For a few years now, I have joked that my lingering interest in NFL football is one of the last vestiges of my middle-American upbringing. This might come as a surprise to readers of this blog who don’t know me personally, since I almost never write about this facet of my life. The fact is, I really enjoy the game of football. I know the game well, and spend a lot of time reading about my favorite team from my hometown, the Cincinnati Bengals. I grew up a big baseball fan, but my interest in baseball faded after one of the labor strikes many years ago. My interest in football, however, has never wavered. Until now.
I’ve recently made a decision. This is the last year I will spend following the Bengals in particular, or professional football or sports in general. I want to talk about this decision from two points of view.
First, from a “fan loyalty” point of view for the sports fan. I’ve been a Bengals fan for more than 30 years, and anyone who knows this team knows that this is truly a feat of loyalty. The Bengals did well in the 1980s, going to the Super Bowl twice. Then the 1990s, and the first few years of this decade, the Bengals decayed into a run of sports futility only rarely seen in professional sports, losing far more games than they won. Despite this run, I remained a fan, watching games as often as possible, and particularly since the advent of the ‘net, staying on top of what my team was up to.
For the past few years, since the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis as a coach, this tide has begun to turn. The Bengals have won more games than they lost, and in 2005 made the playoffs for the first time since the early 1990s. That didn’t end so well, but it provided hope.
This year seems like a storybook year. It began with the Bengals being featured on Hard Knocks, an HBO reality show that documents training camp for one NFL team. It provided an unprecedented look into my favorite team, and I really enjoyed watching it. The last game of the regular season is tomorrow, and the worst the bengals can finish is 10-6. They have already clinched an AFC North championship and will therefore go to the playoffs.
I remember sitting down to watch the Super Bowl at the end of the 2001 season, when the Patriots played the Rams. The Patriots were heavy underdogs. As the game was starting, I remember turning to a friend of mine and saying: “there is no way the ‘Patriots’ lose this game after 9/11.” Sure enough, the Patriots shocked the world, beat the Rams, became world champs, and launched their “Dynasty”.
I have a similar feeling about this Bengals team this year. Fans got a close look at the team in Hard Knocks (which had the highest ratings ever for the show). The Bengals have dealt with adversity, one of the coaches’ wives died suddenly, and one of their players, Chris Henry, was killed during the season. None of their players made the Pro Bowl (the allstar game for the NFL). It’s a feel-good story, and we’ll see what happens. It will be fun to watch.
So, you can’t accuse me of not being “loyal” to my team. I’ve been a loyal fan to one of the worst franchises in professional sports for more than 30 years. My interest and support in my team and the game as a whole has never wavered. Until now. I will finish out this season, see how the Bengals do, and at the end of this season I’m done following football.
Second, the obvious question is, why? It has become clear to me that there are some fundamental philosophical differences I have with participating the spectacle of modern sports. Here are a few of them:
- Vicariousness. Every moment I spend watching or reading about what other people do on a practice or playing field is a moment I have not worked on myself, experienced life in a more vivid way, or become a better person.
- Distraction. Related to the above, football, and profession sports in general, is a distraction from more important issues of self and society. This reason alone is probably the biggest reason for my decision. I remember Noam Chomsky responding to a question about “sheeple,” or why the “average person” (whatever that means) isn’t smart enough to be aware of what’s happening in the world. He said something like “on the contrary. For evidence of the analytical capability of the average person of the working class, turn on any sports talk radio show. You will see perceptiveness, nuanced opinion, and the like.” If people were to stop their interest in sports overnight, and turn their time and attention to more pressing issues (opening their spirits, understanding the frightening political machinations happening, understanding what’s happening to our planet, etc.), then things would change much more quickly. Widespread common interest in professional sports, as it stands, is one of the main mechanisms of social control, distracting people from real, vivid, important issues of the day and giving them somewhere to focus their primal, competitive urges where nothing of any importance, personally or socially, is at stake.
- Capital and class warfare. NFL players make millions of dollars per year. Team owners make even more. It is a multibillion dollar industry, nearly all of which extracts money from the working class, transferring it to the economic elite.
- Glorified violence. Football is perhaps the most violent game in the world. Players suffer horrific injuries, even death, regularly. And of course the players who lose their millions are, like all other members of the working class, spit out and not cared for. For more on this I suggest reading former NFL player Dave Pear’s blog, where he documents the plight and declining health of former NFL players.
- Polarization. Widespread interest in sports polarizes people into “Us vs. Them” mentalities, making it much easier for the illusion of, for instance, the two-party system in America to survive.
Ultimately, I think this decision has been in the making for many years now. I’ve known for years that despite any enjoyment I got from being a Bengals fan, it was ultimately a pretty big time sink for me. The fact that there are now many facets of my life that need more of my attention actually made this an easy decision. The fact that I have a hunch that I’ll say “Who Dey” for the last time after the Super Bowl this year just makes this decision all the more resonant.