Message to the NFL: Saturday Games Show How to Make Football Fun Again

I love football. But I’m also one of those people who is growing increasingly uncomfortable watching the sport. Which is something of a contagion for anyone who saw “Concussion” or pays attention to how the NFL Powers That Be fumble the proverbial ball when a domestic violence accusation names one of their own.

I think it was Junior Seau’s suicide that woke me up and inspired that haunting feeling I get when I cheer a hard tackle in favor of my team. Then I see the hard-partying ways of Johnny Football or follow the court proceedings for any professional player on the wrong side of the law and wonder why an organization worth billions doesn’t invest more in the wellness and welfare of the men who have made it so. And who can forget the video footage of Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé in the elevator?

One of ESPN’s own top college football analysts stepped away from the broadcasting booth earlier this week because he has seen first-hand the effects of brain trauma on his former teammates. And Su’a Cravens surprised the Redskins by suggesting he wanted to retire less than two years from the day he was drafted – a decision likely motivated by a concussion that affected his vision last year.

All of this has turned what used to be my Saturday hobby (some might say obsession) into a guilty pleasure that invokes questions about my own ethics and values. I miss the days when I could enjoy the game without contemplating whether my participation as an observer is contributing more to the problem than the solution.

But then weekends like this last one remind me why I continue to watch despite those nagging doubts. Tears fell as Jake Olson, the Trojans’ blind long-snapper, took the field on that PAT late in the game. To read the follow-on articles about how the Western Michigan coach conspired with USC’s Clay Helton to make it happen just reinforces the game day camaraderie of college football.

Then goosebumps popped up as Iowa fans turned around at the end of the first quarter to wave at the kids in the hospital looking down at the stadium. I agree with Scott Van Pelt; I hope this was the birth of a new tradition.

I even celebrated the historic Bruins comeback as Josh Rosen led his team to score 35 unanswered points against Texas A&M in the fourth quarter to win the game (but probably because my disgust with the SEC trumps our cross-town rival.)

Because we don’t watch football for the individual plays and the final score. We participate in the ritual that is game day to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and we wait patiently for those moments that validate our decision.

And it is those moments this past weekend that reminded me that football isn’t the problem; it’s the people who manage the game.

I don’t understand pink in October (why only breast cancer?) Or why team owners think taxpayers should subsidize their organizations’ facilities. But I do know that it’s past time for a culture change in the NFL. Time for Roger and his friends to embrace necessary changes to make player safety their primary focus. And let integrity, not profit, guide their decisions on other player issues.

Sure, I wish all players would stand for the National Anthem. But, as an American, I recognize everyone’s individual right to kneel in protest. I won’t boycott the game because a player wants to bring attention to an issue that matters to him.

However, more and more viewers will turn the channel if the NFL can’t make a personal commitment to make the game safer, to take care of their players on and off the field, and to enforce career ending punishment for behavior that compromises the safety of others.

Distance and denial are no longer an option. And doing the bare minimum to get by until the next kick-off won’t do either. Our growing unease will motivate us to find other ways to spend our weekends if the NFL persists as is.

For now I am holding onto my Saturdays, though the grasp is tenuous and requires universities to step up and do more for the men who take the field in college (and the NCAA to do less in the way of restricting their opportunities). But those Saturdays also hold the secret to making football fun again. Here’s hoping the NFL team owners are watching too, for the future of the game.