“It’s just a game.”
That’s what people say, rolling their eyes slightly and turning away, when they hear that I am no longer watching NFL or participating in any of its merchandising or fantasy pools. “It’s just a game.” Also: “Don’t take yourself so seriously. Just relax.” And, of course: “I’m sure the NFL is just quaking in its boots. Do you really think you can have an impact?”
Honestly, on the NFL, no. Not at all. But on the people in my house, on my kids (whose very limited media consumption does include sports, especially—and I’ll write about this at some point, American Ninja Warrior, which is amazeballs), oh yes. I think I can have an impact. I think, in fact, that I must.
Because of course it isn’t just a game. It’s a multibillion dollar industry whose decisions are fundamentally controlled by the bottom line, which dictates how they treat their players, their fans, and all their employees. Which is very serious indeed, because that same bottom line cares more about hitting opponents than hitting women—the harder the better. And those hits, we know for sure, can be life-threatening. Over time, the result of those big league, excitement-inducing, thrill-generating, game-winning hits cause brain-damage. They. Can. Make. People. Die.
That’s pretty serious.
Also serious? The incidents of domestic violence and sexual abuse that some (and yes, a tiny minority, maybe fewer even than the general population) players engage in. Equally serious? That until fans expressed their anger, until the bottom line was potentially impacted, the league didn’t really care. At all. And they could care. They really could. (I could list all the examples of light suspensions and lip-service sanctions, but there are too many. Look them up though, if you are a skeptic.)
And when these players returned to the game after their suspensions or lawsuits or criminal trials, all was forgiven. All was forgotten. Change was neither required nor requested. Often, it was a return to sexist form. (Please, if you don’t believe me, or if you do and you want to get riled up and feel vindicated, see the brilliant Katie Nolan’s commentary on Greg Hardy’s return to the NFL after his suspension for beating a woman to within an inch of her life. And pushing her onto a futon covered in assault rifles. His first comment to the press? He’s returning to the game “guns blazing.” Guns blazing. Nolan calls him a garbage human, and she calls out the reporters who encourage him and the league who enables him. And she’s right.)
And no: I don’t hold athletes up to a higher standard. I don’t think anyone should hit, or rape, or abuse. I think the justice system in this country needs to take these issues much, much more seriously. But I also don’t have to cheer for known abusers. So I choose not to. I simply don’t need to watch that.
Also pretty high in the serious stakes? The repeated exploitation of the all-female cheerleaders, whose fights for equity (and for minimum wage, for God’s sake) have been met with sexism, sexual harassment, and fundamental belittling of the most grotesque kind. I don’t need to support that.
You know what else isn’t all that great? The “efforts” of the league to cater to its female fans. They care about women, you know. Or the dollars they potentially represent. That’s why players wear pink a couple of times a year. But have you seen the ads targeted to women during football games? They often include helpful recipe advice…for feeding your man during the game. I certainly don’t need any of my kids to see that.
In fact, I need my kids not to see it. I need them not to see people being valorized for life-threatening violence. I need my kids not to see only the most minor of consequences—if any—for the abuse and exploitation and belittling of women. I need my kids to find other people—and other actions—to root for. I need my kids to find other heroes. And while I can’t control what decisions they make, and who they, and who the world, valorizes with money and accolades and power, I can control what is on the television in my house. It won’t be the NFL.
And I’m doing it for them, but I’m also doing it for myself. I’m doing it so that, in the words of the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, I can sleep at night. I’m doing it to preserve my own morality. I’m sad to lose out on the excitement of the game, and the common language it provides. But the other losses—of justice, of equality, of life itself, are far greater.
Look, I get it. (Enter obligatory—especially for women—defensive statement about understanding the game and what it represents.) Like all good Canadians, I grew up thinking that if a fight didn’t break out on the ice, it wasn’t a proper game of hockey. And I love sports. I love exercising my body and my mind. I deeply value the teamwork and respect and fundamentals of practice that I learned from my years of playing on teams. I hope my kids choose to learn these same lessons. Sports matter.
But given the state of the NFL right now, there are better things to be a part of. There are better things to root for and there are better institutions to support. Ones that don’t tacitly or even explicitly support abuse, and exploitation, and violence. Ones that don’t cause people to die. And the thing is that to avoid this institution, all I have to do is turn off the TV, even on the biggest game of the year. I know it means missing the commercials, but when it comes to the Super Bowl this weekend, this is a game I think I can afford to miss. In fact, I think I need to.