As a sports fan, I get most excited toward the end of each summer, when football season comes back around. I love the endless chatter on sports radio and TV. I play endless hours of fantasy football with my friends for a pot of money, a trophy and bragging rights for the year. I am known in my household for spending entire Sundays in our living room heaping praise upon players for their spectacular exploits, and for shouting expletives at our big-screen TV when a player’s dismal performance upends my fantasy football victory.
Yes, I am that dude.
I’m not just a fan. I was a standout high-school and college quarterback who studied X’s and O’s in dark film rooms, specialized in completing end-zone fade routes and called audibles at the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball. No longer physically able to suit up and compete on the field, my fandom has only intensified. I truly love the game.
But this year, not so much. I just can’t get into this season because it has become painfully obvious that the NFL isn’t that into me, a Black man. While It hurts to say it, I’ve decided to boycott the game that I’ve loved since I was a 7-year-old pee wee player who didn’t know the difference between his knee and thigh pads. Recent social and political developments have killed my excitement. I just can’t stomach the recurring domestic violence cases and the mounting evidence of how prevalent the brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) is among football players. And I’m angry about the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and a group of mostly White owners’ who pledge allegiance to Donald Trump.
I have to admit that I’ve known for at least a decade that football is a sports culture where toxic masculinity thrives, and is rewarded by coaches, teammates, fans and corporate sponsors. As a gender violence prevention educator I have spoken about how boys learn early in their pigskin careers that they must be hyper aggressive, eschew weakness, embrace male dominance and suppress any displays of femininity to be successful. Football culture creates a space for boys and men to learn sexist attitudes—that girls and women are physically inferior and are only useful for cheering us on as we perform manly acts of athleticism on Saturdays and Sundays. The sport reinforces heteronormative aggressive male behavior and structural sexism. With each new suspension of an NFL player for violence against women, I’ve gotten closer to admitting that my consumption of football colludes with violent patriarchy. How can I continue to conveniently ignore these gender issues just to maintain my guilty pleasure of watching men crash into each other?
Adding to my growing discomfort is the NFL’s well-documented cover-up and indifference to the prevalence of C.T.E. in ex-players. In June, the New York Times reported alarming new findings from Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University CTE Center. In what is considered the largest study of its kind, McKee examined the brains of 202 deceased former players that had been donated to science. She found C.T.E. in 110 of the 111 NFL players’ brains. Of the 53 college players’ brains, 48 showed signs of the disease. And three of 14 high school players’ had the same results.
McKee’s findings deeply concern me. It’s not just that I am at risk of developing C.T.E., it’s the fact that the guys who compete on game days have become disembodied figures to me rather than human beings whose long-term health should be prioritized. By playing fantasy football and watching NFL games, I am helping feed an industry that makes billions of dollars off of the labor of objectified, mostly Black bodies. African-American males make up 6 percent of the U.S. population but comprise nearly 70 percent of the players in the league. How can I, as a Black man, watch a sport where the young Black men who play it will disproportionately develop problems with impulse control, aggression, violence, depression, paranoia and dementia?
And then, of course, there’s the apparent blackballing of Colin Kaepernick in retaliation for his refusal to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick, a free-agent quarterback who in 2013 led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, remains unsigned, despite the fact that his services could prove valuable to a team in need of an experienced, quality backup. Many NFL insiders acknowledge that there are at least 24 less talented professional quarterbacks who are currently on NFL rosters. This signals to me that the league could care less about Black men like me, who are three times more likely to die at the hands of police than our White counterparts. It appears that NFL owners are wielding their collective power to send a direct message to other Black players: Engage in social activism that White America doesn’t like and you, too, will be out of a job.
The irony is that while NFL owners, coaches and fans continue to focus on how Kaepernick chose to peacefully protest police violence it has affected one of the NFL’s own: Michael Bennett. This week the Black all-pro defensive end tweeted about how Las Vegas police officers abused him hours after the Floyd Mayweather/Colin McGregor fight. The police force has denied that race was a factor. But Bennett’s official statement, which describes officers chasing him down, throwing him to the ground, placing a gun to his head and pressing a knee into his back, brings Kaepernick’s protest into sharper focus, just as the NFL begins its 2017 season.
The White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, was actually the final straw for me. The White supremacists who descended upon the city to protect the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, have gone on record saying that they are emboldened by Trump’s agenda. I cannot ignore the fact that several NFL owners and coaches publicly supported this man during, and after, his 2016 presidential campaign, donating millions of dollars to his campaign. In the face of Trump’s insufficient response to domestic terrorism and his defense of the White nationalist protestors in Charlottesville, NFL owners and coaches were silent. Their silence underscores the negative power, race and class dynamics of NFL football.
So as the season officially began yesterday (September 7), I was searching for something else to fill the void that football once occupied. As much as it hurts to let go, I can no longer ignore the fact that the sport is as toxic and racist as this nation’s current president. I can no longer justify supporting NFL football by splitting hairs between a franchise’s ownership, the team they own, and the players that I root for at kickoff. I’m not cheering for an NFL plagued by violence against women, growing evidence of C.T.E., and racist owners. And neither will a growing number of fans and observers of all races who see what I see and have decided to skip this NFL season.
Byron Hurt played quarterback at Northeastern University. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and activist whose films include, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," and "Soul Food Junkies." Hurt is currently directing and producing "Hazing," a PBS film that shines a light on secret, underground and dangerous hazing rituals.