Skin in the Game

A conflicted fan comes to grips with the violence of football

A football field
Illustration by Peter Ryan

It felt like a movie, a David and Goliath story shot beneath the stadium lights. On one side of the screen were the Boise State Broncos, a team from Idaho making an unexpected rise up the national rankings. Looming above them were the Oklahoma Sooners, a perennial powerhouse. It was New Year’s in Glendale, Arizona, as these unlikely opponents squared off in one of college football’s four major bowl games. By all accounts, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl should have been a blowout; but as the New York Times put it the next day, it was among the most exciting matchups in the history of the sport—a dazzling, back and forth contest in which Boise’s trick plays neutralized the Oklahoma juggernaut’s speed and strength.

On the final snap of overtime, trailing Oklahoma by a single point, the Broncos pinned their hopes on Jared Zabransky, a tattoo-emblazoned quarterback and future Edmonton Eskimo. Attempting a two-point conversion, he launched an audacious play known as the “Statue of Liberty”: he faked a pass right, concealing the ball behind him in his left hand. The Oklahoma defence was flummoxed, unable to locate Lady Liberty’s torch. Boise State running back Ian Johnson sprinted left, plucked Zabransky’s hidden pigskin and charged into the end zone. The Broncos had achieved an incredible 43–42 victory.

I was not among the 73,000 spectators in attendance, but I shared their jubilation, spraying beer and corn chips across the living room as I high-fived my friends. And the show was not over: When the Fox camera crew finally found Johnson amid the on-field celebrations, he dropped to his knee and asked his girlfriend, a Boise State cheerleader, if she would marry him. She replied with the same shock and excitement we felt at home: “Yes!”

In 2007, I was a film student in the United States, and the Fiesta Bowl struck me as an Oscar-worthy drama, combining the violent thrills of a war movie with the plot twists and romantic intrigue of a Biblical epic. For the first time, I truly understood that football in America was more than a sport, more than a spectacle. It was a religion. That game was my baptism.

My devotion grew steadily after my conversion experience. I came to relish the breathless prose of sports columnists, and the raucous energy in my Division III school’s modest stadium. After a lifetime of following soccer—a low-scoring affair that rewards Zenlike focus—football was a trip to the revival tent. I found meaning in the call-and-response between the players and the fans; I took delight in the endless cycle of touchdowns and tackles, fire and brimstone.

My newfound religion also connected me with people from all walks of American life. It made me one of them—if only temporarily. It helped me bond with the veterans I met as a Pentagon reporter, eliciting memories of the Super Bowls they had watched in Iraq and Afghanistan. It summoned a fleeting kinship at a departures lounge in a New York airport, where I enjoyed the fellowship of strangers as quarterback Peyton Manning mounted one of his hallmark fourth-quarter comebacks with the Indianapolis Colts. Football even convinced my wife’s friends in North Carolina to forgive my Toronto accent and fondness for poutine, and to embrace me in the spirit of Southern hospitality. In a country where sports are the great equalizer, football is King of Kings.

But for all its glory, it is a religion of affliction. Recent studies have shown what anecdotal evidence has long suggested: Domestic-abuse 911 calls can increase by 10 percent if the local National Football League franchise loses when it’s predicted to win. The consumption of saturated fats and calories goes up in cities after a defeat. In the wake of major college games, riots erupt on the campuses of victors and vanquished alike. And of the $380 billion that Americans gamble on sports each year, some 40 percent is placed on the gridiron. That’s to say nothing of the cross the athletes themselves bear.

The fame and fortune many players enjoy can come at a terrible price to them, their lesser-known teammates, and their families. Indeed, few sports match the brutal toll on the human body, and more and more research has linked playing football to higher incidences of serious neurological diseases, such as depression; dementia, including Alzheimer’s; and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A 2009 University of Michigan survey, for example, found that retired NFL players, aged thirty to forty-nine, are nineteen times more likely to be diagnosed with memory-related diseases than average American men of the same age.

These illnesses can have stark, even fatal consequences. Over the past several years, a number of former players, including Pro Bowlers Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, have died by suicide. In a note he left behind, Duerson asked, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” (He then shot himself in the chest.) Others have made similar requests, and dozens of current and former NFL players have pledged their remains to Boston University for scientific study. Autopsies have revealed shrunken tissue and perforated membranes—the grotesque results of treating human skulls as battering rams.

Fans have always known the game entails some risk. But as we learn just how much risk there is—on the field and off, physical and psychological—we arrive at a moral crossroads. When the ball leaves the tee and the special teams charge toward midfield, we in the crowd must choose between ethics and entertainment, virtue and tradition. When the dust settles and our contemporary gladiators limp toward the sidelines, we must confront our guilty pleasure, our troubled conscience, our crisis of faith.

Football fever began to rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Plains Indian Wars were over, the frontier closed, the wilderness tamed. Yet muscular Christianity demanded outlets for masculine aggression. Within this context, Progressive Era politicians like Teddy Roosevelt promoted the sport as a healthy release for the martial impulses of America (and laid the foundations for today’s embattled National Collegiate Athletic Association). A century later, a rhetoric of violence still shapes the game. Consider that a deep pass into the backfield is called a “long bomb.” A group of defenders attacking the quarterback in unison is a “blitz.” The pushing and pulling on the line of scrimmage is known as “the war in the trenches.”

The imagery is no accident. Just as the US War Department hired such directors as Frank Capra and John Ford to promote the Allied effort during World War II, the NFL has long relied on its own publicity wing. NFL Films was the brainchild of Ed Sabol, a veteran who served under George S. Patton and who sought to give the sport a Hollywood makeover. Over the past five decades, the studio has produced some 10,000 highlight reels and documentaries, including weekly content for the major networks. With its dramatic soundtracks and slow motion, generals and grunts, NFL Films has translated the game into a visual language with universal appeal—culminating in the world’s ultimate war movie, the Super Bowl, and its 100 million–strong audience.

As the sport’s propaganda machine, NFL Films is also largely responsible for how we view (or don’t view) the violence at the centre of the story. For generations, players onscreen have seemed impervious to pain and injury: San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, for example, played in the 2008 playoffs with a torn ACL. And as the story goes, San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott once cut off a finger so an injury wouldn’t keep him off the field. (Actually, a surgeon amputated the tip of the mangled digit after the season ended, but sports commentators prefer the apocryphal version.) Then there is Marshall University quarterback Byron Leftwich, who broke his left tibia in a 2002 game against Akron, and came back onto the field. His offensive linemen carried him between plays—because he couldn’t walk.

As the warrior mythology crumbles before our eyes, we discover footballers of all ages and abilities among the casualties. Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, recently found that incidents of brain injury begin in youth leagues—with high schoolers as likely to sustain a concussion as their college peers. Last fall, an HBO/Marist poll found one-third of Americans are now reluctant to allow a child to play. Participation in the country’s largest youth program, Pop Warner, decreased by almost 10 percent between 2010 and 2012—the largest decline in its history and a clear indication that the NFL’s concussion crisis has trickled down to the grassroots level. None other than legendary quarterback Brett Favre has admitted that he’d be “real leery” about letting a son onto the field.

Taken to their logical extreme, the emerging participation trends lead to a world without football. Some economists have even predicted that the sport could simply die out in ten or fifteen years. Protective parents will thin its ranks; lawsuits will thin its resources. While this forecast may seem overblown—after all, the TV ratings aren’t dropping—it’s emblematic of the climate of fear and uncertainty that now surrounds the game. Instead of comforting us, our hardline religion makes us afraid.

Football broadcasts have long been funhouse mirrors—bringing us face to face with a lust for entertainment so intense that it distorts our moral judgment. There is a multitude of Canadians like me—adherents to an American religion—and for us the screen’s reflective glare feels increasingly harsh. We are no less devoted than our southern brethren, yet we can’t point to history or social custom to justify our fervour. Our version of the game offers no respite. While the CFL has marginally lower concussion rates than the NFL, it could not exist without a steady influx of players who have been trained and exploited by the American system. And if we distance ourselves from even our native denomination—with its three-down, pass-heavy liturgy—we are then left to endure loneliness and isolation, or the violence of a different skate-wearing, stick-wielding god. In my struggle to confront football’s demons, I’ve learned all too well that a Canadian passport does not guarantee a smooth exit from the game.

I tried to leave the church of football in the fall of 2012. This trial run was aided by a temperamental TV signal and the fact that I was busy covering the US presidential election. There was a certain sadness to being cut off from the water cooler talk about that year’s Super Bowl—with its brother versus brother coaching duel and an epic power failure in the second half—but I also ended the season with a feeling of quiet accomplishment. I had read more books, exercised more frequently, and improved my reputation as a shirker of household chores. For the first time since my conversion, I sensed what the world might be like without the game.

But I’m a weak man, and forbidden fruit can be so tasty. My wife and I returned to Canada last fall, and we find ourselves with an exhaustive cable package. After a few moments of tortured hesitation, I once again succumbed to Football Night in America, taking a seat beside the 700,000 Canadians who tune in to the NFL each Sunday. I reacquainted myself with the brilliance of Peyton Manning, an apostle whose leather-bound epistles never miss their mark. I rediscovered the soulful preachers of the broadcast booth, their voices as warm and brassy as Gabriel’s horn.

Surely, many fans are caught in this struggle between devotion and abstinence. The links between football and human suffering are too many and too serious to be ignored, but the ritual is too deeply embedded within our cultural DNA—to say nothing of the North American economy. What would life be like in a post-football society? Without it dominating our weekends and Monday nights, how would we spend those increasingly few and precious hours away from our jobs? Would we thrive in the quiet spaces left behind, finding time for meditation and reflection and the kind of non-athletic worship that’s declined in recent decades? Or would we simply dread the week ahead, lost without the soothing whisper of the crowd on TV?

With the new season upon us, I intend to strike a delicate compromise—limiting myself to reading the sports section, reducing the gridiron gospel to its narrative essence. There will be no shortage of exciting characters and storylines. Can Johnny Manziel revive the fortunes of the long-suffering Cleveland Browns? Can the Seattle Seahawks defy statistical probability and win a second straight Lombardi Trophy? Can the new NCAA tournament right all of the wrongs of the Bowl Championship Series? And might these teasers—and the aesthetic and cultural spectacle of those sixty action-packed minutes—get the better of me? If I happen to catch a few snaps, I’ll surely crave more of this sacred touchdown feast, this end zone bacchanalia with the disciples of Ed Sabol and Teddy Roosevelt. But I know there will be other days, autumn afternoons shrouded in Sunday gloom, when the sport seems like nothing more than a human sacrifice. Football is dead; long live football.

This appeared in the September 2014 issue.

Will Di Novi
Will Di Novi writes for Salon, The New Republic, and The Atlantic.
Peter Ryan
Peter Ryan has worked with the Wall Street Journal, Variety, and The Walrus.