I may have picked a singularly terrible year to consider giving up football.
Full disclosure: This could be a massive case of talking a talk that I’m not remotely prepared to walk. Sports has been part of my consciousness literally as far back as I can remember, with football and basketball jockeying for top position. Ask me to name the starting quarterback for any NFL team during the 1977 season, when I first started following football, and I can do it; if Mike Livingston’s name lives nowhere else, it lives in my memory (go ahead, Google him).
Talking about sports was the common thread that connected my father, brother and I when there was virtually nothing else we could talk about—and has circled back around to being that same safe topic once again. I’ve watched my beloved San Diego Chargers suffer playoff heartbreaks for more than 30 years, from the signal-stealing Houston Oilers and the Cincinnati “Ice Bowl” through more contemporary early-round flops. I’ve experienced the glorious mass hysteria of being in a college stadium for a huge victory, high-fiveing complete strangers for no better reason than because we’re wearing the same color shirt.
As the new season approaches, however, a once-familiar enthusiasm just isn’t there. The seeds were, in all likelihood, planted with the birth of my children; the growing demands on my time and attention made it feel somewhat self-indulgent to plant myself in front of a TV on a Sunday afternoon for seven to 10 hours. But in recent years, my attachment to the games has been weakened by strings of discouraging stories: performance-enhancing drugs, labor stoppages, concerns over the long-term consequences of repeated head injuries. The fun and games were losing their fun.
Once upon a time, perhaps, we were able to live in a bubble where we didn’t know that many of our sports heroes were insanely greedy, or inveterate cheaters, or domestic abusers, or otherwise probably not all that deserving of being cheered and applauded. Now, it too often feels like an act of willful ignorance to celebrate someone’s on-the-field exploits—though they enable him to be an off-the-field a–hole—just because he’s wearing the jersey of the team we like.
When it comes to college football—where maybe being a terrible human being is less common, or not yet as deeply ingrained—we’re still confronted regularly with the unpleasantness behind the actual games. Coaches break rules to get an edge, the university gets caught and the coach flees to the NFL. Players—maybe even Heisman Trophy winners—fall under clouds of bad-behavior suspicion. And plenty of fans tacitly condone it all, because they’d rather cheer for a cheating winner and worry about the possible consequences later. Even if you’re confident in the moral rectitude of your alma mater’s program, you’re still stuck with the petty rivalry nonsense and the reality that you’ve invested your emotional well-being in whether one bunch of 20-year-olds is better able to play a game than another bunch of 20-year-olds.
Love of sports is a complicated matter, tied up in rites of passage between fathers and sons, the thrill of watching extraordinary athletes do extraordinary things, good old-fashioned tribalism and maybe the occasional wager or fantasy league (for entertainment purposes only, of course, wink-wink). Of late, I’ve continued to justify my enjoyment of sports via its connection to my love of movies and theater: It’s about wanting to watch people show off rare skills, as a story unfolds—and, where sports is concerned, it’s often a story more unpredictable than anything a writer could dream up. I rarely immerse myself anymore in the agony of needing one team or the other to win; I just want to appreciate the artistry of the athletes. And this still requires me to pretend, at least for a while, that it’s not all built on a foundation of ego, insane amounts of money and the strong possibility that someone participating might wind up permanently damaged by the experience. Go team.
That’s the rational part of me, the part of me that shakes my head at stories like the recent suggestion that ESPN pulled out of a documentary on football-related head injuries under pressure from the NFL. But then there’s the part of me that is a Stanford graduate, who has enthusiastically watched Stanford teams for nearly 25 years, confronting a year in which “my team” is going to be one of the top-ranked football teams in virtually every pre-season poll. That team will be coming to visit the University of Utah in October, providing me the first chance in years to be there in person for that electrifying environment. I can pay my $65 for a chance to be part of that excitement. And a chance, a little voice in my head keeps telling me, to be part of the problem.
Over and over, we face similar struggles all the time: looking for ways to convince ourselves that the thing we really enjoy isn’t really all that bad, and come on, it’s not like we’re murdering anyone, lighten up, dude. I still don’t know whether I’ll be at that game; the ticket-office number is programmed into my phone right now. Maybe I can set it all aside for three hours, cheering innocently and wrapping myself in the mantra that it’s only a game, it’s only a game, it’s only a game.