What can you say about a love story that was consummated in the half-empty bleachers of an ancient stadium, dodging the occasional beer cans that fans hurled at the worst team in professional football and its inept quarterback named Norm Snead, and barely surviving visits to the Yale Bowl’s medieval trough-lined men’s rooms?
The truth is that I was already hooked on the NFL by 1973, when my then-beloved New York Giants were exiled by a world of stadium construction woes to New Haven, a move so unpopular that my dad and I were able to cop season tickets for the first time. Memories of my childhood are threaded with football moments like the laces on my own leather pigskin with the signature of then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, or like the Christmas that our family’s PR whiz friend Jerry Sherman got me an autographed photo of my favorite Giant, Ernie Koy. I can’t tell you what I ate for lunch yesterday, but I still remember (hungover) Max McGee of the Green Bay Packers nabbing that touchdown pass in Super Bowl I, on our newfangled color television set.
On the surface, my nostalgia for the Yale Bowl autumns of 1973 and 1974 might seem not only misplaced but bizarre. It wasn’t just the Giants that stunk. America was swirling around the giant drain hole of Watergate. I was a geeky, mumbling adolescent starting out in a new school, and only years later did I appreciate that my dad was having something of a time of it, too. But there could not have been a better bonding experience, those hours stuck in Connecticut traffic in an overheating car, Elton John’s latest hit crackling from an AM radio. Fathers and sons, and that sense of childlike awe at the ritual of pro football. All so pure, all good.
As I grew, the political-science major in me started to grasp the broader complexity of the NFL and its tangled place in modern American culture. The sport surpassed baseball as the real national pastime in the 1960s as better athletes and stronger helmets made the sport more violent — a form of national catharsis for the chaos and frustrations of the Vietnam and civil rights era. By the 1970s, the NFL — with its flag-waving rituals and pregame fighter-jet sorties in the “missing man” formation for the POWs in Nam — had somehow got wrapped up with a new “silent majority” in this country.
They say that pro football is a metaphor for America, or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s not an accident that during the Reagan, “greed is good” years that the NFL, as a corporate entity on its way to becoming a $14 billion-a-year behemoth, started to morph into Big Football — something akin to Big Tobacco or Big Oil, although arguably with less of a social conscience. Today, looking at American pro football through the jaundiced eyes of an adult, it’s increasingly hard not to both anticipate and fear Sundays with the compulsive self-loathing of an addict.
The ever-image-conscious corporate NFL adopts a “just say no” approach to performance-enhancing drugs but has to be constantly browbeaten into taking seriously ugly incidents of domestic-violence allegations against star players, even after that violence has turned deadly on occasion. If the seemingly no-brainer issue of violence against women has flummoxed current deer-in-the-headlights commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL’s billionaire owners, the protests against racist and social injustice started by ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick have exposed the league’s cowardice. The buck-passing failure of the NFL’s 32 teams to offer free agent Kaepernick a contract even as a backup — while inking a host of clearly inferior QBs in recent months — stands as a testament to their moral bankruptcy.
It’s almost beyond parody that the current Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, have a win-at-all-costs coach who was caught spying on opponents and a quarterback who was caught red-handed cheating with under-inflated footballs — and that the two are friends and — at least with coach Bill Belichick — political supporters of America’s chronically dishonest autocratic ruler. But the potency of that metaphor gets buried under the biggest moral crisis facing the NFL in the early 21st century: the crisis of head trauma from repeated violent blows.
Over the last few years, the full extent of the connection between playing pro football and degenerative brain injury — specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE — has been laid bare, and the results are shocking. Family members — after watching their loved ones descend into depression, early-onset dementia, drug and alcohol abuse, headaches and other chronic pain, and, all too often, suicide — then donated their brains for the posthumous exam that is the only way to diagnose CTE. When relatives suspected brain injury, medical researchers found that 110 of the 111 players tested, or more than 99 percent, did in fact suffer from CTE. Yet just like Big Tobacco with lung cancer and Big Oil with climate change, the NFL spent millions and wasted years on a cruel policy of denial.
Last year, the NFL’s astronomical TV ratings started to decline. This year, the twin valleys of the league’s shameful treatment of Kaepernick and the growing evidence that pro football covered up the reality that it’s literally sapping the life from the men who play the game have more people than ever saying they will take their disgust to its logical conclusion — and give up on watching the NFL, period.
The leader of this movement is former NFL star Ed Cunningham. After his retirement, Cunningham earned a comfortable six-figure salary as a college football analyst for ABC and ESPN, even as he made occasional waves by criticizing a culture that seemed to reward violent modes of play. He’d watched his friend and former Arizona Cardinals teammate Dave Duerson commit suicide in 2011 by shooting himself in the chest so that researchers could better examine his brain and confirm that he had CTE. Another ex-teammate, the former Eagle Andre Waters, also suffered from CTE and also killed himself, five years earlier. This summer, Cunningham decided enough is enough and walked away from his big paycheck — and from football altogether.
“I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot,” Cunningham told the New York Times. “In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”
A big part of me wishes I had the clarity and courage of Ed Cunningham. Maybe the only effective way that a rank-and-file fan can punish the NFL for the cruelty of its too-little, too-late response to brain injuries, and its myriad other sins, is to turn it off, to keep driving its almighty TV ratings lower and lower. But I’m compelled to write the truth: I wish I knew how to quit you, NFL — but I don’t … not yet.
Look, let’s stipulate that the NFL is a morally damaged vessel harboring some amazing human beings — people like J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, who started raising charitable dollars within hours of Harvey’s floodwaters swamping his adopted hometown and is up to a remarkable $27 million. Closer to home, we have the Eagles’ tireless Malcolm Jenkins, who spends two minutes a week raising his fist for the national anthem and then countless hours giving back to the community, helping kids and lobbying for better relations with the police. Despite the moral rot, football can bring together Americans who otherwise have little in common — and in 2017 that’s worth a lot.
The NFL is America, and America is the NFL. The best answer for Trump isn’t moving to Vancouver, but fighting here, to save health care and to keep the “Dreamers” on U.S. soil. And so maybe the best answer for the NFL isn’t to grab the remote but to push the hapless Goodell and his band of billionaires to do a lot better, to understand that respecting the American flag means also respecting a just society for women, nonwhites, or anyone who is marginalized, and to take a “moon shot” approach to solving the head-injury crisis before it takes down football on every level, including college and high school.
The bond between fathers and sons. And, more and more, daughters and moms. The Sunday ritual with friends and families. The way that rooting for a team like the Eagles can unite a Philadelphia community that wants to tear itself apart the six other given days of the week. It’s not easy to walk away from all of that.
As for me, my 51-year odyssey of NFL fandom — which has included watching every Super Bowl and a shocking midstory plot twist, on a Sunday afternoon in 2000 when the Giants kicked off against the Eagles and I inexplicably found myself rooting for the green jerseys — just doesn’t feel as if it’s ready to end. There will (hopefully) come a moment this Sunday afternoon when Carson Wentz is driving the Birds toward the end zone of the hated Redskins (some things never change!), and I’ll surely be looking up at the TV set. With slight pangs of nausea, perhaps, but watching.