Why Breaking Up With The NFL Makes Me Feel Like a Shitty Person
To understand how hard it was for me to give up football, you need to know two things: I was born in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and Franco Harris was sad when my dad died.
The only thing going right in Pittsburgh in the ’70s was football. Steel production was on the decline and the tech boom hadn’t stepped in to gentrify the place (for better and worse). The Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls in January of 1975 and January of 1976. I had been conceived shortly before the first one and was hanging out in my playpen for the second one. In my family, that meant I was destined for great things.
I didn’t like football as a kid, but I couldn’t escape it. It was always on, at my house or my grandparents’ house or whatever friend’s house I happened to be at on any given Sunday. There were times it felt like football was the only thing my family could agree on. I didn’t realize how much it had seeped into me until I left.
In the early 2000s, I was living in New York City and discovered Blondie’s, a Steelers’ bar on the Upper West Side. Walking into that bar, with its sticky floors and waffle fries, was like coming home to a place I didn’t know I missed. I can’t say I was riveted by the games, but the rhythm of the announcers’ commentary and the cheers and banter of the fans was everything. I met people I knew by degrees, someone who married the brother of a girl I went to middle school with and a guy who shopped at the music store where I worked in high school. There were also large men, ten years my senior, in Steelers jerseys.
“Are you from Pittsburgh?” I would ask when they offered to share their table and watered-down beer with me.
“Nah, I’m from here, I just picked them as a team because they were good when I was a kid.”
I appreciated the men’s fandom and hospitality, but part of me pitied them just a bit. There’s no way you can bleed Black and Gold if you didn’t grow up at the confluence of the three rivers. Steeler Nation was not picking the best team when you were ten, even if you carried that love with you your entire life. Steeler Nation was synonymous with with home.
During the 2005 football season, my father lay dying in a hospital bed in Pittsburgh. I traveled to see him when I could, but when I couldn’t, I went to Blondie’s to watch the games. Some weeks that was a close to “home” as I could get. The Steelers went on to win the super bowl in February 2006, two months after my father died.
During the 2008 football season, a Pittsburgh friend lost his wife in a horrible accident. As the Steelers made it into the postseason and then into the Super Bowl, we sent messages back and forth about the fact that no matter how stupid it was, we still needed the Steelers to do well in honor of our departed loved-ones. They won the super bowl that year, too.
I love football not only because of where I’m from, but because of who I am. My dad was a college athletic director who regularly played racquetball with Franco Harris during the legend’s career. My brother was the place-kicker at Pittsburgh’s Central Catholic (Dan Marino’s alma mater) and was a recruited walk-on at University of Alabama (Roll Tide!). But I gave up participating in competitive sports after one season of basketball in 7th grade. I acted in plays, wrote poetry and by the time I was living in New York City, I was working in the education department of a non-profit Broadway theatre. I liked that football, and the NFL in particular, was an anachronistic part of my character. It allowed me to flaunt conventions in a socially acceptable way. When someone like me, a short, Jewish, artsy feminist says she likes football, heads turn. I liked that.
But I’m three weeks into a pro-football fast, and I think it’s going to last. Calls from Shaun King, the NAACP and others to boycott the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of employment and the overt racism that led us here started over the summer. I quietly considered joining the boycott. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, because I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to give up my team, and I was worried if I had a conversation about it, I’d have to keep my word. So instead of talking about it, I just tried it.
I’m sure this sounds precious, maybe even annoying, to those of you who gave football up easily or never loved the game, but The Steelers helped me deliver my first child … in spirit. When I complained I was too tired to go on after a 36-hour labor, my husband looked me in the eye and said, “Do you think James Harrison had the energy to run down the field and score a 100-yard touchdown? No! But he did it because he had to.” My first child was born a few pushes later.
For me, sitting on my couch on a Sunday, watching my team, indoctrinating my kids and scrolling through my Facebook feed full of posts from Steeler Nation has always been something I looked forward to, maybe in a way only a Pittsburgh-native can appreciate. The only bumper sticker I have ever put on any car I’ve owned says SIXBURGH, and when each of my children was in utero, we gave them nicknames of Steelers rookies, as they would be the rookies in our family.
But this year is different. It’s no longer an option to laugh off a celebration for something that is antithetical to my world view. The truth is, as much as I loved The Steelers, and by extension, the NFL and the game of football, it has always been a guilty pleasure. I knew from the time I started hanging out in stadiums for my brother’s high school games, that football was a stand-in for war and violence, a celebration of testosterone and adrenaline. These are things I don’t seek out in my daily life, and yet I cheered loudly for them in the guise of football. If the 2016 election taught me anything, it’s that if you don’t live your values, you will lose them.
And while I didn’t expect to get a standing ovation for what is ultimately a symbolic gesture (and seriously, who gives a CRAP if I don’t watch the NFL), I didn’t expect to feel horrible either. But I do. Because boycotting in 2017 means I didn’t boycott earlier. It means I looked the other way when evidence of widespread player CTE suffering was coming to light. It means I looked the other way when players repeatedly committed and were rescued from the consequences of heinous crimes including murder, animal abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence. It means I looked the other way when even my Pittsburgh-born and bred mom, who made nachos for the game and held dinner on Sundays until after the last play ended, gave up the sport last year in opposition to the overblown capitalism that means football players are overpaid in a society that fails to care for its most vulnerable. If boycotting now means I’m on the right side of history, it means I’ve been on the wrong side for several decades.
But we take the steps we can, when we can. Even if that means turning our backs on the things we thought defined us. And rest assured, I’ve done a lot more in service to my community than turn off the TV, but in some ways walking away from The Steelers has been the hardest on my heart.
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller and organizer. After the 2016 election she co-founded Lancaster Action Now Coalition to support and amplify the good work being done in Lancaster County to protect and empower communities who have long been marginalized and oppressed and/or are currently being targeted. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.