Questioning the NFL

I watched the NFL last Sunday. But I couldn’t enjoy it because I couldn’t focus on the game. Too many questions jingled my brain.

What if, I wondered, football mattered less to America? What if we didn’t care so much about this barbaric dance performed by athletic marvels under the watchful eyes of profit-minded owners?

A burning desire to do something different with my time besieged me while I sat in front of the TV. It made me curious, too.

The average attendance for a 2013 NFL home game was 68,339. Instead of gathering for a football game, could the same crowd ever congregate to perform one coordinated, charitable act for the host city? Would that make a difference?

Every Sunday, over 1 million people descend upon sixteen cities across America to attend NFL games. If everyone volunteered to read one book to one child on football Sundays, more than 17 million more books would be read to kids throughout the season.

I’m not condemning fanhood because I’ve been a football fanatic all my life. I’m just wondering if I need to think more critically about how I use my time and what I choose to support.

Most people know the NFL is under fire. Greg Hardy tossed his girlfriend onto a pile of “assault rifles or shotguns” and played during Week 1. Ray Rice knocked his then girlfriend (now wife) unconscious and received a two-game suspension. In the Rice case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell either failed to find, care to know, or care to act on evidence within his reach (or possession) until public opinion swung so far against him that he rushed through a knee-jerk domestic violence policy heavy on prosecution but light on prevention. Maybe, as Sociologist Harry Edwards has mentioned for the NBA, the NFL should require each team to sponsor a women’s shelter and for players to spend time sharing meals and learning the stories of those women and children.

As I watched the NFL on Sunday, I wondered why the league chose inaction in 2012 when Jovan Belcher’s horrific murder/suicide offered terrifying, conclusive evidence that the violent culture cultivated inside football had spilled dangerously outside the playing field.

I then asked myself why I never cared before.

If we’re being honest, though, should such heinous acts entirely surprise us? Violence, after all, helped build the NFL.

A generation of retired players now struggle to tie their shoes and sustain jobs. Some have knees that wobble and joints that throb. Some battle crippling narcotics addictions or stare into the abyss of depression every morning. Some wonder why the thoughts in their head yesterday are gone today.

The NFL trumpets the Herculean resolve of its game-day warriors in highlights and promotions. Where is the NFL, however, when Hercules is no longer a hero but simply a mentally disadvantaged, married father of two who struggles to cope with the sad reality that the game he loved turned him into a shell of the person he could have been? Sometimes the promise of cutting a check isn’t enough.

Yes, almost every former NFL player will admit they understood the risks to their bodies inherent in playing professional football. But maybe the NFL should reconsider pumping its players (and young male fans) full of bravado when the league isn’t able to help these men admit they need help reconciling and controlling their emotions.

Last Sunday, I wondered if “the NFL” has ever looked into a father’s eyes and realized that the glassy look in those eyes was merely the tip on an iceberg of suffering. Has “the NFL” ever cried alone at night after hearing a story of how that same father needed rescued at a grocery store because migraines, vertigo, and confusion—three unbeatable remnants of a life dedicated to football—meant he couldn’t drive home?

I have. And it sucks.

My point here is this: I love football, but I find it increasingly hard to support. Football embodies much of our country’s masculine persona. We relish the warriors who launch their bodies into harm’s way like kamikaze fighters hell-bent on destruction at any price. Every fall Sunday, we cheer the victory of one Gladiator over another in the trenches. We champion the game’s violence while paying lip service to how instilling this aggression in young boys warps their perspective on life, relationships, and the willingness to ask for (and accept) help for the rest of their lives.

Somehow, despite my questions, I can still justify watching the game. I’ve said many times that football teaches work ethic, self-sacrifice, teamwork, and perseverance better than anything I’ve experienced. It provides purpose and direction for its players, and it afforded me a lifetime of opportunities that I might not have had if my father had not played in the NFL. In my eyes, no sport embodies the picturesque imagery of athletic idols more than the sight of bodies splayed on a football field—some victorious, some not—all exhausted after another contest.

Still, I must ask, how long can these positives outweigh the negatives for me?

Sure, I’ll watch the NFL next Sunday and probably for many Sundays after that.

But my last question, and this is the most important one, is whether I should?

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17 comments

  1. Well written thoughtful and highlights the ambivalence inherent in the topic. You tube Robin Williams bit from ‘The Adventures of Baron Von Munchhausen’ for the endless battle between intellect and our feral biology

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. Thank you good doctor. Appreciate the note. Have not seen that Robin Williams’ clip (despite watching a lot of him in wake of his recent passing). I am sure that I will enjoy.

  2. I’ve always wondered how you could be such a diehard fan all this time Kelly, but I figured it was in your ‘blood’. Since my cousin has left the NFL & the circumstances that have followed, I can barely stomach any of it; the sport, the egos and/or the violence, but mostly the lies. The information the NFL have had in their possession, proof positive, that their own players were dying painful deaths due to the practices they continued perpetuate. Still looking these young men in the eyes and actively lying, again and again even while they watched them deteriorate before their eyes, all in the the name of the mighty $$$. Please don’t think I’m admonishing you, Kelly. If it sounds that way I apologize. I know where you stand given certain aspects of football. I guess it’s just refreshing and hopeful that if you, who has loved football is starting to question it, that others could start to see the cracks as well.
    Seriously Kelly, I’m sorry if this came out sanctimonious or preachy that was not my intent, I hope you know me well enough to recognize this. I enjoyed your commentary as always 🙂 AMR

    1. No problem at all. As always, appreciate the honest expression of your thoughts. I can echo many of these sentiments: frustrations over lies/misinformation, disappointment in the league for its posturing and hypocrisy, the lip service paid to addressing real problems and providing real help. While I do not dismiss football entirely, it has become increasingly more difficult to watch the game and support the culture around it. I love the game and the lessons it can teach. I do not, though, know if the violence players must endure is worth the price they pay. And I am not in favor of the culture of aggression and overwrought masculinity that the game teaches (and the NFL encourages). Ultimately, I wish more was done to help former players understand they are not the same invincible forces so many people are leading them to believe they are. I dont believe that will ever change and that makes it hard to appreciate the game.

  3. Well said…been wrestling with this as well. Starting to feel a bit creepy when I watch…but, there are also so many things I love about the game.

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    From: Kelly Lytle <comment-reply@wordpress.com> Reply-To: Kelly Lytle <comment+_wb1oh62x6mkftbtta11t0t@comment.wordpress.com> Date: Saturday, September 20, 2014 at 11:01 AM To: Ralph Lazaro <rlazaro@findawayworld.com> Subject: [New post] Questioning the NFL

    Kelly Lytle posted: “I watched the NFL last Sunday. But I couldn’t enjoy it because I couldn’t focus on the game. Too many questions jingled my brain. What if, I wondered, football mattered less to America? What if we didn’t care so much about this barbaric dance performed”

    1. Agreed – that’s the challenge. On one hand the sport is a magnificent embodiment of athleticism, discipline, order, and dedication. On the other, the sport is a magnificent embodiment of overt aggression and dangerous for its players. Hard to reconcile it all.

  4. Hi Kelly May this find you well and the going terrific…………..!!! Short note here: Said hello to your father the other week…..I had to sound the ballast tanks and started forward on port side…we have eight of them each side and we were loaded with product bound to Duluth…I lake that lake with the loons and ospreys abounding. Anyways…..starting with port ballast one…..4…1…4…then I said in my minds eye..this next is a 1…….so I said hello and some good words with your Daddio….41 41. Amazing where memories take us at various times of our lives. May send you some pics if you like…rode bicycle 500 miles across Iowa in July..a hoot it was Did a memorial to Meghan Warner….she rides with me. I carry her pic in the wind The very best your way….Waggs

    1. Waggs – As always appreciate the note. I’m sure the old man appreciated such an open water hello – he always admired your spirit. Would love to see pics and hear about the bike trip. Send them my way!

  5. Kelly- this is a frightening and beautifully written tribute to both you and your dad. I played in both high school and college, and like you consider myself a football fanatic, but in the last few years the horrible toll that game takes on the players has dampened my enthusiasm. Instead of bravado, I find myself mystified as to the reasons I played for so many years. Whereas I used to admire those players (and remember, I’m the same age as your dad) I now find myself thinking of them sorrowfully. I’m glad I refused my son permission to play football. I respect your thoughts, feelings and opinions mightily, and am forever grateful you have the humanity to express them so clearly. I am proud to call you a “friend”–keep up the good work! Dr. Matt Bagamery

  6. Kelly-a frightening and awesome tribute to both you and your Dad. I played football in both high school and college, and regard myself as a football fanatic, but in the last few years I’ve had the same thoughts as you about this game. I look at the players I used to idolize (and remember, I’m your Dad’s age) and now feel sympathy and regret. In fact, I refused permission for my son to play football for those reasons. Keep up the good work–you have a tremendous talent for expressing your emotions and writing them. I’m proud to call you a friend–Dr. Matt Bagamery

    1. Dr. Bagamery – Thank you for the note and for reading. I identify (empathize?) with your note and experienced a similar transition with my father. Although I always idolized and admired him playing football at its pinnacle, as he aged I wondered more what he would have been like without football (something I never before considered) and part of me actually wished he had not played. For someone raised on the game, I grappled with these emotions for some time. I’m not sure where I stand now, but I certainly don’t view the game with as much idolatry and idealism as I did.

      1. Kelly-thanks as always for your kind and thoughtful response. I’m looking forward to the upcoming book. I’ll tell you in advance I think it’s going to be one of the best books I’ll ever read. Than cover illustration frankly brings me to tears- seeing a Hercules and knowing his upcoming decline. Now that I’m almost 60, I look back on my life and have some of the same feelings–what was it all about, how did I measure up, and what legacy did I leave to my friends and family. Finding your blog has been inspirational and insightful to me. I can’t thank you enough for having the skills and humanity to put your thoughts and feelings in words. Sorry for rambling–just know that I’ll always think of you as a friend and look forward to you sharing your stops in your life. Matt Bagamery

        1. Hi Matt – Thank you for your kind words. I must say, I’m a little intimidated about meeting your expectations. I do hope you enjoy the book as I look forward to sharing it with you. I understand the sentiments you mention and have always been called an “old soul.” And though the question you pose, “how did I measure up?” is a daunting one, it is also one that – when kept in perspective – we can use to drive us to accomplish meaningful things for our family, friends and selves. One of my favorite quotes comes from Mother Teresa: Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love. I try to keep these words close to heart every day.

          Thank you again for reading and your support. I’m anxious to hear your thoughts on To Dad, From Kelly.

          1. As always, my friend, a great reply and thanks for sharing the Mother Teresa quote–I’ll keep that one in mind during my daily endeavors. I just ordered your book on Amazon, and will order multiple copies of the print edition to share with friends and family. I hope that your friends from Old Nassau give it the tributes in the eating clubs I know it will deserve. Best wishes, my friend–we “old souls” must stick together. Matt Bagamery

          2. Impressive. Amazon just listed it for presale yesterday (I think). It will be up on other distribution channels by end of week. With that said, I hope to have your complimentary copy in the mail by the end of the week. So hang tight – your paperback will be there soon!

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