Annual Ritual

Forget The Wife Beating—Are You Ready For Some Football?

How Bill Simmons and company have turned NFL indignation into a cozy little cottage industry.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the NFL season is upon us again, unfurled in all its rousing masculine glory. For most fans, this means setting aside huge swaths of time to watch men a lot bigger and healthier (and wealthier) than we are play a thrilling and savage game.

For Bill Simmons—founder of the ESPN web magazine, officially trademarked Sports Guy, and perhaps the most famous fan in America—the beginning of the season means something more. Namely, that it’s time for him to churn out another one of his patented state-of-the-NFL columns. These are long, snappy riffs that rehash the various scandals engulfing the league and aim barbs at the available scapegoats, most frequently the reigning commissioner, Roger Goodell, whose $44 million salary makes him a plump target.

The nice thing about this annual tradition is that you can always depend on Simmons to come to the same two conclusions:

a) Yeah, the NFL is hopelessly corrupt! But:

b) Whattaya gonna do? We love the game too much to quit watching, right, bruh?

Simmons has perfected what you might call the exposé-as-apologia.

The point of these pieces, after all, isn’t really to question the morality of football. It’s to offer fans a kind of ritualized self-flagellation before they settle into the sofa with their beers and wings. The term used in addiction circles would be “enabling.” As for Simmons, he gets to ease his conscience while also burnishing his personal brand of savvy fandom. He’s no sucker.

Nor is he alone in plying this particular line of bullshit. As the NFL becomes ever more transparently violent, greedy, and misogynistic, a pack of brainy pundits has turned to the same playbook.

The Guardian published a particularly odious example a few days ago under the click-bait headline Does Watching the NFL Make You Evil? It’s worth noting that the online edition of this piece includes an additional link before the story begins. It reads: NFL week one preview— with Pick Six contest. So I guess we’ve got our answer before we’ve even begun reading.

But we still have to wade through several hundred words courtesy of Jeb Lund, a contributing editor to the website Sports on Earth. Where Simmons is jocular in a kind of clever fratboy way, Lund is more refined in his language and more robust in his indignation. A brief excerpt will have to suffice. Lund writes,

Given its indifference toward women and racism, its eagerness to plunder public coffers and its outright economic and medical hostility toward its own labor force, it is flabbergasting that any of us remain fans of the NFL at all. It’s a game of on-the-field supermen managed and exploited with all the “superman” sociopathy of Wall Street-Silicon Valley vulture capital neofascism. The one thing the NFL hasn’t figured out how to do yet is compel fans to download a $159 app, the only purpose of which is to tell them they’re fungible, fired and that both their job and satellite feed has been outsourced to a bare wall in a 50,000-square-foot maquiladora in order to free job creators from their shackles.

No, I don’t quite understand what he’s saying, either. But it’s clear that Lund is really really disgusted with the NFL. He’s so disgusted, in fact, that his very next paragraph reads as follows:

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I will probably watch over 300 hours of this game before the postseason starts. Because I am stupid, and because I tell myself that the bargain I have struck where I am not a Nielsen household, and I buy no tickets or cable packages or merchandise is enough. And nothing will change, because NFL ownership and their hollow-hammered lickspittle Roger Goodell know that millions more will strike similar, smaller compromises. All because, when the game is right— when it really goes right—it is beautiful enough, even for just a little while, to let us forget everything else.

Translated into Simmonese: Whattaya gonna do? We love the game too much to quit watching, right, bruh?

It will come as no surprise to his longtime fans that Chuck Klosterman has contributed to this parade of high-brow hypocrisy. Klosterman is a wonderful writer and as close as we may come to a genuine intellectual in the world of sports punditry.

Which is why his efforts to justify his rabid consumption of football wind up feeling so slippery and convoluted. In the present case, he chooses to use his position as The New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist columnist to mount yet another defense of that poor beleaguered sport, football.

For all his gussied up language, his Sunday column offered the same shopworn alibi for watching football as the drunk guy next to you at Hooter’s: the players know the risks.

But without fans like Klosterman, there is no NFL, so the real question concerns the ethics of consuming (and thus sponsoring) a game that causes brain damage in a significant percentage of its players.

Fear not, Chuck has you covered there, as well:

Yes, you are financially subsidizing a profession that involves elective physical risk. But on a smaller scale, the same could be said for taking your child to the circus; while there might be “big picture” problems with the enterprise, the risks associated with the work are taken on by free people.

Got that, sports fans? Watching football is okay because taking your kid to the circus is okay. I’m not sure the elephants and tigers would agree with that last bit, about “work taken on by free people.” But why split hairs? Klosterman isn’t even sure whether “something being dangerous inherently makes it unethical, or even particularly bad.” Good news for all you cage fighters.

The deeper meaning of football, he concludes, is that “we love something dangerous. And I can live with that.”

I’m glad to hear that Klosterman is sleeping easy these days. If his Ethicist gig ever winds up feeling too constricting, he can always launch a column called The Sophist. In the meantime, it’s worth noting the nifty little evasion Klosterman has performed here. The true moral issue for football fans isn’t that they love something dangerous. It’s that they sponsor something dangerous. Fans are the reason the game—and the ethical quandaries inherent to the game—exists. Perhaps a kindly elephant can explain this to Klosterman. Until then we’re left with the cowardice of his convictions.

Of course, life for these all All-Pro apologists has gotten a bit more uncomfortable in the past few days. The release of the video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his girlfriend unconscious has initiated yet another bout of anguished and profitable hand-wringing in the world of sports punditry.

The crisis—according to the men with mics—is not the game’s inherently toxic gender roles (i.e. men = hyper-aggressive warriors, women = sexual ornaments), or the manner in which fans underwrite these roles. No, the true culprit is … Roger Goodell.

Take for example, the reaction of Keith Olbermann, the reigning scold of sportslandia. On the evening of the Rice video dump, his national broadcast included this broadside: “Mr. Goodell’s ineptitude has not merely rendered this football season meaningless and irrelevant by contrast, it has not only reduced supporting or watching NFL football to a distasteful even a disrespectful act, but most importantly it has comforted the violent and afflicted the victim.”

Strong stuff, Keith. I assume this means that you won’t be supporting or watching or discussing highlights of the NFL this year, right? Right? I mean, if you really mean what you just said …

But of course Olbermann doesn’t really mean it. He’s not a moralist. He just plays one on TV. Fear not, gentle fans, he’ll be promoting football (or as he might prefer to call it, “covering football”) on his program all season long.

For guys like him (and Simmons and Lund and Klosterman) morality isn’t a personal code that applies to your actual life. It’s something you trumpet in public as part of your job. It’s how you build a platform that makes you appear empathic and ethical while you subsidize the flouting of empathy and ethics.

The saddest thing about these All-Pro apologists is that they’re also providing moral cover to the millions of fans who read and watch them. Their righteous outbursts represent an ancient and unctuous form of Kabuki theater. As Dave Revsine notes in The Opening Kickoff, his illuminating new book about the origins of college football, the sports media has been running this con for as long as men have been running around in tight pants bashing in each other’s skulls.

Consider this: in 1897 the New York Herald published a list of all the names of young men killed playing football along with a note excoriating the game for “a brutality which is only paralleled by the exhibition in the Coliseum of ancient Rome, where men died to gratify the savage instincts of onlookers.”

Hurrah for your courage, good sirs!

The catch, as Revsine notes, is that the story next to this homily was a “glowing preview piece about the renewal of the Harvard-Yale rivalry.”

Nicely played, New York Herald. The Sports Guy would be proud.

Steve Almond is the author of the new book Against Football.