Julio wished the bullfight would last forever.
He knew every play by heart, just as a salmon knows its river, or a dancer knows cool-ass dance moves. He’d rooted for the picadores as they stabbed the bull’s neck with lances, as required by the rules. He’d cheered as the banderilleros planted blade after blade into the bull’s shoulders (another thing required by the sport’s rules). And now, in the fight’s final stage, Julio waited for the matador to finish the bull with a stab through the heart.
Julio also knew the matador might fail to stab the bull’s heart, then slice the spinal cord instead. Or miss the heart, screw up the spine-slice, and keep hacking at the bull with more swords until it died a bloody mess. Julio knew that yes, that’s how actual bullfights can end in real life, for real. And Julio fuckin’ loved that shit.
Julio’s father clapped his son on the shoulder. “That is your dream, my son, is it not? To be in the center of that ring? In front of your entire country?”
Julio cried out in super-hard agreement: “Oh yes, Papa! There is nothing I’d rather do than be … A BULL.”
Then Julio played high school bull, got a full bull scholarship to Spain A&M, and bulled in the pros till that killed him.
Okay, Hemingway I ain’t. Point is, I can’t watch the NFL anymore. And you’ll stop watching it too. In your own time. Because that’s the only way society’s relationship with football can go. Let me explain, because it’s not as “touchy, feely hippie bullshit” as you think.
Every society sets its own tolerance for sports brutality. Ancient Romans gave a thumbs-up to (less bloody than you think) sports-murder. Elizabethan England’s “athletes” did terrible things to bears. Millions of Spanish people follow bullfighting to this day, even though bullfighting is like that one Bugs Bunny cartoon if it was torture porn.
What’s American society’s tolerance for sports brutality? Well it’s always been pretty damn high. Boxing is a sports version of guys beating each other to death. It is also literally guys beating each other to death a lot of the time.
Around 50 years ago, football became America’s favorite sport (alongside baseball), even though it put awful injury carnage on national television. Carnage I refuse to even hyperlink. Since football and boxing both erode human brains, writers and players have linked the two ever since we realized that.
Today, ESPN is my society’s mainstream sports provider. It’s been that throughout my lifetime. And I remember the hell out of the “Jacked Up” segment ESPN did on their national pre-Monday Night Football telecast EVERY WEEK in the mid-2000s. As this The Classical article recounts, “Jacked Up” was a highlight reel of vicious hits. It had no merits beyond viciousness. The hits were often helmet-to-helmet, or helmet-to-neck, or helmet-to-GoodLordThatGuyIsSomebodysKid.
And ESPN fu-cking loved that brutality. They’d make all their Trusted Experts chant “Jacked! Up!” in time with every replayed hit. Sometimes the hosts performed an imagined inner monologue of the hit’s victim. And if you think the behind-the-scenes crew wasn’t called on to throw some stank on those assaults, you do not remember sports fandom in 2006.
National Football League/ESPN
Since then, we’ve had many hundreds of neurological studies confirming the truth that football wrecks brains. It’s so well known, there’s a Will Smith movie about it. I’ve seen it, because our website bought me & Adam Ganser tickets to see it, because over the past couple years me & Ganz covered the NFL beat for Cracked’s YouTube and Facebook channels.
The movie didn’t change the NFL. But here’s how fast society is changing: Within 11 short years, society decided that guys getting “Jacked! Up!” is bad. Hits are no longer fun. And that change is going to kill football, because hits ARE football. Despite some comically tiny adjustments, football has been Professional Head-Hitting for over 100 years. Within the last decade, we decided The Thing That Happens On Every Football Play causes violent brain injuries, and even the fanciest football helmets don’t help.
That is waaaaaay too fast of a rate of societal change for football to remain a sport. And parents are bailing first: Youth flag football participation is growing as tackle football participation shrinks, and nobody is gonna pay 81 bucks for a ticket to see professionals yank flags off of each other. At that price, fans demand blood. And maybe some extra butt patting.
But unlike the Spaniards who delegated entertainment-pain to bulls, or the Englishmen who delegated entertainment-pain to bears, we delegated our entertainment-pain to fellow citizens. Citizens who damage each other from childhood if they want a shot at (borderline imaginary) NFL millions. And playing pro football pays millions because right now, in this era, we’re good with people’s kids losing their cognitive functions for our fun.
And ya know what? I’m flexible. I’m up for hearing some kind of argument that the value of football outweighs the human toll. Some kind of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”-assed bullshit about how the sport’s positives are worth the Hall Of Famer suicides it may or may not cause.
The only problem with that argument is … every aspect of the NFL.
It’s a borderline criminal enterprise with a legal monopoly on U.S. pro football. The NFL also doesn’t pay taxes, while taking millions in tax dollars from cities to build stadiums that don’t help those cities. They also took money from our national defense budget until they got caught. And then there’s their breast cancer “charity” scam, their atrocious treatment of cheerleaders, their chillaxed attitude about sexual assault that makes even less sense in light of their zero-tolerance policy toward weed, their unwillingness to pay a settlement toward brain-injury victims that one year of beer sponsor money pays for by a mile, and … whatever other crap they pull between when I write this and when it’s published.
And you know what? If none of that’s convinced you to drop the NFL yet, I don’t judge you. Basically all of these awful problems are old problems. Widely reported old problems. And I still watched the sport while knowing that stuff. Hell, almost everybody still watched it. Look at the NFL’s domestic violence problem: football’s TV ratings went up after the Ray Rice scandal in 2014. And their recent ratings dip gets blamed on non-scandal-based football quality and protesting. Outrage over more than a dozen high-profile NFL domestic violence cases happening after the Rice case hasn’t cost the NFL a cent.
I’ve decided to live in our near future. A near future where we don’t keep justifying football human toll. Which means giving up 20+ years of communal Bears fandom. Giving up Super Bowl parties. Giving up the thrill of watching all of a Sunday’s games at once, on several screens, like an evil genius bent on total touchdown awareness.
Giving up football also means losing the main topic of my first published humor writing, losing the valuable team-building fun of our office fantasy football league, and missing the professional football fun I had with Official World’s Most Delightful Human Adam Ganser. I’m an actual fan, with tangible (and livelihood-based!) reasons to stick with football. But the reasons to dump it just goddamn added up.
And lemme promise you something: I am not here to tell you to stop watching football. I’m telling you that the world will convince you to stop supporting football FOR me. In a surprisingly short number of years, liking the NFL will not feel normal. It will not feel default. You’ll find yourself putting active effort toward justifying football if you keep liking it, and that will feel gross and weird.
And I hate to tell you that. I know football means so much to so many people, including many people I love. But I see a future where you’ll do an NFL-y thing, and people will react like you lit a cigarette inside a restaurant. Or butt-patted a service employee. Or plunked down a bet on a dogfight.
And yes, I know at least one of you is reading this and saying “I don’t care.” You’re saying “No social norm can stop me from being the American I have chosen to be.” You’re saying “Being a cultural throwback slash gross weirdo is WHO I AM.” Well you know what I say to you, sir?
I say you’ve made that very clear, Mr. President.