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E.E. Cummings died at the age 67 on September 3, 1962.

September 3, 2016

I’ve got a column in next week’s New York magazine – the issue with the crazy Roger Ailes story on the cover — about how the NFL has bulldozed all its opposition of the last few years. All the thinkpieces about How Football Is Dying, the Will Smith TELL THE TRUTH movies, the tendency for the sport to so damage the brains of its players that they commit suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so their brains can be studied in order to stop the game that destroyed them … none of it has done much of anything. NFL ratings are higher than ever, the league is making record billions in profits and most of its network partners have pretty much given up challenging them on much of anything. Those new sets of “Back To Football” commercials you’re seeing everywhere are both victory laps and an implicit permission slip: It’s OK to like football again. You don’t have to pretend anymore.

I’m conflicted on this. On one hand, it remains impossible to argue – not that the NFL does not try – that the game is not extremely dangerous to those who play in a way that is incongruous to the way our society is currently constructed. It is an activity that we would never start now; it’s grandfathered in, with a minimally acceptable number of causalities built into its very existence. The whole enterprise is rotten at its core, soiling everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s sort of amazing that it is the most popular collective spectator experience we have in this country, a fact that says more about us as a culture that we’d like to admit.

On the other hand: Football is not only vital to my well-being as a professional earner of a professional income – all sportswriters, even ones that have nothing to do with football, are in one way or another subsidized by the overwhelming success of professional football – but, well, if you’re really going to twist my arm about this … well, I very much enjoy watching professional football. I like it. It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to follow, it’s fun to write about, it’s fun to debate about with friends and strangers alike. It provides endless storylines, every second, both on and off the field. It is endlessly compelling. I am not writing about it through gritted teeth while holding my nose. I’m a fan. I’d be lying if I claimed otherwise.

Plus, the boys are already avid tailgaters.


They’ll be keg-standing by age eight. We’re very proud.

You might call this dichotomy hypocritical, and you might have a point. But I’d argue that hypocrisy is sort of baked into the human experience. I’ve told this story before, but an old college girlfriend once loudly proclaimed she wouldn’t eat at Wendy’s because late founder Dave Thomas gave money to pro-life causes. Now, I believed, like her, that millionaires who were giving large portions of their incomes to pro-life causes were making a mistake. But, you know, I also like to eat. And if I decided that the only food I could morally ingest would be food made by someone with whom I shared all ideological attributes, well, I would very quickly starve. (I can make a much stronger gastrointestinal argument against Wendy’s than I can make a political one.) Besides, you know, life’s hard enough already. I do not believe that life is merely a series of political decisions. (It’s much more difficult than that.) If you ask me – or if, say, I had some sort of forum somewhere – I will tell you what I believe, and I will do my best to act according to those beliefs. But life’s not a performance art project. We’re all doing the best we can here.

So I think about this every time this time of year comes around, and I’ve never quite made my peace with it. Football is bad for you. (College football, which I’ve psychologically justified as somehow being better for you than the NFL – even thought college football is merely the NFL except they don’t pay you – dominating the college town I live in as only compounded this.) But I like football. This is not like smoking either, because yes, smoking is bad for you, but you suffer personal consequences if you like smoking: It’s bad for you. Football is bad for other people, which makes it easier to justify it in your brain even though it’s arguably more morally reprehensible. I think the best I can do is point out football’s flaws while still admitting than I remain enthralled by the sport itself. I don’t see how disengaging from the whole thing for some public display of my own moral rectitude does anything but annoy people and deny myself something that I do enjoy. In the wake of the Ray Rice madness, I wrote this:

May I gently suggest that if you are aware of the problems of the NFL and speak up about them when you have the opportunity, it does not make you a terrible person or a hypocrite to continue to enjoy the games? Our responsibility as media, as fans, as outsiders, should be not to put the moral onus on ourselves; it’s to put it on them. It’s to keep this pressure on, to keep forcing them to answer for their malfeasance, to give truthful answers about whether anyone saw that tape, to not sweep thing under the rug while they dangle the shiny object of FOOTBALL to distract us. We can watch and enjoy football while understanding its dangers and holding the men and women in charge of it accountable. The human brain contains multitudes: It can walk and chew gum at the same time.

I think that’s what I still believe. To help affect the conversation, you have to be a part of the conversation. You can’t just cover your ears and disengage. Maybe I’m telling myself this to make myself feel better for being so excited for this season; I didn’t watch the Arizona Cardinals for 30-plus years to quit the NFL when they finally get good, after all. Maybe I’m telling myself this because the NFL’s going to be a bigger part of my weekly routine, professionally, than it has been in years past. Maybe I’m telling myself this because I’m just a terrible human being. But I don’t think so. I think it’s just complicated and confusing like everything else on earth. I like football. Football is bad. Life’s rich pageant!

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)

  1. Kapernick’s Anthem Protest Is a Pivotal Moment, Sports On Earth. You always worry when you’re writing about a big story on deadline that you’ll get the moment wrong and history will judge you poorly. I do not think that was the case with this one.
  2. Illinois Fans Are Hopeful About Lovie Smith, Sports On Earth. Shoutout to IlliniBoard.com, the best website about a terrible college football team that will ever exist. Robert is my hero.
  3. Why Your Team Sucks 2016: Arizona Cardinals, Deadspin. Always an honor when Drew comes calling.
  4. The Arrival of Game Week Brings a College Town to Life, Sports On Earth. I didn’t forget about you, Athens.
  5. The Value of Spurning TV and Watching Football in Person, Sports On Earth. Get off the couch, people! There are 10 dollar undercooked hot dogs to be eaten!
  6. The Worst Sports Stories in the Month of August, Sports On Earth. The quickest column for me to write every month, but one of the most fun.
  7. AFC East Team-by-Team Breakdown for 2016, Sports On Earth. I actually picked the Bills to make the playoffs, like an idiot.
  8. Fun With Baseball’s Magic Numbers, Sports On Earth. The Cardinals’ magic number, as I type this, is 27.
  9. The Best Throwback Jersey Is Down to Two, Sports On Earth. Almost there.

As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the four (!) podcasts I do. Here they are:

The Will Leitch Experience, previewing the college football season with Sports On Earth’s own Matt Brown.

Grierson & Leitch, digging into the worst summer movie season in memory, as well as discussions of “Almost Famous” and “Garden State.”

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, previewing today’s Georgia-North Carolina game. You’ve got time to fit in a listen if you hurry!

Culture Caucus, no show this week. Coming back very soon, I promise.

The family and I are spending Labor Day weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains.



I am hearing the Oak Ridge Boys in my head. Have a great holiday, and be safe out there.


Best,
Will