Week One

On not watching NFL football in 2017: a longtime Baltimore Ravens fan considers the ethics of fandom in 21st century America. Part 1.

It’s the second Sunday in September, Week One in the National Football League. Today marks the first 2017 regular-season game for my hometown Baltimore Ravens, a team I’ve followed quasi-religiously for nearly two decades. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t watch or listen to the game. Not because I had another commitment, or was traveling, or had work to do. I have memorably gone to great lengths to watch games in all of the above situations, usually bringing along a jersey or other talisman for the occasion, or positioning one in front of the TV at home (as my favorite local sports talk radio host often reminds listeners, “fan” is short for “fanatic”).

I don’t know who won the game, a divisional standoff between the Ravens and the Cincinnati Bengals, against whom we often struggle. I don’t know if our opera-singing kicker, Justin Tucker — the best in the game right now — hit a game-winning field goal from a shocking distance. I don’t know how our talented but inconsistent quarterback, Joe Flacco, fared in his first real test following an offseason back injury. I don’t know if the offense, with a few new and dynamic players but many familiar holes, found it characteristically difficult to move the ball, or whether the significantly retooled defense, historically the team’s strong suit, was dominant enough to compensate.

I didn’t tune in because the 29-year-old, free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick — who very nearly completed a brilliant comeback against the Ravens in Super Bowl 47 as a member of the San Francisco 49ers — was not signed by a team (including the Ravens, who demonstrated both need and interest) this offseason. Kaepernick is not in the NFL right now for one reason: he engaged in a silent, peaceful protest by sitting or kneeling during the national anthem that opens every sporting event in our country. Kaepernick could no longer countenance this hallowed ritual, in the face of another thriving American practice: the murder of innocent, unarmed Black people by police. Because he is Black, and because he is not currently a superstar in the league, Kaepernick is considered expendable by the 32 team owners and the league’s commissioner, almost all of whom are white men.

There are, and have been, many reasons to stop watching NFL football. Research has increasingly shown that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, is an all-but-unavoidable consequence of sustaining concussions and other blows to the head. (When this research entered the mainstream, some proclaimed it “the end of football.”) Off-field violence by players, especially domestic violence, is handled poorly by the league: as in Kaepernick’s situation, disciplinary action often appears to be contingent on a player’s star status or lack thereof. More broadly, football is the crown jewel among major American sports in reflecting the racist foundations of our country, through games in which white people leverage Black bodies to make money.

A friend and fellow die-hard Ravens fan characterized the choice to stop watching football as “an easy decision.” Is it? Considered in isolation, the moral questions above suggest that abandoning American football, as many already have, is a no-brainer. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Ethical choices aren’t made in a vacuum: as with any deep or formative attachments, fandom doesn’t disappear overnight. Self-awareness merits an acknowledgment of the good and bad elements that we embraced before deciding that the latter outweigh the former.

I write all of this from the most privileged position imaginable. My only connection to football is as a fan. I’m a white guy who has never seriously played the game at any level. I don’t have family and friends whom the sport has shaped. There are no meaningful consequences to my turning off what is, after all, just a game. Writing down and sharing my thoughts, in the hopes that they may resonate, is what I do as a musician. But in this case, doing so may prove indulgent or gratuitous. I don’t know yet.

One last thing. I just saw the score of today’s game on social media: 20–0 Ravens, on the road. Their first win in Cincinnati since 2011. I let myself read a little bit about the game, in particular the defense’s impressive performance. I smiled. A number of my friends who have stopped watching football did so while the Ravens, a leading franchise throughout the 21st century, wallowed in relative mediocrity during the years following their 2012 Super Bowl victory. It’s just one game, but if their success continues, that will add another layer to this journey.

First in a series. Next entry: Belonging