The NFL's Impossible Mission: Making Us Feel Less Guilty About Watching

What we really want is for it to be palatable to watch 300-pound men give each other brain damage each week.

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Jan 5 2018, 6:29pm

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL regular season has mercifully reached its end. The ratings were down again, the concussion protocol continues to be extremely unreliable, and the league's most exciting new stars, DeShaun Watson and Carson Wentz, both suffered season-ending injuries. To make things worse, we're about to enter a postseason where once again, the Patriots look like the clear favorites. If this were the NFL's first rough season in awhile, no one would be noticing much, but football has been trending downward on a consistent basis. There's always a scandal for Roger Goodell to handle poorly. There's always atrocious Thursday games to complain about, and overhyped Sunday Night games to disappoint. And finally, there's always the CTE crisis lingering in the background of our consciences. The NFL's problems aren't going away, But will fans?

New York magazine wondered if the league could be crumbling, noting that the combination of liberals appalled by the game's barbarism and conservatives outraged at anthem protests could leave the game without a logical audience. Bill Simmons, no stranger to criticizing Goodell, rang in the season with a piece bemoaning the many ways the league has fallen under Goodell's reign, noting that "football might have to go away" at some point. David Roth posited in Victory Journal that we might just have to get used to the NFL being a shell of its former self. The picture being painted here and elsewhere is one of increasing pessimism regarding the NFL in recent years and this year was the bleakest.

Then again, maybe things aren’t as bad as writers on the internet will have you think. Yes, the ratings are down, but it's not because fewer people are watching the games, but rather because they don't watch for quite as long. This is still a problem when we consider the recent issue of poor quality of play, but it would indicate that there hasn't actually been a widespread drop-off in viewership due to anthem protests or concerns about player safety. And with Wentz, Watson, and the rise of Jimmy Garoppolo, not to mention a loaded draft class this year, the NFL appears to be getting a much-needed boost in marketable, star-caliber quarterbacks. So what’s going on? Is this the beginning of the end, with people growing increasingly troubled by what the NFL is actually selling? Or could we just chalk all this existential NFL dread up to a momentary blip, the bust portion of the cycle that always follows the boom?

We like to think this depends on the NFL’s leadership, that this is a watershed moment for Roger Goodell and Co., but the truth of it is that it mostly comes down to us, the fans, casual and die-hards alike, and what we are willing to countenance in exchange for our entertainment. We know that the league is at least trying to sell a safer product to us, despite hearing about most of the initiatives from Roger Goodell’s forked tongue. Still, the part of us that would desperately like to watch football without being ravaged by guilt would love to see the concussion protocol somehow work, or get some concrete evidence that things are actually getting better. When we become outraged by events like the Tom Savage debacle in Houston, we like to believe our righteous anger is on behalf of the players in question. How could you let that poor man back in the game when he had clearly had a concussion?! Really though, our rage has more to do with a desperate desire for someone, in this case Goodell and the NFL, to make it OK, or at least palatable, to watch 300-pound men give each other brain damage each week. This is not to absolve the NFL of its never-ending string of fuckups, but we should also acknowledge that ultimately, we're the ones watching, and we have no choice but to turn our moral outrage inward.

Pro football requires players to assume significant risks to both their current and future well being. They do assume this risk in exchange for large paychecks, but we have only just realized that for a very long time, they did not know the extent of this risk. In fact, the league actively misled players about the inherent dangers of playing. If we're torn between knowing how bad football is and still liking it in the present, can you imagine the dilemma as fans and players continue to educate themselves? We might feel that the morally righteous thing would be for both the NFL and football as we presently know it to fall off the face of the earth. And yet, we already know such horrible things about the toll football takes, and many of us still watch. We might just want the game to continue to exist because we like it so much.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, we could defend ourselves here by saying that even if we want the league to be safer for selfish reasons, at least we still want it to be safer, right? But that’s the thing: we don’t want the league to be safe—injuries at this point are a feature of football, not a bug—we just want it to be safer. Safe enough that we won’t be harangued by our guilty consciences when we tune in for America’s Game Of The Week. The absolute best-case scenario is that there’s less CTE. A concussion protocol that actually worked could remedy the situation somewhat, but it wouldn’t change the fact that CTE has more to do with the accumulation of hits throughout a career than concussions. But if we’re being honest, most football fans just want the amount of brain damage to decrease to a more manageable level, where they wouldn’t have to hear about it so much.

That's where I continue to face my own hypocrisy. Ask me if I'm watching football on any given weekend, I'll say "yes" even though the right answer is "no, I haven't watched that Barbaric garbage since 2011!" Same goes for the future, when I ponder the possibility of whether I want the league to survive its current morass or be taken down once and for all, I know that I'm supposed to want it to die. And yet, I don't. I hate everything the NFL's empire stands for, and yet, deep down, I still want it to be there when I'm pushing 60, and I’m guessing you do, too. We’re all massive hypocrites, in part because football is our most paradoxical game: it's the most brilliantly designed combination of strategy and athleticism ever conceived, and it's also a factory of violence, brain damage, and early death that has no place in a civilized society.

And, at the end of the day, maybe that is really what’s going on here. Between a lull in bona fide stars in recent years, and an increased awareness of just how brutal the sport can be for those who play it, watching every game every week for many is suddenly not worth the mental gymnastics required to justify it. It has never been about the anything league itself, or Roger Goodell, has done or will do. And it’s not about anything Colin Kaepernick has done either. The single greatest threat to the NFL has always come down to how much of our humanity are we willing to ignore in order to tune in.