So we have made it halfway through the NFL’s regular season. Forgive me for this, but thank goodness. I love football, love the Sundays on friends’ couches, love the grumpy press conferences and the superhuman sprints and the touchdown celebrations and—yes—the sheer, raw force of it. And yet the idea of approaching spring’s football-less abyss comes as a relief.
Football isn’t really fun anymore. There are moments, of course, sometimes whole electric hours, of the good stuff: Russell Wilson laying waste to opponents, game-winning 61-yard field goals, the rise of Deshaun Watson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Leonard Fournette. In February, some team will win the Super Bowl, and for that franchise and a whole metro area’s worth of recarpeted dens with high-def screens and dogs lying dutifully just out of Cheetos range, that day will be fun. But the rest? I don’t know. I find myself cringing as much as cheering, and I wonder where we go from here.
The NFL’s favorite defense of itself, the one it deploys when something happens that the league doesn’t want to discuss, is that it is strictly an entertainment machine, a three-night-a-week (except when it’s four!), 17-weeks-a-year (for now, anyway) spectacle carefully honed for maximal American enjoyment. It is fiercely protected by its gatekeepers as such. Commissioner Roger Goodell has used this line of argument to hint at his distaste for complications like this year’s leaguewide social inequality protests. The ideology also popped up in an ESPN report on October’s meetings between owners and players to discuss those protests, in which the motivating force of the group of anti-protest team owners led by the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones was described as a belief in the NFL as a “strict entertainment company” that must dictate the minutiae of player behavior “in service of its financial bottom line.” Would you yell at a movie theater if you were upset about health insurance regulations? Dispute the taste of a museum curator whose exhibit lacked commentary on what comprises a fair minimum wage? This has been the NFL’s default response to every crisis: Are you not entertained?
Or so it went. But this season hasn’t been like the others, because while this premise of football-as-monolithic-entertainment has always been a bit risible, in 2017 it cracked right open. The protests during the national anthem, begun by Colin Kaepernick in the fall of 2016, swept across the league. Players kneeled and talked to reporters about racial injustice and police brutality. The president complained, saying players who chose to kneel were unpatriotic and criticizing the league’s concussion protocol—for being too concerned with player safety, not the other way around. The vice president turned up at a Colts game and then made a show of storming off before kickoff, a stunt that cost taxpayers something like $240,000. Amid the commentary from the White House, the protests only grew. Owners, like Jones, kneeled too, praising “unity”; sponsors complained; Jones threatened to bench any players who kneeled a week later. In talks about players protesting to bring awareness to causes in which they believe, Texans owner Bob McNair said he didn’t want “inmates running the prison.” The following Sunday, most of his players kneeled, reportedly going so far as to threaten to peel the Texans logo off their helmets. This week, a pizza company blamed its decline in sales on the whole rigmarole.
There’s been more, some of which you may have read about and some absorbed in microdoses, little snippets of angry talk-radio segments or furious op-eds that creep, increasingly, out of the sports section. There’s Ezekiel Elliott, accused of assaulting a former girlfriend; there’s the NFL, self-satisfiedly announcing Elliott’s six-game suspension and then sparring with the Players Association in courts in two states. There’s Kaepernick, still out of a job, filing a grievance against the league, alleging collusion. Cam Newton said something sexist to a female reporter. Joe Mixon, who broke a woman’s face in college and promptly ran away, an incident captured in its entirety on video, was welcomed in Cincinnati. A lawsuit revealed rampant distribution of narcotics across the league and disavowal of federal medical regulations. It’s crass to list these things, which have little in common beyond their onerousness and the frequency with which broadcasters have termed them off-the-field issues. But these are the stories of the 2017 season.
Or how about this to describe the state of the league: The NFL, a place where you can hurt your knee with such violent force that doctors consider amputation. The NFL, where a star quarterback goes down clutching his shoulder and then word trickles out about how many screws are holding him together. The NFL, where another quarterback has to seek outside medical advice when his what-is-even-amiss shoulder injury doesn’t get any better, and where a third quarterback fractures his spine and is inserted back into his team’s starting lineup two weeks later. The NFL: where you are asked to play with a broken back.
That’s setting aside the things that happen inside players’ helmets, like the CTE diagnoses that, as announced in September, we may soon be able to learn information about before it’s too late. There’s the family of Aaron Hernandez, suing the Patriots and the NFL for having “failed to disclose, treat, or protect him from the dangers” of football. There’s Davante Adams, limp and carried off the field on a stretcher; Joe Flacco, bleeding from his ear after a hit for which there was neither a suspension nor a fine. Adams, who spent a night in the hospital, was back in uniform for his next game; Flacco is expected to start this Sunday against the Titans.
What to make of a season heavy on discord and light on joy? I find myself returning again and again to the suspicion that much of the discord—in outline, if not in specifics—has been here for some time, and in the past we’ve just been distracted by the football itself. This year, you might have heard, the quality of games has been lackluster: The caliber of quarterback play has been lacking; scoring across the league has been down; in Week 8, not a single game was played between teams with winning records. The injuries have stacked up to a sickening degree: As The Ringer’s Riley McAtee pointed out last month, the MVPs of the past six NFL seasons are presently injured, out of football, or newly mediocre. On Thursday, it was the Texans’ Watson, He Who Was Meant To Save The 2017 NFL Season, who went down for the year with a torn ACL.
Are we, deprived of the razzle-dazzle of a more compelling on-field product, seeing the NFL laid bare? Or are the problems that have always circled the league—its strange recent twinning with the U.S. military; its abandonment of hurt, used-up, or otherwise ineffective players; its incentives to treat the human body as a machine; its inherent complicity in the country’s thornier injustices—getting worse? If they’re getting worse, then shouldn’t the NFL be held responsible for making them that way? Aren’t we, even as we groan about how much more fun this all was in the past, just becoming tallies on the clipboards of the billionaires who don’t want to fix anything so much as they’d like to drown it out in the noise of 75,000 paying customers? Do we hope the football gets better?
The balance, for now, seems fragile. And I wonder how much further we can go before it feels irrevocable, too.