Did you watch the NFL yesterday? I did. I watched every minute that I could.
This is not a factoid that's particularly consistent with my output of the last week, and I suspect it's not consistent with yours. I, like everyone else, spent most of last week lambasting the NFL, whether it was the league's continued laughable insistence it had never seen the Ray Rice elevator tape, the absurdity of Chris Berman and company trying to pretend everything was still hunky-dory or NFL commissioner Roger Goodell being hoisted on his own holier-than-thou petard. Last week was the worst week the NFL has had in 30 years, and that was before a Hall of Fame running back was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch.
And everybody piled on. The President chimed in. A Congress member called for Goodell's resignation. Non-sports cable channels led their newscasts with "scandal in the NFL!" You heard over and over about how much of a crisis the league was facing, but you also heard something else, something new: I don't think I can watch this league anymore. The only person I've ever met who told me with a straight face that he was stopping watching football on moral grounds is longtime Sports on Earth contributor Patrick Hruby, and to be honest, I sort of made good-natured fun of him for it. Deadspin's Drew Magary pointed out a couple years ago that the "I'm not watching football anymore" brigade was starting to sound suspiciously like the "well, we don't own a TV" cadre from a few years ago, a way for well-to-do, smug white people to make themselves feel superior to the unwashed rest of us. ("Well, I read the news, if that's what you mean.") But you heard it a ton last week. Maybe we just shouldn't watch tonight.
Needless to say, that didn't happen. NFL ratings for Thursday's night's game were through the roof as usual, and all those same people who had been tearing the league and Goodell apart last week were all talking about the games all day yesterday. And I was the same way.
The games were unusually compelling yesterday. The Bills are the early story of the NFL, a beleaguered franchise bringing hope to a fanbase that desperately wanted it. Undrafted third-string quarterback Austin Davis led a terrific comeback for the Rams and looked ready to jump over the moon on the sidelines afterward. The Bears pulled off an amazing prime-time comeback; the defending champions went down in thrilling fashion; the Jets lost in the most Jets way imaginable. The storylines stacked up on each other like they always do, one subplot mingling with another, these endless dramas all intersecting multiple times every weekend.
When people talked last week about the appeal of the NFL, there was a certain obsession with the violence of it, like everyone watches every football game hoping someone gets cut in half. While a certain amount of violence -- more violence than the NFL would like to admit -- is inherent to the sport, it's not just that. These are soap operas, with immediately recognizable characters, ones we tie ourselves to and cheer, or boo, or simply mock. It is not just tribalist loyalities, or bloodlust, or callous disregard for basic human welfare. These games are undeniably fun: They are pure entertainment. Yesterday was a terrific reminder of that.
But should it be? Are we -- am I -- already selling out? During the games, I wasn't thinking about Ray Rice, or Roger Goodell, or Adrian Peterson (except to note how how happy I was I'd snatched up Matt Asiata off the waiver wire). I'm thinking about them now, but only because there is no football on right now. The fundamental selling point of the sport -- that it takes you away from your life for awhile and helps you forget about all outside problems -- remains the primary reason the sport gets away with everything.
This is the same throughout entertainment. Great escapist entertainment takes you out of yourself for a moment, makes you gleefully ignore how the sausage is made. Watching and enjoying the NFL makes you part of the problem. But watching and enjoying anything -- whether it's a movie starring a terrible person, or a smartphone made by 11-year-old Chinese hands, or a delicious sandwich that profits bigots -- makes you part of the problem. This doesn't mean that we have a moral obligation not to watch and enjoy anything. We're always told that one person can make a difference, but that's just simply not true. If every single person who blasted the NFL in the last week stopped watching, and all of their friends stopped watching … the NFL would still be the most popular sport in the country and would still be impervious to all your taunts.
So it's a choice everyone makes, but may I gently suggest that if you are aware of the problems of the NFL and speak up about them when you have the opportunity, it does not make you a terrible person or a hypocrite to continue to enjoy the games? Our responsibility as media, as fans, as outsiders, should be not to put the moral onus on ourselves; it's to put it on them. It's to keep this pressure on, to keep forcing them to answer for their malfeasance, to give truthful answers about whether anyone saw that tape, to not sweep thing under the rug while they dangle the shiny object of FOOTBALL to distract us. We can watch and enjoy football while understanding its dangers and holding the men and women in charge of it accountable. The human brain contains multitudes: It can walk and chew gum at the same time.
This is going to be especially important in the coming weeks, when the NFL isn't having as awful a week as it did last week and wrestles back control of the story a little bit. We can't be so entranced by the games that we let things slide like we have in the past. You can already see how last week's events are going to be spun: It's not Goodell -- who appears to have, in spite of it all, almost universal support from the owners, his bosses -- it's those unruly players. You're starting to see a narrative develop: Those players are out of control. It's time for the league to get tough. Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson … they're just bad apples. The league just needs to police those players more. They need to come down harder.
Goodell, as always, will shift the focus of that last week off himself and his incompetent, deceitful response to the Rice fiasco, and shift it on the players. All that bad news? All that horrible feeling you had thinking about the NFL? That was because of the players! But look: We're getting tough! Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson were benched; Ray Rice is out of this league, possibly forever. We're cleaning up this game. We're as angry as you are. (Of course, the Vikings announced on Monday morning that Peterson will practice and play this week, so perhaps the cleansing isn't as emphatic as some might have hoped.)
It's our responsibility not to let them get away with it, to keep the focus on the ugliness at the top of the food chain, not to let them pretend this is just a series of rogue actors whom the NFL can discipline hard enough that everything is just fine. Right now, people are still angry at Goodell, and with good reason. But that fades, and the lights of the games themselves get in our eyes, and make us forget. We need to stick with it. They'll be working so hard; we can't let them win.
We don't have to feel guilty watching the NFL. They're the ones in charge of cleaning up the game and making it more humane. We can hold them accountable and still be fans. We just have to remember to do both. We have to remember to stay on them. Staying involved in the game makes it more likely they'll be held accountable, not less. Continuing to watch the NFL isn't a surrender. We can make watching, both what happens on the field and off, our responsibility.
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