Are You Not Entertained?

I never thought I’d say this:  My viewership of football is wavering.

Oh, the game is as captivating as ever. The Xs and Os, teamwork, athleticism, crowd exuberance…second to none. In fact, I remain convinced that playing quarterback in the NFL is the most challenging task in pro sports.

But I’m watching with a wince nowadays. Maybe because I’m getting old; maybe because I’m growing soft. Maybe both are true. However, in this case neither is the reason. Like the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I now know a lot more about what this game does to minds and bodies. And I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how the stories end.

That scene from Gladiator keeps resurfacing in my mind. You know the one, where Maximus (Russell Crowe) defiantly taunts a bloodthirsty throng after winning a fight to the death he wasn’t cast to survive:  Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED! 

Well, I am entertained. Just feeling increasingly guilty about it. I’m cheering guys being speared, clotheslined, flattened, blindsided, steamrolled, pancaked, trampled, leveled, concussed… all while throwing back expensive beer and tasty finger food.

A recent read of Mark Leibovich’s best-seller, Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, only enhanced my viewer’s remorse. This searing look at the NFL oligarchy and the enablers who encircle it is revealing and often pathetic. Give NFL owners white togas and their resemblance to Roman patricians is disturbing. The thought that I’m patronizing this confederacy is personally unsettling.

Suck it up. What do you care? The players know what they’re signing up for. Plus, they make millions.

Do they really know what they’re signing up for? What 21-year-old pauses to consider repercussions decades down the road? What 21-year-old doesn’t feel invincible—especially one blessed with elite athletic ability? Consider for a moment that the motionless player lying on the turf—a ritual that seems to occur every other play in today’s NFL—is someone you know. Maybe even a family member. It’s all fun and games until someone you know gets hurt.

By the way, does the spouse know what she’s signing up for—possibly decades of nursing duty for a man who’s a shell of himself by mid-40s? And who signed up the kids?

Frankly, with all we now know about concussions, I’m not sure why more fans aren’t struggling with the contradiction of cheering for a game that too frequently turns young athletes into middle-aged mush. For me, I’m feeling like a rubbernecker at a car crash—and the crashes are coming weekly.

So, bring on more rules, gear enhancements, technological innovation—anything to make the game safer. I want to enjoy the Xs and Os, teamwork, athleticism and crowd exuberance… but not at the expense of young men sacrificing their futures for my entertainment.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.