For all but the sentimental, football is America’s pastime. America’s brutal, product-peddling, time-sucking pastime. I used to like football much more than I do now, and I can list a number of reasons why I don’t enjoy the game as much as I did even a few years ago.
More than anything else, I simply can’t sit there for three hours watching a game. It’s not because I always use the time to do other, more productive things. It’s mostly because the typical football game seems to be a boredom inducing stretch of commercials, penalties and ‘instant-replay reviews.’ Nearly every exciting moment of a contemporary college or pro-football game is immediately followed by 2 minutes of wondering if the play will stand. Even if the play is allowed, the Weberian rationalization of the game kills so much of its potential spontaneous fun that you wonder why anybody cheers for anything until they’ve been told by the appropriate authority that it’s time to do so. Also, anyone who has watched even the slightest bit of a televised game knows that you spend more time enduring commercials than enjoying game play; the same beer and car commercials over and over again. A Wall Street Journal study showed that a typical game broadcast carries 11 minutes of action. This isn’t only a problem for those watching on television either, as anyone who has attended a game and stood in silence with 80,000 others waiting for the TV-timeout to end can tell you. The Durkheimian effervescence of shared experience is quite thoroughly dampened in these moments as you sit there noticing that you are cold and ready to go home.
The brutality of consumer capitalism is topped only by the on-field horrors of broken bones, snapped ligaments, and concussions. If you are not pausing to watch a ‘booth review’ or a commercial, you are likely watching a player helped off the field after an injury, maybe while immobilized and on a stretcher. Injuries happen in all sports, but I’d be surprised if they aren’t more frequent and/or severe in football than in the other major American sports. It’s hard to ignore that much of the entertainment of football comes at the cost of young men’s quality of life, and sometimes their lives (see the story of Junior Seau, for example). Even if I were as much of a fan as I used to be, the fact that a team’s success is so dependent upon the health of key players whose careers could end on any play would tend to suggest that it isn’t very wise to get overly invested in a season until the very end.
In terms of NCAA football, I think it’s much harder to cheer for the team when, as faculty, I wonder about how the sport exploits student-athletes and uses up resources that might otherwise be used to advance the university’s educational mission. A real turning point for me, in terms of the college game, was last year when Ohio State decided to pay Urban Meyer $4,000,000 a year to head up the football team. This comes in the midst of seemingly endless conference realignment in which administrators chase cash in the form of television contracts and extended seasons with championship games with near total disregard for the traditions and character building they like to tell us are key to the game. It need not even be said, but see Penn State.
Then there are the more personal, but no less sociological, reasons I stopped watching. I had gotten to the point that I was more upset by my teams’ (Packers/Badgers/Irish – I know!) failures than I was thrilled by their successes. I was experiencing anger more than joy, anxiety more than anticipation. It simply wasn’t much fun, and I didn’t like who I was when I would watch the games. I never got violent, but people sometimes do. Even in baseball, a sport I still mostly like, this is a problem. All of these feelings of anger and anxiety seemed increasingly pointless given the issues I wrote about above.
From where I am now, I begin to wonder why I was ever a football fan in the first place. When I was a kid, I could never really understand why my dad would watch the Packers play so badly that it upset him. I was much more eager to go out and play football in the backyard than watch those inglorious 1980s Packer teams. That changed for a lot of Packer fans of my generation when Brett Favre came along. Reflecting on this with Joy, she has suggested a very good argument. She says I was never really a Packer fan, but a Favre fan. This ‘cult of personality’ argument seems like a real possibility to me. After he left the Packers, I recalled him fondly and cheered for him even when he played for the hated Vikings. Of course, Favre’s story is by now known by even casual sports fans, and it has had a revealing end. He is not the sincere, drug addiction conquering hero the NFL marketers made so much money promoting, but instead a lecherous egomaniac. Of course, Favre’s pain-killer addiction is as much an indictment of the game as it is a personal failing.
Will I never watch another football game again? No, I will of course watch bits and pieces of games. It’s hard to avoid it between September and February, especially when so many people I care about do like it so much. Nonetheless, I do feel conflicted about the sport, and I can’t help but feel like we’ve been had.