NFL football has a vice grip on the attention span of millions of people for a significant amount of time. From the beginning of training camp, to the end of the regular season, to the end of the playoffs, to the end of the combine and draft, to the beginning of free agency, to the beginning of OTAs, to the beginning of yet another training camp, some people sit rapt, tracking the status of their team more intensely than they’ll ever track their children’s piano playing or ballet dancing. I’m usually parked in front of a couch eating junk food on an NFL Sunday, as is the tradition for men of a staggeringly wide age range, from the pubescent to the ancient.
This past week, however, was a week in which very little actual on-the-field football news was at the forefront of the public consciousness, due to the catastrophically poor and out-of-touch reaction of the league and much of the general populace to the Ray Rice saga and the case of Ray McDonald allegedly battering a pregnant woman. Someone could have joked on Wednesday, “Wow, what’s next, Adrian Peterson getting indicted on child abuse charges?!?!”
The Peterson news came at a time when a national conversation about domestic violence and sports was in full swing, which doesn’t diminish the inherent cruelty and lack of sense demonstrated by his actions, but will stand to heighten the NFL’s recent pattern of changing its disciplinary policy on the fly based on the moral outrages of the week prior, which spawned countless Twitter trends and think pieces. Peterson is getting the book thrown at him by the league for something that had everything to do with the timing of the indictment and nothing to do with the infraction itself, which would have earned him nothing but a slap on the wrist and a stern talking-to from the commissioner had it happened in 2012.
In spite of all of this, the institution of football will continue as strongly as ever this year. Attempts to make the game less violent and dangerous are met with scorn from nearly all longtime viewers, people who know that the precautions are being taken in order to limit head injuries and the resultant epidemic of ex-players who deteriorate mentally and sometimes end up harming themselves and those around them. Some have floated the idea that players in legal trouble might use their potential brain damage as an exculpatory factor.
Many people who tune into football games do so with the intention of applauding the most violent behavior, and when a favorite player gets penalized for an illegal hit, the refrain is always the same: “That isn’t football.” Some Ravens fans (women conspicuously among them) came to their first home game since the banishment of Ray Rice in their #27 jerseys, as a show of solidarity, as if to say that the public shaming Rice for his violence “isn’t football.” There are Patriots fans who STILL SUPPORT AARON HERNANDEZ EVEN THOUGH HE’S ON THE HOOK FOR THREE MURDERS.
It’s hard to imagine that a limit might exist at which a football player would be universally admonished for committing a serious crime. It’s hard to imagine a world where anyone would rally to support Ray Rice: Plumber, or Aaron Hernandez: Accountant. The only thing about these people that earns them support in the face of their despicable actions is that they play football. The game is a celebration of violence to begin with, and some won’t even cease their allegiance when the violence perpetrated by those who participate extends to harming the defenseless, or when the realities of the game itself cause grave damage to some of its well-known participants.
Why do we enjoy the violence inherent in the game to begin with? There must be a reason why I so fondly remember seeing Zach Thomas render Laveranues Coles motionless on the field during a Monday Night Football game I attended as a 13-year-old, and why everyone else who was there remembers the same thing with the same positive inflection in their retelling. And we must not care enough, as viewers, to stop watching when we realized that players are dying young and a number of them are avoiding the consequences of their actions, purely based on their fame, which is inextricable from their public displays of violence. Our consumption of the game seems to be headed to a point where it clashes with our consciences. Why this hasn’t happened yet, and what it’d take are another matter entirely.
I haven’t met anyone who has stopped watching football. I won’t stop watching football, because I feel like any moral outrage that spawns from the game does not pertain to me directly. Last year’s most publicized football PR nightmare, the Richie Incognito bullying scandal, affected my favorite team, the Miami Dolphins. My first thought was: “Jonathan Martin isn’t playing? Good. He is not a good player.” I watched every remaining game as if the scandal, which revealed disgusting behavior by several players, had never occurred. It never interested me, and still doesn’t, to know what goes on in private between the members of any team.
Fans, by and large, want to be able to entertain themselves without a discussion of social issues permeating the relaxing Sunday they looked forward to all week. It’s upsetting to many that the game is increasingly unable to exist without these accompanying debates, but it appears that as long as a pipeline of elite talent is still growing up with NFL stardom as a goal, and advertisers still see that members of the most coveted demographics are engaged, no amount of conversation about the actions of individual players or the systemic issues the league faces will matter, and we’ll all still be tuned in.