I have a confession to make. I absolutely love NFL football. That may sound odd coming from a middle-aged mom of three, but you have to understand: I married a Cheesehead – Wisconsin born and bred. So for me, rooting for the Packers is not just sport; it's marital duty.
It's also something that brings my husband and me together with our kids. Though one of our sons defected to the Chicago Bears, watching football remains one of our family's favorite activities. There's just something about experiencing the highs and lows of a game that bonds our family in this weird sort of way. If you're a fan, you know what I mean.
These memories are precious. And, that's why football remains incredibly nostalgic for me. I have fond childhood memories of watching NFL football on Sunday afternoons with my entire family. My mom would usually nod off after doing some crossword puzzle. But, the rest of us would delight ourselves cheering, groaning and yelling at the TV. Best of all, we kids would enjoy three full hours of uninterrupted time with my dad, which was no small thing. He was a surgeon and worked long, consecutive days, so that time together was precious.
Today, though, I find myself conflicted about the sport. Believe me, I'd like to tune out the recent scandals in the NFL. But, it's hard to ignore running back Adrian Peterson allegedly beating his four-year-old son – or Ray Rice knocking out his girlfriend in a hotel elevator. The video of that incident literally made me sick to my stomach.
For as long as I can remember, people have criticized football for breeding a culture of violence, but I've generally dismissed those arguments. After all, there seem to be plenty of upstanding football players who understand the difference between slamming an opponent onto the field and slugging a wife or girlfriend off the field. Yet, the NFL's sluggish response to these reports of abuse seems to reveal at least a partial tolerance of this kind of behavior. Plus, now we're hearing that at least a dozen NFL players have domestic violence arrests, but continue to play the game.
True masculinity protects women and children. But, these revelations reinforce a suspicion I've had for a while – that football often breeds a kind of false masculinity that promotes brutish domination. I don't think this perverse culture is confined to professional football, though. Nor is the domination merely physical.
When my boys were in high school, I remember my one son remarking that I should discourage my other son from joining the football team. When I asked why, he described an attitude among football players where sexual conquest was glorified – and those who treated their girlfriends with respect were labeled "tools." I understand many say the game brings out the warrior in a man. Unfortunately though, the warrior produced in America's football culture often looks less like Prince Valiant and more like Attila the Hun.
The NFL is trying to dispel these kinds of objections. And, I appreciate the public service announcements the league has been airing as part of its "No More" campaign against domestic violence. But, the NFL needs to do much more. It needs to offer a positive vision of masculinity – men confronting bullies and fathers championing the interests of their kids. It also needs to stop portraying women as men's playthings. If men see women as valuable persons, rather than sex objects, they'll treat them that way. Fire the scantily-clad cheerleaders and please, record a game open without a sexy, female singer prancing on stage.
Yet, even if the NFL were to make these changes, I'd still have reservations about the brutal physical effects the game has on players. New research shows that the repetitive hits football players take are destroying their brains. The hits reportedly cause buildup in the brain of something called tau – an abnormal protein that strangles brain cells and leads to a disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. CTE can cause memory loss, early onset of Alzheimer's Disease, unpredictable violent behavior, depression and confusion, and even sudden death.
Autopsies have revealed tau concentrations in more than 50 ex-NFL players, including Hall of Famer Mike Webster and perennial All-Pro Junior Seau, who committed suicide about two years ago. Even more disturbing, doctors at Boston University recently discovered evidence of CTE in the brain of a football player, who was only 21-years-old. (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/sports/14football.html?pagewanted=all).
Of course, the NFL is making changes to protect players from brain injuries. In fact, the league says the number of concussions dropped 13% from 2012 to 2013. Plus, I suppose no job is without its risks. And, though the risks in the NFL are great, so are the rewards. Still, it's hard to derive as much joy from watching a contest when you know it could be seriously hurting the players involved. It's also hard to allow your children to play a game that's so physically punishing. Reportedly, the effect football has on the brain is similar to that of boxing. I doubt any of us parents would actually want our junior- or senior-high boys participating in boxing.
So, what's a football fan like me supposed to do? Well, I doubt I'll go cold turkey. In fact, I will be attending a Super Bowl party this Sunday just like many of you. But overall, I'm tempering my enthusiasm for the sport. These days, I'm less likely to buy NFL merchandise and more likely to miss a big game for an opportunity at church or an activity with my daughter.
I also don't encourage young boys to play organized football. Though my husband and I never forbid our sons from doing that, we certainly tried our best to interest them in other sports. Other than one season in a community football league, neither of my sons played organized football. I don't regret that at all, especially when I see evidence of their strong, healthy minds and body.
Still, I doubt I'll ever lose my love for the Packers or NFL football. Like many Americans, it's become part of my DNA. But, I'm sure I'll continue to feel conflicted about being a fan – especially this Sunday, during halftime.