Dear NPR: The NFL cannot have an Existential Crisis

Patrick Whitehead
Oct 18 · 5 min read

“Cocktail Phenomenon” is the name for the familiar experience of paying attention to one activity — such as having a conversation at a party — when something from across the room suddenly rips you from it. It is as if a switch has gone off and whatever previously absorbed your attention is suddenly lost, and in its place is something new.

Earlier this month, I was staring absently at my phone as my wife drove us to the grocery store. She was listening to NPR as she always does, and I was ignoring it as I always do. As I explored the trucks that were for sale on Craigslist, three male voices took turns providing background noise. They were probably describing the methods for Belgian chocolate-tasting or how best to tune a piano, but it didn’t really matter. I was focused on something else. My attention was soon rent from my phone-screen, landing on the phrase “…existential crisis for the National Football League…”.

Image Adapted from Wikipedia.org

At first I was pleased. I had just written a book[1] predicting a return in popularity of the term. However, I had had in mind a return in popularity of the philosophy, not the new journalistic buzzword. I looked at my wife to get her reaction. With my eyes, I asked “did they really just use existential to describe the NFL?” With her eyes, she replied “don’t forget the molasses, don’t forget the molasses, don’t forget the molasses.” (When I asked her later, she remembered that the interview was about a village in Guadalajara with a very nice YMCA.)

Listening to the rest of the interview, I made out something about racism, activism, and a comment about the hip-hop icon and music-producer Jay-Z, but nothing about fundamental ontology or human existence.

Curious, I searched news periodicals for the newest vogue term. The NFL wasn’t the only nonliving thing that risked plummeting into vacuousness. I learned, for example, that neighborhood bars are at risk, as are nations of indigenous Cherokee children, humankind in general, and introverts. From what I could make out, “existential” was a synonym for mortality.

I wish they would stop; they’re diluting the philosophy.

For years, I have corrected students who explain with a self-certain head nod that existentialism is all about death. While death does factor into existentialism, it is not the defining feature. Existentialism begins with a focus on existence. Coffee cups and laptops take up space but they do not exist. Human bodies also take up space, but you and I exist.

Taking up space is the starting point for elementary physics. Objects are understood to be real insofar as they take up space. From this viewpoint, the universe is made up of things that take up space and, by extension, a thing is real only insofar as it does so. Existentialists don’t have any problem with this. But there’s more to living than taking up space.

Let’s say my wife and I have a baby. We’ll know it’s real because it takes up space. We can weigh it and measure it and make it behave. There are scientific procedures for each of these. The reality of our newborn will also be evident in our lives — we’ll sleep less and become more irritable. Again, all of this is verifiable through scientific scrutiny.

The new baby will also affect our existence. My perspective will begin to change, and not because I now have to look for my keys beneath a pile of brightly colored plastic toys. The way I plan my future will change, as will the way I understand my formative adult years (woeful preparation for fatherhood). I’ll become a mattress for the fleshy lump of clay, and a pack-mule for trips to the grocery store. My mood will no longer wax and wane with the seasons, but follow closely behind the changing temperament of the baby. This is to say nothing of how my relationships will change (including marriage).

Now compare these with the sort of change a new baby presents for my acoustic guitar. Unless we slide into anthropomorphism, the guitar merely remains there. Grubby fingerprints might smear the body polish, and shifts in humidity might warp the fret-board, but there is no existence that is transformed.

Existentialism does not focus on the physical properties of objects. Existentialism examines the meaning of being. You cannot not read an article the way my guitar stares at the fireplace from the wall all day. You read with intention, amusement, irritation, even hope. Guitars can do none of these.

I trust that the NFL means a great deal to its fans. Should it die, its fans would undergo a change. Many would be out of work and an enormous market of goods would probably dry up, affecting the lives of even more. But the NFL does not exist. It does not have aspirations for its future or disappointments about its past. It does not grow with the addition of teams the way a child grows taller, seeing the world through new eyes or with new understanding.

The implications of its misuse are more grave than poor word-choice. To equate existentialism with death is to equate everything it stands for with a beating heart — that is, with biology. With a host of neuroscientific approaches to choose from, it has become difficult to imagine as meaningful anything that lands outside of the network of neurons. I’m told that my concern, for example, that fatherhood will keep me from one day visiting Scandinavia, is a product of nerve-activity. You and I are nothing but a complicated and interconnected celebration of neurons.

But a rapidly beating heart does not differentiate for us excitement from fear. Brain-states are real, but existence is not.


[1] With Miles Groth, Resituating Humanistic Psychology

[2] To be fair, the existential crisis quote came from a sports commentator from The Nation.

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