The NFL’s Twelve-Year-Old Problem

My son has loved football since the first time he saw it. We raised our kids without a lot of media when they were young and still don’t have cable, but after the first time he watched football at a Super Bowl Party around age 5 he figured out that our neighbor, David, was a huge Steelers fan and had a big TV. Soon they’d worked out a arrangement: Marson became a Steelers fan, too, and David provided the couch, TV and snacks.

Two years ago, Marson switched loyalty to the San Francisco 49ers, which only makes sense for a California kid, but he stayed an avid football fan. When I asked what it was he liked most about football, as opposed to basketball or soccer, he always told me it was the brute physicality of it, the big men smashing into each other at high speed.


So I was surprised a couple weeks ago when I took him out to sushi at a place with an NFL game on and he sat down with his back to the TV. We ordered and talked for a bit, then I asked, “Marson, is it just my perception or are you not nearly as interested in football as you used to be?”

“No, you’re right,” he answered.

“Why not?”

“Well, you know, I still like football but I don’t feel the same way about it since that domestic violence thing this summer. You know what I mean?”

“You mean like Ray Rice and some other guys, right? But that’s just a couple players out of hundreds. It’s not like all or even most of the NFL players have that kind of problem.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “I understand that it’s not all the players. But it’s the LEAGUE that I’m disgusted with. It makes me so angry that they didn’t want to do anything about those guys. That they tried to cover it up. That’s unforgiveable to me. It changed the way I feel about that game.”

And there you have it. The NFL may be the most successful, powerful athletic league in the US. Its revenues may be stratospheric. And thousands of people still love it. But I believe it’s up against the currents of history.

Empty NFL

Let me repeat. My son LOVES football. But he loves his mother, his sister, his grandmothers, his aunts and all the women and girls he calls friends MORE. And it’s not okay with him that the NFL demonstrates a clear contempt and disregard for women when it sweeps domestic violence under the rug, like the incidents documented in the recent New York Times series. He would rather not watch, not be a fan, than support a league that does that.

The NFL can still step up and do the right things, of course. But I think that’s too much of a cultural shift for an organization that’s built on a culture of glorifying physical violence. Between the mistreatment of players’ injuries in the concussion scandal and the deep insensitivity shown toward women in the domestic violence one, I think the NFL has hit its high water mark and the water is draining down. My son is not unique. There are a lot of kids like him who have a good sense of moral justice and not supporting things that violate that sense. I predict that by the time he’s my age the NFL will have fallen from grace like boxing has since I was a kid in the 70s, or how bullfighting has in Spain. It’ll be around, sure, but seen as something kind of low-brow that old people are into.


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