon as Week 3 against San Francisco; according to Arians, Abraham is “ready to roll” for the rest of the season.

He didn’t and wasn’t, mercifully. Abraham failed a concussion test later that week and has been on injured reserve ever since. His career is in all likelihood over. But that this plainly, evidently brain-sick man was considering a return to the football field, and that the team who employs him was eager to have him back: what to make of that?

***

You might think that John Abraham -- or Wes Welker, or any other NFL vet who’s endured more sub-concussive traumatic impacts than the human brain was meant to endure -- should stop playing football posthaste. You might think that young football players -- the ranks of which, it must be mentioned, if only to give a sense of the thorniness of the issue, skew increasingly poor and African-American -- should find other trades to ply, before they end up among the cast of tau-tangled NFL retirees whose pension plans are locked in a losing battle with their ballooning medical expenses.

Or you might think that participation in football is at every level voluntary, and at the highest level extraordinarily well-compensated, and that to prevent such participation in any way is a gross breach of closely held personal freedoms.

But, either way, then what?

You are bound on one side by a noxious paternalism that would tell sentient adult athletes what to do with their bodies, on the other by a Hobbesian laissez-faire ethic either ignorant of or unconcerned with the mounting human costs its application implies. The only obvious way out is to absent yourself from the proceedings.

***

Once you start mining for them, you’ll find horrors like Abraham’s story wherever you look. You watch League of Denial and read about Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers center whose final years unfolded like a Darren Aronofsky film. You study the terms of the NFL’s settlement with its retired players and see this huge, incredible lacuna in the agreement: no damages awarded to any player subsequently diagnosed with CTE. You cringe at the long-running twin jokes that are the NFL’s and NCAA’s sideline concussion protocol.

And you read about the behavioral symptoms of CTE -- aggression, erratic behavior -- and you can’t help but suspect it’s related to the domestic violence that appears endemic to pro football. You think about Jovan Belcher. You think: traumatic brain injury is the sport’s original sin, and the lip service paid to it by the administrators of the sport’s production constitutes in the rosiest light abject negligence, and in any other light something far more sinister.

And none of this is news, really, not anymore. Bennet Omalu posthumously diagnosed Webster with CTE in 2005. Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest so as to leave his brain intact for biopsy, which indeed revealed signs of the neurodegenerative disease he suspected he had, more than three years ago. So you set to wondering why it took you so long to notice. You settle on the idea that the accumulation of evidence has become overwhelming, that your own personal burden of proof has been satisfied. You wonder when the same will happen for the multitude of football fans in your life currently getting together on Thursday night to watch the game.

***

I played football for one season, in middle school.

During one practice scrimmage I’m in at running back and take a handoff outside the right tackle. The edge is set, and I’m five, ten, fifteen yards past the line of scrimmage, no defenders in sight. I’ve never done this before. Elation. Air beneath my feet. And then the weakside linebacker, a kid named Roman, who was bigger than me and stronger than me and a lot faster than me, catches up. I don’t see him; I just feel his helmet hit the left side of my ribcage. I go down on my right shoulder, along the sideline of our practice field near a stand of pine trees. I roll over, feeling like someone’s rubbing 12-grit sandpaper directly into my clavicle.

Later that season I’m playing safety in the dying minutes of a game we’re losing by twenty-some points. The other team hands off to their big/strong/fast running back, and he gets through the line and he’s barreling down on me. I see he’s got probably six inches and 30 pounds I can’t account for. And by some miracle I get low enough and put my shoulder into his midsection at just the right angle; he loses momentum, gets stood up, and then two of my teammates are coming to my aid and I’m bringing him down with my arms wrapped around his waist. I get up and though I am still a chubby, sub-median-height seventh grader, I am feeling very much like a Goliath.

In 2008, an alumnus of that same middle school football team, playing in his first game for a local high school’s varsity squad, took a hit to the chest that forced his head backward and ruptured a blood vessel in his brain. Matt Gfeller died two days later. The surgeon who operated on Gfeller estimated the odds of such a rupture resulting from a blow to the chest at 100 million to one. Coaches watching the play said it was a totally routine impact, the kind that happens hundreds of times per game.

***

You try habit replacement. You pick a favorite club from the English Premier League, whose matches are spread out across the mid-mornings and early afternoons of the week’s two football-heaviest days. First you learn the names, then endeavor to grasp the tactics. It grows on you. You cast pitying glances at the huddled masses watching the four-touchdown massacres that litter college football’s early-season slate. With each passing week you feel more like proselytizing against this brutal game; you even start practicing this heresy among friends.

But at some point you slip. You dissociate, maybe subconsciously, the violence from its consequence. Your NFL team’s franchise quarterback rediscovers vintage form after some nagging injuries; your fantasy team rips off a few wins in a row. You’re out and you’re no longer ignoring the game on TV. No, now you’re back to engaging with it, back to speaking that American lingua franca of second-guessing red zone play calls.

You slip because it’s easy. It’s easy, frighteningly so, to slide back into football fandom, to forget about Junior Seau and Chris Henry and Andre Waters and that abstracted ethical obligation to not be complicit. Or maybe the inverse is more accurate: it’s hard, disconcertingly hard, to avoid football altogether. The sport can access your daily American existence in so many ways that to eradicate it from your life is not a discrete choice but a seemingly endless set of them, of conscious and deliberate measures to be taken. Because while you may have quit football, the game’s purveyors have not and will not quit on you. There is no way you could buy enough of what they’re selling.

You may feel your resolve weakening, your old habits returning. And eventually one of those with whom you felt comfortable enough to share your nascent anti-gridiron gospel says something in passing about how weren’t you going to stop watching football? And you snap back: it’s a process.

***

Here’s one not so novel hypothesis on why football endures:

The game appeals to an instinct of ours, a vestigial one. A remnant of pre-civilization, an instinct that we now use laws and cultural conventions to suppress, but, like a species-wide nicotine patch, that we also indulge in certain stylized manifestations of: e.g. Run the Jewels concerts, or helmeted and shoulder-padded collisions, circumscribed to a 52x100-yard turf rectangle and executed by supremely strong, fast men who seem, on face and by dint of their superhuman forms, less vulnerable to physical impact than us lesser mortals. The idea being that we can then simulate this instinct vicariously, at arm’s length, through an LCD screen, harmlessly.

Here’s another:

The game is exceedingly, almost indecipherably, complex. It is a jumble of moving parts and arcane rules, of zone reads and kill audibles and mike linebackers and illegal contact; it is chess, with 53 pieces of varying efficacy. Every season an innovation becomes an industry trend; every industry trend is assiduously countered. The dialectic of football strategy is vigorous and unceasing. Note that quarterbacks, the game’s most valuable players, are also the ones whose physicality is least essential. You can watch this game weekly for the better part of your life and have no more than a surface-level understanding of what’s going on.

There is a wide spectrum across which football can be appreciated, wider, perhaps, than any other major sport. It is felt and it is considered, in whatsoever proportion you choose to feel it and consider it. It is supremely visceral and it is supremely cerebral, a game of the body and the mind.

And also, in a vicious irony, it destroys both, in roughly equal measure. If, as has been suggested, football is our new national religion, then its god is an awfully spiteful one.

***

I started requesting Sunday day shifts at the bar where I work. The idea being to keep busy during that time of the week when I’d otherwise be couch-sprawled and macrobrew-buzzed and Tostitos-gorged and utterly in thrall to the competitive brain-mashing happening on multiple channels in front of me.

The shifts are easy enough to pick up. The place isn’t a sports bar and doesn’t have a brunch menu, and so is generally pretty empty on Sunday afternoons, and no one wants to work in an empty bar. Unless, of course, you’re worried about what you might do in lieu of working in an empty bar; unless, in other words, you can’t trust yourself to your own choice of Sunday afternoon recreation. This is the calculus of an addict, which I maybe am or maybe am not.

There is one TV in the joint, though, a small one, directly above the top shelf of liquor bottles behind me, tuned per management’s request to the highest-rated sporting event of any given moment. And amidst the day’s prep work and the smattering of drinks to be poured, the temptation, and the choice, remains: to face forward or to crane back, at this game, forever overhead.


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