I've been looking forward to this Saturday for months. For the first time in 2016, I'll wake up at the crack of dawn, pack up my grill and lots of beer, and head to Evanston, Illinois, to tailgate with my friends.
I'll spend the rest of my morning watching my alma mater, Northwestern, play Western Michigan, then I'll go home and watch games I've been salivating over for months: LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-USC, Oklahoma-Clemson, hell even Iowa State-Northern Iowa. I'll be up well into the morning, then I'll wake up early and write about everything I just watched. This is my perfect Saturday.
I became a sports writer mostly because I love to watch college football, and my passion for the sport has taken me a lot of places. I've driven thousands of miles to see games, hundreds of miles for practices, and I've flown across the country to watch games everywhere from Jacksonville to Berkeley. I've attended 56 games in the past five years, and I've made some of the best memories of my life.
But what I've learned in the past five years is that the hits stick with you, too.
Before I became a sports writer, my grandfather would tell me that football is "a terrible game." High school and college players, he would say, don't have the mental capacity or the information to understand just how dangerous the game is. I brushed it off, mostly because he would watch the Chicago Bears every Sunday with no qualms.
But after spending the past few years learning about CTE and the other neurodegenerative effects of football, his point gets harder and harder to brush off. The more I learn about head trauma—and, more importantly, about football's denial of it—the more it seems impossible to remain a fan.
There was the sideline hit at the first game I ever covered, where an Iowa defensive back leveled a Michigan State wide receiver five feet from me. There was practice at Notre Dame, where special teams players needlessly smashed heads right in front of me time and time again. There was the five-foot-nothing high school football player I saw get whipped back from a helmet-to-helmet hit, only to pop back up, and the parents in the crowd cheering his toughness as I sat down, taken aback.
Last year, Tyler Sash—a star of the Iowa Hawkeyes teams I grew up practically worshiping—died from an overdose at age 27, and was found to have had a high level of CTE.
Just last month, a Big Ten offensive lineman told me that he tries not to think about CTE, but that he's probably okay because he hasn't had any concussions. This is a false equivalency—brains can deteriorate and athletes can be diagnosed with CTE even if they haven't had a concussion. CTE likely comes from repetitive, subconcussive hits, not a couple of big hits. His school spends millions on football and has near-unlimited resources, but nobody has told him this? An entire community of fans loves this player, but if he spoke out against his school, like former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic did, would he be revered for spreading the truth? Or would he be seen as a traitor, like Cvijanovic? Sadly, the answer is clearly the latter.
At all levels, those who profit off football ensure that people don't know the true risks by spreading misinformation. They ostracize those who speak the truth. In this way, football is immoral. So why do I keep watching and, sadly, promoting a sport that knowingly harms its participants, and actively prevents them from fully comprehending the risks associated with it?
The excuse I used to use, and the one I hear the most, boils down to a misguided notion of personal responsibility: "The players know what they're getting into." Sure. It's true that most players understand they can get hurt playing football, but we've learned that very few of them truly understand the risks of the game, especially when it comes to brain damage. And, frankly, that's bullshit, anyway. Claiming players have personal responsibility for their choices allows us to shirk the responsibility of owning our personal decisions to keep watching.
No, the real reason I still watch this terrible game is less personal than collective. Football is Family, goes the NFL's latest tag line. It's an astute piece of marketing. The sport provides a community, particularly when I need it most. My home-state of Iowa doesn't have a lot going on, but Iowa football made me prouder of where I'm from than anything else. Everywhere I went, I would tell people about the magic of Kinnick Stadium, where it would get too loud to hear yourself talk, where you would high-five random strangers and where you would loudly proclaim "in Heaven there is no beer."
Even this Saturday, I'm less looking forward to the actual game than to the people who will surround me. I don't really care about watching Northwestern versus Western Michigan, but I can't wait for some morning drinking and grilling. I don't particularly care about the results of the bigger games this weekend, but I'll love laughing along with my "friends" on Twitter. I can't get enough. It is a once-a-week event that not only creates incredible drama, but allows for a shared experience.
This is why I'll watch—I'll watch no matter how immoral and how disgusting the game, and those who run it, are. And on some level, there's nothing wrong with that. You can love something for the joy it brings you while also acknowledging its flaws. But if you excuse those faults, or propagate lies about them, then you're actually making those flaws worse.
Football thrives, and preys, on this sense of community. Up until recently, when I became a bit less attached to Iowa football, I would have defended that program through anything. I felt that Iowa football was, in a way, partly a reflection of me—that my self-worth was somehow attached to the moral strength of my program. That feeling created a blind spot—not unlike those fans who turn on players for speaking out against their teams—and I excused things, like the rhabdomyolysis scandal that I would have criticized a rival program for.
This is unhealthy, but it's also why I keep watching. And even in my less-crazy current state, even while I criticize, I can't stop.
The community football has created—the sheer addictiveness of those connections, because in the end, who the hell wants to be alone?—has allowed football to prosper despite its terrible qualities. Football is family, and so is the mafia. We can't stop ourselves from loving football, but the least we can do is recognize when this terrible game lies to us. In that sense, maybe we can make it a little less terrible, too.