There are few memories more vivid from my childhood than watching Monday Night Football. Reared as a Baptist by my parents, and brought to church nearly every Sunday at 10 am for nearly half my life, Monday night was my real religious service of the week. If my Miami Dolphins happened to be playing the Buffalo Bills, the contest assumed a level of significance that cannot be properly described using language of the mundane. It was a holy event in every way imaginable.
Mind you, I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York, which was indisputably Bills, Jets, and Giants country. I only realize today how formative it was to be a Dolphin fan surrounded by so many hostile peers. In retrospect, I see that this fandom actually made me a more iconoclastic, self- driven, resilient, and perhaps more foolhardy person. As a 10 year old the game was part of me and still is today. During those match ups I was not just watching Dan Marino throw to Mark Duper, I was Marino throwing and Duper catching. When they dropped the ball, their pain was my pain. When they scored a touchdown, their victory was my victory. The euphoria and tragedy belonged to me and every other Dolphin fan watching in that moment.
During this time I also learned to truly love the game. I loved it as an artistry. The action between and behind the lines enthralled me. The QB dropping back into the pocket. A linebacker blitz. A tight end breaking across the middle. A fullback plowing ahead for a 1 yard first down. The tension of a 55 yard field goal attempt. In terms of pure intensity of action, it was the professional sport that I enjoyed watching the most. Baseball was more sophisticated and basketball was more graceful, but football, in all of its rugged glory, moved my passions.
I say all of this to set the stage for my question- a question that I wish more Americans of my generation would ask themselves. Is it immoral to watch NFL football? In other words, is there a way to love football despite its moral flaws? Or do its moral flaws make it impossible to love without participating in a fundamentally unjust system? Cultural phenomenon that it is, in many respects, the NFL has come to symbolize certain negative traits associated with America and Americans, including brashness, brutishness, conflict, selfishness, greed, injury, suffering, ecological waste, criminality, racial profiling, and sexual violence. Over the past decade or so, I have come to identify all of these forces at work in the game today. How can I still watch?
For one, I really can’t watch a NFL game anymore without noticing how objectified and exploited the cheerleaders are. Author Jeanne Marie Laskas has written: “people assume NFL cheerleaders are within some vague sniffing distance of the good life, but a Ben Gal is paid seventy five bucks for each of ten home games. The grand cash total per season does not keep most of them flush in hairspray, let alone gas money to and from practice.” Meanwhile white male owners such as Jerry Jones (his Cowboys are valued at 3.4 billion) make fortunes off the same home games, and beer and car companies make millions off commercials and other advertisements (oftentimes portraying skimpily clad women in sexual positions)
What is more, I really cannot watch a game without thinking about the blind patriotism and for-profit racism that has become endemic. Calls for players to act with a certain standard of loyalty to country and flag, when owners and corporate executives have been selling out our nation’s interests for years is patently absurd. Take into account everything from offshoring American jobs to stealing and polluting public land to tax evasion to funding foreign wars of aggression that have bankrupted the social trust fund of American society, and yet they still have the audacity to demand that players prove their allegiance by standing up during the anthem. This type of behavior is hypocritical and pathetic.
Furthermore, I cannot watch a game without thinking about the temerity of a league that still allows the Washington Redskins organization to illegally and unconstitutionally capitalize on the heritage of Native Americans. It is a form of gross commercial exploitation that would never be permitted with other races and ethnic groups. Does it matter that the Redskins are the third most valuable franchise in the NFL, worth more than 3 billion dollars? Does it matter that they are the favored hometown team of the Beltway’s political elite?
The corporate greed, sexual objectification, institutionalized bigotry, and blatant hypocrisy is just too much to take. I still want to watch the game. The game, at its most primal level, still attracts me. But how can I justify watching this so called “entertainment” when I know that the other forces have hijacked it to make it something I can no longer support with a clean conscience?