I have been struggling with an issue for several years now and it is time to put it to rest.
I enjoyed watching football over the past decade, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular, because (a) I grew up in Western Pennsylvania and (b) my relatives were fans. It is a tribal behavior, rooting for the hometown team, no matter who the players are, how they behave, how they perform or what befalls them.
In the 1990s, I was not just ho-hum but openly antagonstic toward NFL football. I recall Christmas holidays when my relatives gathered around the TV screen to watch the Steelers and I would retreat to the bedroom to read a book. (I was still a baseball guy back then. The Pittsburgh Pirates were only a few years into their record-setting twenty consescutive losing seasons.) Football seemed violent and chaotic and I didn’t understand the rules or the penalties or the lack thereof.
But over time, without knowing it, I got turned around. Maybe it was seeing Jerome Bettis charge into goal-line defenses to make one brute-force touchdown after another. Maybe it was watching Antwaan Randle El throw the touchdown pass to Hines Ward on a trick play in the final minutes to win Super Bowl XL. Admiring such plays and the players who make them led to me admiring the sport, and that is when I crossed over to the dark side, where I remained for many years.
I now view the NFL as a cockfight, a contest staged by the owners and their players to see who is most willing to bloody themselves (or cripple themselves, as it were) for the cause. The cause of the players is a silvery trophy held high into some colorful confetti during a glittery finale, after which life goes on, another contract is negotiated, shoulder and knee surgeries are performed and brain concussions do or do not heal. The cause of the owners is — what else — money: every year their team reaches the playoffs translates to hundreds of millions of dollars in the value of the franchise when it is sold. And all sports teams are eventually sold or inherited.
I have given up smoking. I have sworn off potato chips. I have forsaken Cheerios and Glaceau vitamin water. I can certainly do without passively promoting the body damage that defines the NFL. And the players, present and future, will be better off without me. I’m done.
P.S. Dear Ryan Shazier: Your spirit is inspiring. I hope you make a full recovery — and never return to the football field. There is nothing more you need to prove there. It would be better for you to be done too.