Should We Still Love/Watch the NFL?

For those who are already disinterested or dislike the NFL, it’s easy to see all the recent events as yet another reason to turn off the NFL. But what do real NFL fans do with what’s happening these days?

Confession: I like(d) Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. “Mighty Mouse” and “All Day” have been great athletes to watch play football. Further, up until now, their off-the-field personalities have been likable. Yeah, Rice has always been cocky but it’s “little-guy in the NFL syndrome” and it works. And though AP preaches a different type of Christian faith than I do, I did appreciate that he trusted Jesus and desired to share his hope with others (Did you see him “preach” at the ESPY’s last year?).

So when news broke out that Rice knocked out his then-fiancé and the images of him dragging out Janay, I was very saddened. Like many, I balked at the two-game suspension Roger Goodell gave and when the video in the elevator was released, wow! I along with everyone could not believe what I saw (I don’t doubt he lives in deep regret of that moment too). Then when the news of Adrian Peterson broke of him beating his four year old in the manner he admits to, my stomach turned again. The pictures and the report are enough, though however unlikely, I hope no video ever emerges of the look of Peterson’s face as he did what he did to his young son.

These high-profile incidents and many others are making us all wonder what is going on, how much is enough and what can actually be done? What does it mean to keep watching/following/cheering? What does it mean to stop?  How does this correlate to every other scandal in the entertainment industry, the political sector, the church world, and all the missteps that my friends and family members make in my own private world? There’s the big picture view of society, the closer ones, and the one in the mirror – what about him/her? And for those of us Christians, how does our faith inform this?

The point is often made that sports is a microcosm for life and I resonate with some of that. I find it to be partially true and I also find it to serve as a loose justification for all the time and attention given to it. Among my favorite parts of professional sports is there is supposed to be an innocence to be enjoyed. The games we played as children, the hail-mary catches, the bottom of the ninth home run and the buzzer beater is all part of the “thrill of the game” – any game. And so when baseball was tainted by the steroid-era, the NBA soured by Jordan’s retirement, and the NFL being sacked by concussion cover-ups and the constant cycle of out of control behavior, much of the innocence is lost and the games/athleticism/narrative of sport is harder to appreciate.

First, my love for the NFL: I have a bit riding on this. I’ve been a fan for a while. I’m also in three fantasy football leagues. (Three?? I have friends. But really, one moment you’re talking about trading A.J. Green for Alfred Morris, the next you’re talking about the pains/joys of fatherhood). I may not look it but I’ve loved the NFL for decades. I don’t wear jerseys, I don’t play Madden anymore, I rarely go to games (games are hard for pastors to get to)  … but I follow the NFL and we go way back. 

Among my first memories of enjoying the NFL was Walter Payton and the ’86 Bears. I was able to catch the tail end of his brilliant career and I remember watching his last regular season game at Solder Field. If memory serves me right, “Sweetness” scored twice and threw the balls into the crowd. I still remember the game-caller saying on the air, “Oh no, I’m sure Canton wanted those balls and Payton is saying, ‘No, this is for everyone.’”

After Payton retired and I exited out of the age of single digits, I found Jim McMahon and The Fridge Perry to be obnoxious/annoying. I found the Eagles to be worse and though we were living in Pennsylvania, most of my friends weren’t Eagle fans but instead preferred the Jets, Giants, Vikings and Bears. My fanhood pin-balled between the Giants/49ers. All I really knew was that I couldn’t support a team who threw snowballs at Santa Claus (yep Evan, I may not have been alive for it, but I’m not letting it go :).

It’s a bit sappy to say but the NFL has been a part of my life for nearly 30 years and there’s been a lot to enjoy: West Coast offenses, Bo Jackson, Brett Favre pre-weirdo stage, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” TO being TO, the Cowboys always losing and Eli beating Brady in the Super Bowl … twice.

Then in the last ten years, we started to hear about the concussions, then the cover-ups, a few more scandals, the increasingly out of control behavior, and now the recent news of all the domestic violence. Even though there are great ambassadors of the game like Peyton Manning, Russell Wilson and the stories of Jim Kelly and Devon Stills that transcend team loyalties, it’s getting harder to watch.

And this is where sports being a microcosm of life which allows us to make a few observations:

It’s definitely a business and their two biggest concerns is the media onslaught they’re getting and the sponsorships they’re losing. Yes, I’m inserting the “It’s always about money” comment here. The NFL doesn’t really worry about losing fans – they’re more worried about losing cultural capital and sponsorships. Because it’s about what it means when you lose corporate sponsorships. When one major brand no longer wants to be affiliated with another major brand, it’s not always about values and responsibility. It’s about being associated with “you”, and “you” is bad for our brand and that’s bad for business and yes, in the end, it’s about the money.

They won’t worry about losing you and me until it translates to dollars. Despite what we are told at every Super Bowl, “We do this for you, the fans! It’s all for the fans!” Right now, they’re more worried about losing Coors Light. Can you believe that? The NFL prefers Coors Light to you and me. 

Second, we have to be careful about creating scapegoats out of the likes of Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, ESPN, TMZ and/or whoever else we choose. We can blame the owners, we can blame entitled athletes, we can blame the nature of the capitalism, we can even blame each other but putting all the blame on the wrong/right people/person is only a temporary solution. To be sure, offending parties must be brought to justice and be punished appropriately, but to create scapegoats so we can get back to business is unwise and unjust.

Third and for my Christian and morally conscious friends: Boycott the NFL if you like, but do so on your personal preference as I’m unconvinced we can create an actual Christian/moral justification. Personally, my faith rarely moves me to leave or boycott a complicated situation. While I find validity of such practices appropriate in clearly immoral contexts, gray areas/conversations/issues can often benefit from the rich and spiritual nuances often coming from Christian/morally-conscience perspectives. 

After all, does God ever turn off the channel on us? And am I hiding behind God here? Good question. 

As we consider, let’s ask if God is still “watching” the NFL? If we can assume He’s “watching” everything, it feels odd to conclude that He’s suddenly gone. And if He has turned off the NFL, what else has God turned off? Am I still on the radar? Are you? Frankly, it seems that God is even more willing to be found during these days of the NFL, in my life and in yours.

Certainly the NFL shield has its gaping holes right now. Certainly there is plenty to be outraged by. Certainly the game must be become safer and the off-the-field antics must be punished and significantly lessened (For instance it feels like a step in the right direction that Mel Kiper dropped Jameis Winston 22 spots down in his draft projection).

It is getting harder to watch and feel enthused about the NFL these days as there are some gaping holes in the shield these days. And perhaps this is good for some of us to direct some of our attention to some of the other needed issues/concerns/relationships in our lives. But as we do so, let us remember that all of this is a part of life and worthy of our best thoughts/practices/prayers and not exempt from redemption.

Someone quipped there will definitely be football in heaven. I agreed but like with so many things, it will certainly look different than what we have today. But some things might be similar.



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