Saturday, November 22, 2014

On Losing Interest In Football

This year was the year that I half-consciously made the decision to not care about football anymore.  This turn of events was not insignificant, considering that I grew up in Nebraska as a die-hard Cornhuskers fan.  At a young age I could recite the starting lineups, and the depth chart down to at least the third string for positions like running back and quarterback.  When the team had a string of embarrassing bowl losses in the late 80s and early 90s, I would depressed each January 1st, wondering if the humiliations would ever end.  When I saw the then #1 ranked Huskers lose at home to Oklahoma in 1987, it was the most devastating event in my life up to that point, besides the death of my grandfather.  When the Huskers won three championships in the 1990s, I was on cloud nine, and even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 couldn't match the feeling I had after the 1994 season when Tom Osborne finally had a national championship.

My love of football went beyond the Huskers, though.  I played innumerable backyard touch football games during recess at school and with my friends in their backyards.  (My one disastrous season playing tackle football didn't go so well, though.  I was a meek kid and kind of spacey, so I shied away from hitting and wasn't good at knowing the playbook.)  During study hall in middle and high school I would diagram plays, and I had a real obsession with the technical, Xs and Os behind the game.  I loved computer football games where I was the coach, and couldn't control the players.  The strategic stuff interested me more than the athletic execution.

Once I left college and moved to Chicago, I became much more interested in the NFL, and became a committed Bears fan to boot.  In grad school in downstate Illinois it became a weekly ritual among some of my friends to gather on Sunday afternoon (after having spent the morning working) to pot luck some food, drink some beers, and watch NFL football.  The couple who hosted each week had NFL Sunday Ticket, so we could watch any game we wanted.  It was a nice break from the grueling grad student work schedule, and I still have many fond memories of those Sunday afternoons.

Now that I no longer have that fellowship, or the cultural ties to my home state (where football is religion), my interest in football has waned.  Much of it has to do with my years in higher education, which taught me that big time college sports are a cancer on universities and drive their leaders into decisions that harm the academic mission of their institutions.  The recent revelations in North Carolina are only the most outlandish in a long litany of such abuses.  Big time college sports do active harm, from shielding rapists to robbing athletes of a meaningful education to stealing money from classrooms. It got to the point that I felt like I was violating my moral code by maintaining any interest in college football.

The NFL is a slightly different matter.  There were moral qualms extending from the brain damage of its players, of course, but that wasn't all.  NFL football has become a crummy product.  The games take three and a half hours long, are full of interminable commercials, and are carried on by technocratic coaches and mostly faceless players.  Apart from a few players like Peyton Manning (who I can't stand, by the way), the game has overshadowed individual achievement.  That takes away one of the basic reasons to care about a sport in the first place.  I also agree with my friend Cranky Bear, when he said this:

"Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it."

So what's life like been without as much football in it?  In the first place, it's saved me the aggravation of enduring recent Bears hidings at the hands of their opponents, or of my once beloved Huskers getting shellacked by Wisconsin.  I've had the TV on a let less on the weekend, which has meant fewer hours spent watching commercials and listening to the kind of bloviating bores who are hired to announce and analyze the game.  During game time I've been out and about or doing yard work.  If I need a sports fix I watch English Premier League soccer early in the morning before my family is out the door.

I'm not judgmental or negative towards football fans, I of all people get the sport's appeal.  Perhaps I would still be following the sport, but the circumstances of my life have made me abandon many things I once cared deeply about (the Catholic Church, the historical profession, etc.), and that's made it easier to change my mind about football.  It's still America's number one spectator sport, so maybe I'm a total outlier, but I still wonder how long that will continue to be the case.


bmi said...

Somewhat self-servingly, I like to think that my book/research may have had something to do with you coming to this conclusion.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Murray Sperber first planted the seed; I read Beer and Circus and saw him speak my first year in grad school. It became obvious at that point that college sports weren't just a silly sometimes corrupt distraction from academics on campus, but an institution choking universities in need of reform or destruction. Your work did a LOT to reaffirm that notion, though. Big time sports and universities have had a toxic relationship from day one.

Tom Bux said...

This is exactly how I feel! I have two degrees from Penn State, and marched in the blue band as an undergraduate. Hello my cat is named Nittany! But after 10 years of working in higher ed i to see how college football has damaged education. I also see the pettiness and bureaucracy behind college football and higher academia in general and I really don't want to be a part of it