Fade to Black

I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep enjoying football.

I grew up with the sport. In middle school, I lived and died on the outcomes of NFL games featuring my favorite teams. In high school, I played wide receiver and defensive back for the Shelby Whippets (suffering a broken arm, a broken collarbone, a concussion, and a dislocated finger throughout the course of my playing days). I learned to love college football as a student at Bowling Green State University.

When I lived in Amsterdam, identification with the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Cleveland professional teams became a point of pride. It felt like a connection to home (even as I became more interested in the sport that the rest of the world called “football”). We asked relatives to send us video recordings of big games that we could watch with our Thanksgiving celebrations. We used early internet streaming technology to tune into live action, in the wee hours of the European morning. It still felt fun.

When I moved back to the Land of American Football, though, I was strangely disappointed. Football culture wasn’t exactly how I’d remembered it or idealized it. There was a lot more of the ‘Murica Mindset, wrapped up with the sport. The commercials for pick-up trucks and light beers bothered me more than they ever had before. Fantasy Football swelled in popularity, while I was overseas — and I just felt left behind. There was still an element of nostalgia and genuine appreciation for a recreational activity in the darkest days of the year. But football just didn’t fit me like it used to.

Americans have also started talking more about the violence and physical trauma associated with American football. The long-term affects of concussions are increasingly apparent. My own father wonders if his days of playing running back and linebacker through high school and college have contributed to his current struggles with Parkinson’s Disease. It seems that a disproportionate number of athletes from the NFL carry physical violence into off-the-field environments, as well. Night club arguments, domestic disputes, sexual assault charges, car crashes… It’s becoming increasingly uncomfortable to call myself a fan.

Most NFL Sundays go unobserved in my house, now. I still watch occasionally, but not religiously. I got excited to watch the Browns / Steelers game this week — especially because I was able to watch it with friends — but two players had to leave the game because of head trauma (most likely concussions). And then, at the very end of the game, a big fight broke out which included one player ripping the helmet from another player and swinging it, round-house, at the player’s uncovered head. It was ugly. It took all the fun out of a Browns win. And, I fear, football in general.

I remember the tail end of boxing’s glory days, in my childhood. Heavyweight fights were big news. Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman… boxing was a part of our culture. But somehow, it’s faded over the last 30 years. Not completely. There’s still a strong sub-culture of people who pay to watch big fights. But it’s not mainstream anymore. And I wonder if football is headed that direction, too.

I know that youth- and high school football is already having a harder time filling its rosters in Kent (in Northeast Ohio’s “cradle of football” no less!). I’ve heard news stories that suggest it’s a national trend, as well. Soccer and basketball are on the rise, both internationally and domestically. To me, it feels like it’s just a matter of time. I’m not boycotting football or anything like that. I still watch from time to time (college football more than professional football). But I’m just not sure how much longer I’ll be able to keep enjoying football.

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