Three Reasons I Won’t Be Watching the Eagles This Weekend

Football exploits its players, distorts the mission of public institutions, and harms our souls. Other than that, it’s great.

Football season gets underway in earnest this weekend—Philadelphia will be clad in green on Sunday Monday, and Twitter feeds will be filled with both exuberant cheers or cries of anguish and often both. Beer and meat will overflow in man caves throughout the nation.

I won’t be playing along.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s part of me that still loves football. I played (badly) in high school, reserved my Sundays for Christian Okoye in the late 1980s, and cheered wildly when David Tyree made that helmet catch a few years back. (I didn’t live in Philadelphia yet, so give me a break on that last one, Eagles fans.)

Maybe I’m just getting old. Or maybe the game is. These days, though, it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Here are three reasons I won’t be watching football this weekend—or this season.

It’s turning the players’ brains into pudding. Everybody likes to point out that the NFL got off cheap with its $765 million concussion settlement with former players last week. After all, the league has infinite resources! But consider this: Defendants like the NFL settle lawsuits like this mostly when they’re worried about having to pay a lot more money in a judgement at trial. The fact that three-quarters of a billion dollars is the inexpensive way out of this mess should tell you everything you need to know what the league thinks the game is doing to its players’ minds and bodies.

The evidence is growing: Former NFL players under age 49 experience symptoms of dementia at a rate 19 times that of the general population of men their age. In a recent study examining the brains of 35 former pro football players, 34 had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that causes Alzheimer’s-type symptoms in its victims. And even a recent study purporting to debunk the link between CTE and football “found that retired NFL players had a higher incidence of mild cognitive impairment than the general population.”

Yes, the NFL is cracking down on big hits and doing more to protect against concussions. But the evidence suggests the problems are also caused and exacerbated by all the  repeated “subconcussive” hits a player takes throughout the game. There’s no such thing as a good, healthy high-speed collision between two large men. Watching a game is less fun for me knowing it’s going to cause some of its participants to end up like Jim McMahon.

• It distorts the purposes of public institutions. This is part of our general sports-craziness in this country, but football—the most popular sport, by far, in America—is a special case. In Philadelphia, taxpayers coughed up half the $512 million construction cost of Lincoln Financial Field. Our schools were in trouble then; they’re in worse shape today, and nobody seems willing to foot the bill.

And, uh, do we really have to review what’s happened at Penn State the last few years? How about Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel getting suspended for selling his autograph when his school sells replicas of his jersey? No? Let’s move on.

It warps those of us who watch it. On the eve of the 2012 NFL season, Andy Reid’s son died of a heroin overdose. Eagles fans responded to that horrific event by giving Reid an exceptional amount of crap during the ensuing season. Screw simple humanity! We didn’t make the playoffs! Football, it seems, does a really good job of making otherwise-good people reveal their most horrible selves.

All of this makes the game … not much fun. Sports are fun when they’re simply games. When they become billion-dollar enterprises that thrive off the exploitation of their workers, some of the pleasure is lost. Go ahead and watch the games this weekend. I’ll be doing something else.

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  • jsb235

    I thought the fact that they play on Monday would be reasons 1-3 that you won’t be watching them this weekend.

    • Joel Mathis

      I always figure the football weekend ends on Monday night.

  • NotFromPhilly

    Thanks for this! I was beginning to think I was the only one feeling this way.

  • melodically

    I largely agree with you on the first bullet point. However, I think now that players are basically aware of the risks involved, the fans don’t really have an ethical responsibility to abstain from watching.

    Bullet point #2: Agreed on funding stadiums over schools, but this is more of condemnation of humanity rather than sports. Even if sports ceased to exist because everyone stopped watching, people would still find a way to misappropriate funds on other things (e.g., war).

    Bullet point #3: Eagles fans gave Andy Reid crap during the 2012 season because the team played like crap. It had nothing to do with his son. And even if it did, it wouldn’t be because football made them inhumane — it would be because some inhumane people happen to watch football. Again, even if football ceased to exist, those people would find some other avenue to continue being heartless jerks.

    Not trying to rip your column, but I just think you have some of the causality confused.

    • Joel Mathis

      It’s OK to rip the column!

      As for bullet point one: It’s an interesting thought about the ethics. Would players play if there weren’t anybody there to watch? Some surely would, but many play the game as a business proposition: Because we pay them to, either directly for tickets, or indirectly by providing eyeballs to advertisers who pay big bucks to TV networks who in turn pay big bucks to the league.

      So the ethical question then becomes, in my head: Is it ethical for me to incentivize, by watching, actions that over the long-term (and, sometimes, short-term) literally self-destructive? Given free will of the participants, it’s a close call, but it’s a bit harder for me to enjoy the game knowing that choice is there for me.

      As for bullet point two: You’re right. But right now, it’s sports specifically and football especially that does this. When some other wildly inappropriate activity replaces its distorting power in our public institutions, I’ll gripe and moan about that, too!

      Finally, point no. 3. I agree that fans giving Reid crap “had nothing to do with his son.” In a way, that’s the point. Wins-and-losses were more important than the human context–they could only see *their own frustration* at the team’s losses. They couldn’t even see the sporting context: Andy Reid is almost certainly the most successful coach any of them remember—Buddy Ryan doesn’t even really compare, even if he might’ve been more popular—and a bad year might’ve been seen in that light instead of the stupid “how many Super Bowls you won lately” standard. You’re right that there are jerks in all walks of life; I think sports generally but (in American culture) football specifically magnifies emotions and the expressions thereof, very often in unseemly fashion.

      But I’m not calling for a ban or anything. It’s just really, really not for me.

      • melodically

        All good points. I do see the ethical issue a bit more clearly now. Thanks for the response.

  • Alice Lieberman

    Joel, even when I don’t agree with you, I think you’re the best op ed guy in the business. Today, I totally agree and, until the NYT gives you a piece of their choice real estate, they should at least reprint this.

  • Martin Bee

    The 2nd point I have been saying for years! People still buy into this garbage. Read the book bad sports,how owners are ruining the games we love. I bet sports for a living, but do think the nfl got off lightly.