Overview

It's been seven years since the multiple inhumane and toxic aspects of pro football led me to publicly swear off the sport in USA Today. What does it say about me that I've recently come back?

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What does it say about American culture that the most-watched television programming this fall has been (as it’s been for most of your lifetime and mine) a sport that leaves many of its players, most of them Black, with damaged brains and battered bodies?

What does it say about the country that it continues fueling the National Football League’s profit-making machine despite retrograde practices that mostly exclude non-white people from coaching and ownership and that persist in parading barely-dressed cheerleaders before the crowds like anti-sexism and #MeToo never happened? What does it say that our society has not only tolerated but reveled in the league serving as a front for militaristic patriotism and right-wing political values?

What does it say about me that I have gone back to watching in recent weeks despite having publicly sworn off the sport?

It tells you something that’s maddeningly true about this ethically challenged pro sports juggernaut: Emotional ties to one’s childhood team are strong. And despite the ugly baggage, the sport can be incredibly compelling to watch.

Blame it on the Vikings

Luring me back to pro football in recent weeks is the purple-clad team from Minneapolis that gripped me in my youth and that is now having one of the most dramatic seasons anyone can recall. Virtually every game this season has been a suspenseful thriller that’s gone down to the final minutes, if not the final play, before the outcome was settled. And the Vikings have won every time in those dramatic situations (their only three losses coming by wide margins). I was keeping up through print media accounts earlier in the season and, these past couple of weeks, by watching on TV. Sheepishly.

This is not the place for a lengthy explanation of why people develop deep bonds to sports teams. Suffice it to say that the emotional and psychological attachments often start when you’re a kid, they’re not rational, and they can exert a powerful pull even if it’s been decades since you’ve lived in the team’s home city (the case with the Vikings and me).

The thought started pulling on me earlier this fall: What if this is the year the Vikings finally make it back to the Super Bowl and I miss out? FOMO can suck you in hard even if you’re morally appalled by the sport and league in which your team plays.

It’s easy to rationalize and find company. Seventy percent of NFL fans in a recent survey said the sport’s rampant head injuries have no effect on their interest in the game. The league’s TV ratings are legendary. Many of my liberal friends who are normally put off by exploitation, racism, and sexism demonstrate a remarkable ability to compartmentalize and enjoy their football with innocence.

The bloom falls off the rose

My Vikings devotion used to compel me to pay a couple hundred dollars a season for the “Sunday Ticket” package that allows you to watch out-of-market games. And watch I did. But beginning in the mid-2000s, I started taking more of a research interest in pro football, devoting my master’s degree thesis, and then a book, to the conservative religiosity that permeates pro sports. Why, I wondered, were so many players waxing religious through their gestures and media interactions? Waxing not merely religious, but evangelical Christian, including, often, in the political sense?

What I learned through my digging was that the conspicuous religiosity was more than a coincidence, more than a mere reflection of the post-9/11 zeitgeist. Evangelical sports ministry organizations were pursuing a deliberate strategy to promote their religion and attendant cultural and political values to and through famous athletes.  

Eyes opened, I started seeing the whole gamut of other objectionable uses of the pro football spectacle: to promote outdated and homophobic conceptions of masculinity, to glorify the military and the war of choice in Iraq, to propagate the lie that Black men were fit for the field but not for head-coach positions or upper echelons of management, much less ownership.

Then, the revelations of brain damage suffered by players, which league management had been covering up in a replay of the tobacco industry’s sinister machinations from decades before.

How could I look past all that and enjoy the game? Why would I want to support such an enterprise with my time and dollars?

Progress, but a long way to go

The state of affairs in pro football is slightly less appalling a decade and a half later. The team in Washington no longer sports a blatantly racist name (although it remains reprehensible in other significant ways). Anti-Black stereotypes persist in the NFL, but a new generation of excellent African American quarterbacks has shattered the old lie that only whites can play that most prestigious and cerebral of positions.

The sport will always be dangerous. But at least now, the threat of concussions and CTE is out in the open and taken more seriously. Referees now penalize the most dangerous blows to the head, and the league has a protocol (not always well enforced) to make sure concussed players are not rushed back onto the field before they’re ready.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, the league has allowed players some room for social justice and antiracism expression. Window-dressing? Probably. But it’s a somewhat improved situation relative to previous decades when pro football carried on as though racism was a solved problem, all was well, and it was the job of the athletes to shut up and play. One team has a trans cheerleader now, and a few others have been outfitting their women cheerleaders in attire that’s more athletic and less Hugh Hefner.

On the deficit side: Still no justice for Colin Kaepernick. Injury lists are long, and retired players in their 30s and 40s are limping through post-football life with the broken-down bodies of old men. There are currently only three Black head coaches in a 32-team league in which the majority of the players and many of the assistant coaches are Black.

But as much as it pains me to say it, pro football is a great watch. There’s strategy, speed, athletic artistry, suspense and drama, and a competitive balance that ensures you rarely know who’s going to win.

Now that I’ve dipped my toe back in the water, I’ll probably continue watching a bit here and a bit there. Maybe more than bit during times when Minnesota is on a roll and I can’t resist the fun and excitement.

And I’ll be asking myself all the while: What’s a humanist like me doing watching a sport that is so damn inhumane?

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Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...