Now all the youth of America are on fire…
For now sits Expectation in the air
We are only promised 16 days with our team each year. Sometimes we get more if we are fortunate, but even then, these days are rare.
In Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood, the Sunday morning of a Ravens game people in purple trickle out of their homes off to meet friends. Football season is fleeting, and we are determined to make the most of it. The bars always pulsate with sound, but these boozy brunches are busy with anticipation. On game days they serve as only the prelude to the main attraction.
In groups of five or ten, the brunch crowd will soon walk west to join the masses around the stadium, every one of them having the same thought: Let’s win today.
There is a bond between the strangers huddled around their cars and grills in this parking lot. A community has formed through fandom representing the best part of football. Most people learn to root for their team in the home, from family, but to the experience of truly loving a team often comes from being one person in the crowd.
There was just one other Ravens fan with me in a crowded Buffalo Wings & Rings in Amman, Jordan on the night Baltimore won Super Bowl XLVII. I had never met the guy before and never saw him after. But throughout that night and into the day, we hugged each other like brothers.
In good times, the sense of pride and fellowship can be overwhelming. During good seasons you tend to have the same conversation with every person you bump into. Each interaction is always just one sentence, one reference, one interjection away from turning into a chat about how great “we” are this year.
Through the emotional capital “we” gamble on the team each week, we have earned the right to claim that little bit of language. (Pay no mind to the unattached who snicker at you. They will never know what they are missing.)
As humans we spend our lives seeking out others with the same shared identity to join in the ecstasy of our victories. And we seek them out to share the burden of our sufferings. (One day the lean years of football fandom will come for New England, who won’t possess the tablet of immunity forever.)
During those god awful seasons, there is a comfort in knowing your individual pain is a part of a collective funk that hangs over the whole city. Every conversation will still turn to the team, but will eventually end in the thud of a dissatisfied half-sigh, half-grunt.
This week there is only the all-consuming energy of hope. Even the most Chicken Little of NFL fan bases know Week 1 is the time to revel in excited expectancy of the salvation which is coming around the corner.
The NFL has served us a dream. And we’re ready to gorge.
Our football fandom comes with ethical and moral dilemmas. There are patches of uneasiness that we must navigate. Moments of pointed discomfort.
The intense fandom—which I love—and the great sense of community—which makes being an NFL fan so intoxicating—fosters toxic tribalism. The raucous atmospheres we crave can lead to violence among fans rooting for opposing and, in some cases, the same team.
Those same fans, blinded by their tribalism, will rally around their heroes and defend indefensible violence against women and grant forgiveness without acts of repentance. Just keep winning.
There is also the quarterback who—in perhaps the last arena in which everyone in the country still gathers—knelt to demand the equal treatment African-Americans were promised. He has been denied the third season of his career: blackballed not for a crime, but for his silent request for justice.
And perhaps most of all, we can’t ignore the horrors this game inflicts upon the people on the field. We can’t ignore the fact this game kills the people who play it for us over the next dozen Thursday, Sunday, and Monday nights, too.
We won’t see death on the field, but with each snap, we are witnessing 22 men partake in a game of violence which is slowly shaving time off each of their lives.
We always knew the danger. The players knew, too. But now we all know the medical and scientific realities of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and we are no longer covered by claims of ignorance when it comes to the NFL.
The many painkillers players are coerced into taking so they can continue to collide. The bodies broken even before they turn 30. The concussions, the traumatic brain injury, and CTE, and the suicides, too.
We are sponsoring this hastening of death by watching each game. In continuing to be fans and fantasy owners demanding more yards and touchdowns for another season, we must confront the truth that “we” are part of this, too.
There will be pushback to this suggestion. From all sides, even fellow fans. The league, the teams, and their complicit media partners do not want their customers to consider all of this other stuff around the NFL. Their considerable financial interests are staked upon fans not considering the entire picture.
They paint pictures of perfection, just like I did in my Sunday tailgate utopia. At a glance, the NFL brings us together, the game allows people to overcome obstacles, it spreads love and joy which helps you get through your own life. But this whitewashing fails to present even parts of the full truth out of fear as to what may happen if the NFL was televised, warts and all.
All of that started again this week. The game we build our sports calendar around has returned. The game we build our week around. The game which dominates every conversation we have for the next four months has returned.
Yes, “we” are all going to sign up for another season of this. You and I will tolerate all of the bad, all of the ugly, and all of the horrors, too, because we need the euphoria only football can provide.
The Super Bowl ended just before 7 A.M. that day in Amman six seasons ago. I can’t help but giggle thinking about the absurdity of watching the team I grew up rooting for win it all while thousands of miles from home, alone in a crowded bar with only one other person who understood what this all meant.
There’s a great picture of me in First Circle just after the sun started to come up. After I shouted my good mornings to empty streets waiting for a taxi to drive by I stood there and smiled posing with my arms spread wide. I’m wearing a Ray Rice jersey.
Being an NFL fan is complicated.
Football, the game we love is back, warts and all.