There is one day each year when I feel particularly alienated from most people around me - Superbowl Sunday. While it seems that most of America is glued to a TV watching the Superbowl, I find myself with plenty of free time as I have absolutely no interest in watching the game. As a Jew at Christmas time, I'm familiar with the feeling of being an outsider to a commonly shared experience, but there I can understand and respect what and why people are celebrating as they do. With Superbowl Sunday I just don't have the same experience. It goes beyond my own lack of interest to my incredulity that so many people I know do watch it.
While there is plenty of room for different preferences about how people spend their free time, it honestly confounds me how many amazing, progressive people love watching football and spend significant amount of time watching it. While I'm not a big fan of watching televised sports generally - I have no issue with basketball or baseball, but I see why someone would enjoy it - so it's not just me being judgmental and pushing the superiority of my elitist cultural choices. So, I'm truly perplexed as to how I could have such a strong and opposite opinion about watching football compared to the 163 million people who watched at least part of the game this year. And mostly I'm perplexed as to why those people don't see the issue in the same way I do.
I will freely acknowlege that I know very little about football (except what I learned from Friday Night Lights - a show I will admit I truly loved) and I have no doubt that there is a high level of commitment, skill and strategy involved in winning games. Of course there is skill and hard work that is represented on the football field, but this is not baseball or basketball where those qualities so outweigh the violence or damage being caused. My issue is that I consider professional football players to be essentially modern day gladiators - their bodies are weapons used for entertainment of the spectators and the consequence of the injuries is clear and well documented - permanent brain damage. Spectators cheer for players and glorify a game that is codified violence in the guise of a game. I remember feeling physically ill when I visited the Colisseum in Rome, pondering what atrocities occurred there, and while I don't truly equate football with the events that occurred at the Colisseum, I think that part of the problem is that we've dressed up the game and respectable people watch and because the objective is not explicitly to cause harm to the other players (except of course when it is,) we absolve ourselves of responsibility for condoning the violence under the banner that "It's just a game."
For the people who will argue that changes are being made to decrease the intensity of the injuries - I agree that it does seem that given the increasing amounts of incontrovertible evidence about the brain damage and the accompanying lawsuits, real changes are being discussed. But a) you're still watching right now even while things are not improved, hence limiting the incentive to truly change the game beyond the minimum that is necessary to deal with the lawsuits the NFL is facing from players (the fans could show they care about the issue by not supporting the game as it is) and b) seriously, how much can it improve when on average it's at least a 250+ pound guy is slamming into another time and again? Unless it's going to be turned into touch football, it's hard to see how the reality of serious head injuries is going to go away. Watching these games and supporting them economically essentially seems like complicity in the damage the game is causing these players along with the glorification of violence that the game represents.
I find it interesting that so much attention is given to the exploitation of women in the Super Bowl ads, but it seems to me that more concern should be given to the exploitation of the players on the field. They are all grownups making a choice to profit from their appearances and physical gifts, trumping beauty or power as prime virtues, but I sympathize with the women no more than I do with the men, and I think anyone who sees women as the only victims of the Super Bowl spectacle are short sighted and limited in their perspective. They are grown ups making a choice to allow themselves to be exploited, but it is regrettable that a culture has been created that supports these as the best options for a group of people, and I continue to question how compassionate, thoughtful people can support the game and the values it represents.
I've listened to people tell me that they would never let their kid play but they're fine watching it - how is this not hypocrisy? President Obama has said it. Tom Brady's father has ceded that it would be a very hard decision to let his son play football (if he was a kid now). So how do all of these people rationalize this inconsistency - not a good idea for my kid, but I'm fine watching those other guys incur brain damage? All of this leads me to the conclusion that the sport's spectators are complicit in the damage being done and the glorification of violence by supporting the game. But it's most definitely not "just a game."