Kickoff at the 2013 Ravens-Broncos game in Denver, Colorado. Photo via Flickr user Craig Hawkins
Are you a decent person? Do you regard yourself as having a moral compass? Do you try to lead your everyday life in accordance with some basic ethical precepts, such as not countenancing brutality, greed, and deception? Then please, for God’s sake, don’t watch the NFL this weekend.
It’s one thing to express outrage about Ray Rice’s savage attack on his fiancée and the subsequent cover-up. Yes, “cover-up”—and now we’ve got the smoking-gun evidence: A law enforcement source claims to have sent the full video of the attack to NFL executives five months ago, and supplied a voicemail corroborating that claim to the Associated Press, prompting the league to appoint a former director of the FBI to investigate itself. It’s one thing to preen about how horrible this is on Twitter or Facebook, to halfheartedly demand accountability from league officials, or to genuflect about how much you deplore muscular, athletic men who raise their hands to women. Yeah, you’re just so outraged. We get it.
But none of that matters if you still plop on the couch Sunday and consume several hours of NFL football coverage. Doing this means adding to the NFL’s profit margins, which is the only thing that concerns the league and is in fact what led to this Ray Rice disaster in the first place. Nothing of consequence will happen until these people—the NFL executives and television network tycoons who tolerate domestic violence and profit off brain damage—sense that their bottom line could be adversely affected. (NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made $44 million in 2012, more than double the CEO of Walmart's salary.)
The NFL’s inherently perverse values are perhaps best represented by the punishment it decides to mete out to players. Josh Gordon was suspended for the entire 2014 season because he smoked weed, but guys like Ben Roethlisberger, who allegedly raped a woman in a bathroom, and Ray Lewis, who was once charged with murder, aren't sanctioned nearly so aggressively and have gone on to enjoy celebrated careers.
Even if Goodell resigns, that won’t be cause enough to resume watching the NFL. The current top choice for his replacement appears to be former George W. Bush patsy Condoleezza Rice, who is apparently interested in the position because managing the league is basically like managing a war. “Rice really loves football, especially because of its similarities to military strategy,” the Washington Post reported this week.
The NFL is incorrigible; the problem isn’t an individual, who may very well be replaced by someone worse, but the institution. Stop giving that institution money. It’s not just horrific violence off the field that is tolerated: It’s woven into the very fabric of this sport, prompting the epidemic of football players who lose their cognitive functions by age 50. Junior Seau’s suicide alone should have served as a sufficient impetus to boycott this disgrace of a league. The poor dude was suffering from degenerative brain disease from all those years of hits to the head and couldn’t take it anymore. So he shot himself in the chest, presumably to preserve his brain for study.
Keith Olbermann, who is almost always a blowhard, directed his rage well recently when he declared: "I accuse us, all of us, executives, players, fans, reporters, of failing to draw a line in the sand when one was needed most. Any games played by Baltimore without its executives and the commissioner having been dismissed, and without Ray Rice being permanently banned by the National Football League, must be fully boycotted by all of us. If not, we become accessories after the fact."
I take it one step further: You are already accessories. All of you. To be honest, I was too—before I started thinking critically about the ramifications of my NFL fandom (my favored team, the New York Jets, is owned by Mitt Romney’s top finance man, Woody Johnson, so I had other reasons to quit watching).
Until we feel enough shame about the propping-up of this sadistic sport to stop watching it, there won’t be change. Instead, there will be posturing for a week or so, and then everything will blow over as fans across America settle in for the mutually brain-damaging ritual of watching the NFL.
There are varying degrees of moral culpability here, of course. Not every person who spends Sunday watching the game with his pals is some horrendous villain. Legit fun can be had downing a few cold ones and cheering on your team. It’s often just the experience of getting together with friends and dipping chips with your bros that attracts people to the NFL. But it’s time to assess ourselves. What are we supporting by doing this? Couldn’t we get together and just watch something else?
Everything about football is bad. I was forced by my parents to play pee-wee football in fourth grade and I can still recall feeling unease as to why I hated strapping on the shoulder pads, jockstrap, and heavy-as-lead helmet, shuttling over to the local field, and getting barked at by coaches who picked up their style from drill sergeants. It was expected that all boys should love aggressively slamming into one another and potentially damaging their developing brains.
Football embodies the worst aspects of American machismo while encouraging people to do evil things in its name. I don’t want any more people to suffer because of a sport that makes a few wealthy men boatloads of money. Football, and the NFL in particular, is not some wholesome all-American pastime. It’s fucking despicable—and if you love America, you’ll stop watching it.
Follow Michael Tracey on Twitter.