It feels irresponsible to love football for the same reasons that I did when I wasn’t 30. The myriad studies about CTE and these men’s lives after football essentially mean I can’t immediately call my boys and talk about Sheldon Brown forcing Reggie Bush to question every life decision he ever made that led up to him dying on the 31-yard line while the football is tumbling 20 yards behind him. If player thoughts were a part of betting on the NFL, I’d wager a cool $20 that Bush attempted to stand and decided, “Nah, bruh, my legs have done enough work for the day” after he took that hit.
But I’m not allowed to celebrate metaphorical death on the gridiron anymore because it’s socially reprehensible. Because of the safety rules created to eliminate the number of times players are injured on the field due to big hits, it’s becoming harder to celebrate offensive achievements, too.
I don’t watch football every week anymore, and when I do sit down to watch 22 men play one of the absolute most bizarre games in the world, it’s rarely for a full game and even more rare if one of the two teams isn’t the Raiders. Football is stupid, but it’s been essential to the identity of American sports fandom for decades. It’s been ingrained into the culture: one day per week, we gather around glowing, moving pictures of men in body armor, helmets and shoes with pointy things on the bottom smash into each other to score points in arbitrary denominations.
There was a time when football was good for us. It taught boys about discipline, respect and teamwork. It gave us magical moments, created allegiances and mythological figures. Oh, and the nicknames. Mean Joe, Too Tall, Sweetness, Prime Time, Broadway, and The Fridge made you want to tuck the ole pigskin between your two hands as you practiced a five-step drop on the pavement because you — YES YOU — were too poor for a backyard and a tire swing.
But now, I don’t even want my nine-year-old nephew to play football anymore because he might love it so much that he’s just good enough to be Reggie Bush and watch his very soul escape his body because a brolic strong safety snuffed out a screen.
I almost hate football now. I’m on the verge of giving it up completely, but I’m still a man and I’m still flawed and when August hits and we’re still a month away from the NBA starting, I need something, anything, other than another nine innings of bad Giants baseball.
The NFL hates my black skin, it hates women and it hates the very idea that it should consider the lives of these men after their bones are too brittle to continue playing. So we have to find ways to justify watching a product that was intrinsically designed for an era before the one we live in now.
So what keeps me watching now? Defensive linemen briskly walking toward nothing after tackles in the backfield. That’s it. Aaron Donald tackling Carlos Hyde for a two-yard loss in the most undramatic of fashions then getting up and stomping 16 yards away from the line of scrimmage then folding his arms is what I fucking live for. Give me a little dance after you trip up CJ Anderson late in the 4th quarter — especially when you’re down three scores and the tackle means nothing.
Everyone gets up, everyone is able to play the next down and (probably) nothing has happened to anyone’s brain on the play. There is no tangential racism or sexism with a nose tackle beating his man off the ball and clogging the hole the fullback ran to because football players are robots and that was the way the play was designed.
I can no longer root for death, so now I root for walking.
Phillip Barnett featuring Phillip Barnett.