Hello all. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on here—almost a year, in fact, since I begged my few readers not to vote for Donald Trump. We all know how that went, and over the last few months we’ve seen the disgraceful, disheartening, entirely predictable results of a monstrous, racist, anti-intellectual con man taking over the most powerful office in the world.
But that’s not what brings me back to blogging now. (If you want to read about all the ways Trump and his cronies are tearing apart the fabric of this country, I recommend subscribing to The New York Times and/or The Washington Post, two insitutions that are hopefully going to take that fucking huckster down and that could use your support.) No, what I’m here to talk about is another crumbling American institution: the game of football, and more specifically the National Football League, which today kicks off the first NFL Sunday of the 2017 season.
I’m sure many of you are excited for today’s slate, but I’m not. In fact, I’m here to say that I won’t be watching this afternoon’s games—or any others this season. I am quitting the NFL, cold turkey.
It has taken a long time for me to get to this point. I used to love football. Being both small and slow-footed, I was never much good at playing the game, but going back to age 9 or 10, I could spend an entire Sunday, from morning to night, engrossed in one game after another. My nerdy side enjoyed the minutiae of play-calling; my rough and tumble side enjoyed the hard hits. And growing up in the Bay Area, it was easy to be a football fanatic, as we had the Joe Montana/Steve Young/Jerry Rice 49ers, one of the most iconic, dominant dynasties in sports history. From the time I moved to the Bay in 1991 to my high school graduation in 1999, it was a given that the Niners would be in the playoffs and contending for a Super Bowl (and that’s not even considering the ’80s, which were even better years for Bay Area football fans, or the underrated fun of the Mariucci/Garcia/Owens teams I rooted for in college, or the Harbaugh teams that came oh-so-close to bringing home a title of their own).
In college, football continued to be an integral part of the rhythm of my life. I went to UCSB, which didn’t have a team, but every Sunday morning, my roommates and I would gradually, one-by-one, shlep our ways out of bed and into the living room, where we would flop on the couch and stare our half-blind, hungover stares at the Niners. I vividly remember watching with my roommate Josh when T.O. scored a late-game touchdown and then basically took a shit on the star at midfield of Texas Stadium, starting a brawl with the Cowboys and endearing himself to us forever.
Football, and the Niners, continued to be a big part of my life all the way into my thirties, particularly when I moved to New York. Shortly after I arrived in 2010, I started hanging out at Finnerty’s, a burgeoning Bay Area sports bar in the East Village. I spent every football Sunday in that bar, made a lot of friends there (including my occasional guest-blogger, Tierney), and took a lot of wicked hangovers to work on Monday mornings. The fandom I shared at Finns helped me find a community in this intimidating city. And it didn’t hurt that I discovered the bar right before Harbaugh took over and led the Niners to three straight NFC Championship Games. During that time, I started this blog, and some of the “Niners Awards” columns I wrote remain among my all-time favorite From a Brooklyn Basement posts.
A number of things began to cause my interest in football to wane. First, I got a real editing job, which cut into the time I had to write those Niners columns. Around the same time, the Niners embarked on a descent into chaos—moving to Santa Clara, firing Harbaugh, dropping to the bottom of the standings—that made me less-inclined to spend my Sunday afternoons in a bar watching them. (Another side effect of having a real job: I couldn’t tolerate those godawful Monday hangovers anymore.)
The Niners being tragicomic losers freed me from having to watch football every week, but that wasn’t the death knell of my interest in the game. All sports franchises go through success cycles, and I surely would have gotten sucked back in when the team’s fortunes began to improve again. But at the same time the team and its owners were displaying willful, destructive incompetence, the league was doing the same thing.
First, there was the terrible—and ongoing—spate of domestic violence cases. It was bad on so many levels. There was the violence itself, the awfulness of which needs no explanation. But then the NFL and its teams tried to pretend like they care about women—pink jerseys for breast cancer!—when clearly they don’t. The Ray Rice video was an eye-opener for me, but not in the way it was for some. The league initially suspended Rice for just two games—half the length of the suspension Tom Brady got for allegedly deflating a few footballs—only banning him indefinitely when the video of him punching his pregnant fiancee in an elevator became public. Putting aside whether or not the league office had seen the video (although I will bet you any amount of money you want that it had), the sudden lengthening of the suspension raised a question for me: How were people so surprised when they saw the video? At the time, the league called it a “game-changer,” but everyone knew Rice had knocked his fiancee unconsicous. What do people think it looks like when someone gets knocked out? The only principles the NFL exercised with regard to Rice were public relations and ass-covering.
It was around the same time that the public became aware of the breadth of football’s concussion crisis. As more and more retired players began to kill themselves, or to admit to their post-career debilitations, and more and more studies revealed the extent to which literally all of these players are causing themselves horrific harm simply by playing football, the league responded by trying to weasel out of providing health care for retired players. It’s despicable. It also raised the question that has become perhaps the most common talking point around football: Would you let your kids play? My answer might surprise you; if I had a kid who wanted to try out for his high school team, I would make sure he was educated to the dangers of the game, but if he still really wanted to do it, I would probably let him (putting aside the extreme unlikelihood that any kid of mine will be big enough or athletic enough to make his high school football team). But at the same time, what I told everyone who ever asked me that initial question was this: If you wouldn’t let your kids risk their health by playing, how is it right for you to watch someone else’s kids doing it?
The callous, condescending way the league’s billionarie owners treat the players and fans while continuing to cash checks (I haven’t even mentioned all the teams abandoned their fans in the name of acquiring publicly funded stadiums in other cities) pushed me to the point of not wanting to support the league. Colin Kaepernick pushed me over the edge.
That’s me in front of Finns in 2013, wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey. I loved the way he played, and I was a true believer that he was a future superstar. I was saddened by the regression of his skills and his ultimate exit from the team, but I have been infuriated by the league’s response to his free agency. Let’s not mince words here: Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem and continuing to be politically outspoken afterward. Teams pretend that he’s not good enough to be even a backup, despite the clear dearth of starting-quarterback-level talent in the league. They release phony self-serving critiques of Kaepernick through the league’s uncritical journalistic mouthpieces—I’m looking at you, Peter King—to justify his continued unemployment. The last team to take a serious look at Kaepernick, in fact, was the Baltimore Ravens, who have employed not only Ray Rice but also Ray Lewis (who was probably at least an accessory to murder in 2000). The Ravens decided Kaepernick lacked the necessary character to be allowed into their locker room.
So, at the end of the day, you have a league that employs serial woman-beaters, puts forth a product that endangers its players’ lives yet offers fewer contractual and health benefits than any other major sport, and blackballs a player for having an unpopular (and true, by the way) political opinion—all while being a multibillion-dollar industry that prints money for its fat cat owners. Well, I’m refusing to participate in that industry anymore. Not only am I taking a pass on watching football from now on, I’m refusing to read any articles, listen to any podcasts, or buy any merchandise. The NFL won’t get another minute or dollar of mine ever again. If you see me sporting any Niners swag, it’ll be that Kaepernick jersey. Fuck you, NFL. I’m out.