Opinion: Coming to Terms with Football

Our collective house is on fire. Collage design: Katie Drake.

The season of awkward family meetings with somewhat happy faces is upon us all. For some out there, this is a therapeutic time when they can reconnect with friends and family, take a moment to reflect on the past year, and really think about what and who they’re thankful for. For many others, it’s a time of conversational dread, just waiting for a visiting family member to make wholly inappropriate political comments. As it is very well outlined in this publication, our collective house is on fire. Communities are under constant attack. The voice of the public is being stifled. The world keeps growing more unstable both politically and environmentally. It is exhausting keeping up with it all, and especially so when you serve up a heaping portion of family time.

As it is very well outlined in this publication, our collective house is on fire.

That said, there are plenty of ways to get through a few family-full days and none may be better than the topic of professional football.

None may be better than the topic of professional football. Photo credit: Patricia Villafañe

Back in 2017, public consensus felt like it was taking a turn away from the support of pro football. Whether because of unending coverage of the long-term impacts of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE – essentially a disease resulting from multiple concussions and leading to terrible side effects, most notably potential suicide), or the politicization of kneeling for the national anthem, or a general disgust of Roger Goodell and Tom Fucking Brady, or all of the above combined with the steady rise in the popularity of Major League Soccer, viewership was down and the future of the league was uncertain. Hell, the Atlanta Falcons went to the Superbowl; something was bound for a change.

Fast forward to today, and while not at the height of the sport’s popularity, National Football League (NFL) games still can claim the top spot in weekly television ratings, beating out CBS television gold like “Young Sheldon” and “NCIS. And while there are several statistics claiming an overall decline in game attendance, it’s not down significantly. Looking at data from 2010-2018, according to Statista, live game attendance has taken a minor dip to 17.1 million total game goers, with the height of this timeframe’s attendance peeking in 2016 at 17.79 million—not a super significant difference.

The league has also responded to public pressure by altering game rules to help better protect players’ safety (e.g. eliminating the blindside block, updating kick off rules to offer a better field position if the returning team doesn’t attempt to run the ball back, etc.). This in an effort to quell the nerves of parents with football-age children, with the NFL hoping to maintain the steady pipeline of future mega-humans marching towards a career in football.

These passable, albeit uninspired, adjustments to gameplay are having only a minor effect on viewership, mostly because the people who want to watch football are going to watch football—meaning all signs point to a future with continued football fanfare.

All signs point to a future with continued football fanfare.

So, let’s embrace it for a bit!

Putting aside all of pro football’s terrible flaws (and let’s face it, there are a TON), it is also a sport that has the ability to bring communities together. Looking at pro football viewer demographics, as reported by FiveThirtyEight, it stands alone in the bipartisan structure of its fanbase, whereas (obviously) viewers of college football, college basketball, and NASCAR skew Republican, and pro hockey, Major League Baseball, and pro basketball skew Democratic. That, coupled with the sport’s vast popularity, means this behemoth has a unique opportunity to be an equalizer and common high ground for dinner table discourse.

2020 is going to be a turbulent year, there’s no getting around it. As families gather to break bread in celebration of the winter equinox and the birth of a new year, there will be opportunities for rogue family members to dominate conversation with divisive, potentially untrue, and incredibly biased rhetoric. These conversation starters will surely stew the bones of any informed reader and casually derail an otherwise pleasant family gathering.

This behemoth has a unique opportunity to be an equalizer and common high ground for dinner table discourse.

So, how about instead of getting caught in a death spiral heading towards discourse disaster, you pull out a random football fact that is sure to impress Uncle Kevin in from Alabama. He’s guaranteed to take over the conversation on how the recovery is going for Tua Tagovalioa, and you can then return with how the origin story of the Crimson Tide illustrates one of the most powerful rivalries of all time (in 1906, Alabama tied Auburn in a “sea” of mud staining their mostly white jerseys red from the clay—they had been previously been called the Thin Red Line, which was arguably cooler—the teams weren’t to play against each other again until 1948.).

Or maybe Aunt Kat launches into Sean Hannity musings on “delusional Stacy Abrams” and how her continued fight for voter equality is somehow anti-American. Perhaps you again turn the conversation to football and how (Speaking of Americans…) in 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt nearly banned the sport for being too unsafe for players after his son Teddy Roosevelt Jr. got his face staved in during a college game. However, all of that was narrowly avoided by the introduction of the forward pass into gameplay rules. Up until that point in time, players were only able to pass the ball backwards or run it forward, somewhat similar to rugby rules, except that football followed the edict of “anything goes.” That’s sure to turn the conversation around!

We have a long way to go in 2020. We need the rest.

It may feel uncomfortable to take a rest from fighting the good fight, speaking truth about how communities can impart change in the right direction by calmly and passionately discussing their unique perspectives. But it’s also acceptable to take a breather for a few meals and instead try to find the commonalities at the table. After all, we have a long way to go in 2020. We need the rest.

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