Football is experiencing its best of times and worst of times. On one hand, it's difficult to mount the argument that it hasn't surpassed baseball as the American pastime. It's continuously a ratings juggernaut, and has gone from one contained season to a year-round obsession for many. From the Super Bowl to draft day, training camp, and fantasy football, it's the sport that commands our attention as fans the most, but it's also been the one that infuriates and disappoints us repeatedly. The only question to ask is which of those two qualities will continue? Will football reign supreme, or will the league, owners, and players bring about the downfall of America's game?
"No one's saying it's easy. I've spent years trying to quit football," Steve Almond says in his latest book, Against Football. Almond, an Oakland Raiders fan, spends the book trying to be as pragmatic a fan as possible, breaking down the ills of the game from the physical danger the players are in, to the sheer greed of the owners and the league itself. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said he'd like to see league revenue hit $25 billion by 2027. That number, as Almond points out, would put the NFL at the same table as global companies like McDonald's and Nike. But at what cost?
What would it take for you to give up football? Would it take what Almond calls "the cruelty of the game," and the way players are treated like commodities that coaches and owners will put back on the field despite injuries that could have long-lasting effects? The amount of money taxpayers shell out to help fund new stadiums? The way a player like Michael Sam "exposes the neurotic sexual conflicts at the heart of football," and ends up getting more attention for who he showers with rather than his on-field performance? Or would it be events Almond didn't get to cover in the book since they happened after it went to print, like Ray Rice knocking out his wife in an elevator, and the incredibly poor way the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens have handled it?
Professional sports are never without their share of problems and villains, and football — just like baseball, basketball, or other competitions we spend time watching and money supporting — will almost always disappoint in some way. For one, your favorite team will lose. But from performance-enhancing drugs to outright racism, off-field trouble and poor performances by highly paid players, there are certain things that we have a harder time dealing with or forgiving than simply not delivering a championship. You might still not be ready to give up on football even after a former all-pro's suicide is linked to injuries from his playing days, or after a rising star is charged with homicide. But is there a tipping point for you, the football fan "whose sacred wishes and fears and prayers are reserved for a vicious and earthly game," as Almond put it? If it isn't the off-the-field violence, could it be the NFL's response to it? Maybe the hypocrisy of a player like Josh Gordon getting suspended for an entire season for smoking pot while Rice's initial suspension for knocking his girlfriend out was two games.
Another book, released within days of Almond's, Why Football Matters, a collection of essays by Mark Edmundson, is the funhouse mirror image of Against Football. Where Almond is the apprehensive and guilt-ridden fan trying to convince himself as much as he is the reader why football is evil, Edmundson sees the game as something that is reflective of all the things that are supposed to be good about our country: strong family values, patriotism, faith, loyalty, and courage. On paper, Almond's argument about why we shouldn't watch football comes off far more convincing than Edmundson's reasons why we should celebrate the game despite all of its many faults.
Despite all this, like countless other fans who read the grim headlines and know the NFL's troubles well, I'll still put on my team's hat this Sunday, open a beer, and watch them play. But how close is the tipping point for fans to turn away? If incidents like Ray Rice, Roger Goodell's poor response, preventable concussions, and outside violence continue to mount, we may soon find out.