Breaking up with American football

My father treated basketball as religion and, growing up, I advanced through the ranks of his church. Standing just 5’10” and rather thickly built, I was always told by high school coaches I should play football. But I was a true believer. Hoops carried the promises of brotherhood and Zen philosophy, and the joy of trying to jump really high. This was especially available to me in my teens, what with my father’s friendship with and participation in a friendly/competitive game organized by primarily by Phil Jackson, the legendary ex-coach of MJ, Kobe, and Shaq (three of the top 10 players ever in my book). The weekly game was held at the United Nations’ basketball court on Manhattan’s east side. Phil, my Dad and their common friends chipped in together to reserve the court each Wednesday night for years at a time. This was during the early 1980s when Phil was transitioning from NBA player to coach. I got to play in the game a few times as a 14- and 15-year-old back when I held out hope that I was good enough to play in college.


Needless to day, I wasn’t. But I held off those pesky football coaches all the way through high school and emerged into young adulthood never having donned pads or a helmet – nor having sustained a sports-related concussion. So I have some previous experience in shunning our beloved domestic cash cow, American football, for some other higher power.


Thirty years later, here I am again, turning my back on football.


My current rejection of football is simply as a fan or consumer, not as an athlete. It is through a different lens than I looked through as a teenager. Now I’m looking at it as a psychologist and as a father. It’s time for me to, once and for all, break up with American football.


Devoting time to this sport amounts to a tacit approval of the perpetuation of all types of societal and public health ills. This is the social psychologist in me. I try to look beyond promoting health just for myself, my family or the clients I serve. Looking at the larger culture can help all of the above because the larger culture impacts me, my family, and the clients I serve, in ways both subtle and not so subtle.


I tend to look at a health or psychosocial problem (such as American football culture has become) along the lines of the biopsychosocial model. This model poses the idea that most problems contain a combination of biological, psychological and social causes – and likely solutions to the problem are likewise some combination of biological, psychological and social change.


So allow me to draft my breakup letter to American football using those three concepts.

* * *


Dear American football culture:


For my entire adult life, I have devoted anywhere between three and 16 hours per weekend to my relationship with you by watching your games. This does not even count the three to five weekly hours spent analyzing statistics so as to compete favorably in fantasy football leagues. In effect, you’ve been a seasonal part-time job to me, and although I’ve spent considerable money and time, I get very little back.


I will admit, I appreciate the sheer athleticism and toughness of your players. It is fun to root for the home team and to feel a part of a tribe or “nation” (see for more on this). It is fun to engage in the male-bonding dialogue at the water cooler or the hot stove or the barber shop. It is fun to fantasize that I could pull off talent evaluation and roster management as I tend to fantasize when we play fantasy football. The timeless mythology of a group of men banding together to achieve a common purpose is well crafted in your product.


But here’s where you’ve gone wrong:


  1. Biology. To watch your product (which is supposed to be a game or sport) I must be okay with the likelihood that I’m going to witness a brain or spinal injury that will alter the advanced-age health of the man who sustains it. I am aware of what these types of injuries do a person’s neuro-cognitive functioning, emotional stability, and family relationships. I am also aware that many hundreds of thousands of young boys and young men believe they can beat one-in-a-million odds to one day play big-time college football or in the NFL. To do so they are willing to subject themselves to similar injury risk throughout their formative years. I have a suspicion that performance enhancing drugs are underregulated and even encouraged as football players are developing. At the professional level it is naïve to think that anything about PEDs has changed, thus leading to an escalating potential for these injuries to occur, and an escalating potential for their severity. The performance that is being enhanced in football is simply the pounds of force that a man can produce upon another man by optimizing the combination of his speed and body mass. I do not believe the NFL or NCAA is doing much to change the biological truth at hand: that their examples encourage young men to risk a lifetime of hurt for a one-in-a-million scholarship or paycheck.
  2. Psychology. To watch your product, I must engage in what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. I must lie to myself. I must think that the above is not true  to relieve the resulting psychological stress. To feel okay about it, I must think that I really don’t spend too much time or money watching this game. I must think that George Carlin’s side-by-side critiques of baseball and football were not meant as an indictment of the hypermasculine propensity to justify violence as an extension of militarized and nationalistic worldviews. I must believe that I will not have to deal with the consequences – some day, some way – of the decision of one of the many young men to take on substantial risk for their teammates and for the love of this game. Furthermore I must believe that the social ramifications of this culture have not manifested (see no. 3 below).
  3. Social. To watch your product, I must see myself as part of a larger group of people who love this game and the men who play it. Then I must disown the larger culture produced by this game and the men who play it, including the fact that Super Bowl Sunday has long been recognized as the day when women are statistically most likely to sustain domestic violence. In reality, I have come to see the confluence of the following: an inherently and increasingly violent sport, co-ed and cross-culturally targeted beer and liquor advertising, binge drinking, gambling, sexy cheerleaders on the sideline, and America’s back story of racism, gender and sexual identity discrimination, hegemony, militarism, and sheer greed. I think this confluence has a direct bearing on the behavior of Ray Rice and Jim Irsay and Daniel Snyder, to name a few.


As the father of two young daughters, I don’t want to have my actions stray so far from my own values. To those who recognize the messages being communicated, but turn a blind eye because a new season erases everything, I say we owe more to our sons and daughters.


American football, it’s over between us. If you want to contact me I’ll be watching the FIBA World Cup. Or going to yoga with my daughters.





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