Why I’m Abstaining From the NFL

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Elise Amendola / AP

The New England Patriots run onto the field before an NFL football game against the New York Jets Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass.

The air chills, the humidity departs, the school bell rings, the shofar blows … all signs that the football season has begun to eat my Sundays. Or would be eating them if I hadn’t resolved, unlike most Americans (even most women), to opt out of the NFL this year.

I am here to report that I survived my first two NFL-free weekends. It was a strange experience, as if I’d delayed the sun setting for four hours. What could I possibly plan my Sunday around?

News flash: watching football is a time suck. Studies have shown there’s 11 minutes of action in a game that takes three hours. So even though I’ve tried to convince myself that I can be productive during the game — checking e-mail, folding laundry, even working out — that’s still a lot of wasted time trying to not waste time.

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So instead, on the NFL’s opening Sunday afternoon I cooked dinner — a real dinner, with different dishes and a complicated recipe. I helped the kids with homework, with the attention span to actually help. I found out how the other third lives — the third that doesn’t watch the NFL. It was enjoyable.

But my newfound free time is merely a by-product of my resolution. Why have I chosen to abstain from pro football? I have four downs of reasons:

First down: head injuries. The sad tales of retired NFL players who suffer brain trauma from repeated concussions are now legion. Yes, there’s a new settlement for them — but that $675 million is going to be spread over 60 years and thousands of former players, with an additional $91 million going to research and medical monitoring. (And this is all just a fraction of 1% of the revenue the league will make in the next two decades.) Plus, the NFL gets to keep secret the information it’s compiled on brain injuries and football. Should I be watching for entertainment a hazardous activity when its effects on the entertainers are being swept under the turf?

Second down: performance-enhancing drugs. Sure, NFL players use some of the same drugs you and I take to recover from injury. But they also rely on substances that are dangerous to them. Performance-enhancing drugs are now so rampant that players who don’t take something are arguably handicapping themselves.

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Third down: if the NFL didn’t exist, would college football be so corrupt? And this is where I’ll admit it: My weekends have not been entirely football-free. My daughter is on her high school poms team, so I have a good excuse to catch the not-exactly-Friday Night Lights atmosphere of the D.C. suburbs. And more important, my college alma mater, Northwestern, once a doormat, is at last nationally ranked.

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When I tell my friends I’m not watching the NFL, they say college football is far worse, because you can add the slavery of uncompensated players and a corruption of academic mission to the head injuries and performance-enhancing drugs. True. But isn’t the NFL responsible for the dynamics of college football? It’s the league that forces players to go to college, essentially turning big-time conferences into its farm system and giving the NCAA a cudgel to keep collegiate athletes in line.

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Fourth down: I’m pushing the demand curve in the right direction, just a little. So many of the arguments about the NFL end with a sigh of, “Well, it’s an unstoppable force, so let’s try to fix it rather than end it.” But that feels like surrender. Small actions add up, and you might as well start somewhere. I know my one hybrid car isn’t going to stop global warming, but I’m telling the auto industry that I’m willing to pay extra to help the planet. My refusal to watch the films of Roman Polanski won’t stop him from making films, but as the father of daughters, I’m not going to help him. We can either surrender to a demand curve or try to make a small difference. Let others sue. Let others rant. I’ll just go for a bike ride on a beautiful fall day.

Hogan is managing editor of the New America Foundation and associate editor of Zocalo Public Square, for which he wrote this.
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