“Everybody keeps asking if we should let our sons play football… I’m not so sure I wanna let my son watch football.”
–Cousin Sal, of Jimmy Kimmel Live, on the B.S. Report podcast lamenting another loss by his beloved Cowboys.
Why does this national pastime have such a stranglehold on us that it can at once rule our economy and pop culture and also be so dangerous that we ponder whether it will still exist a generation from now?
The just-completed 2012-13 NFL season featured a few main themes, and while grand questions like the ones in the previous paragraph are asked in vague terms about what nameless faceless fans “want,” I will reflect them here through the eyes of a child, for that is who the NFL needs to become fans and start this cycle again. Again, it’s not so much about will our kids play football… will they watch?
Of course every season actually starts in the offseason. And last season started the day the Washington Redskins gave up a couple of first round picks and a small farm to move up in the draft to select QB Robert Griffin III. Once again, the Redskins were the Spring Champs. By the time the season started, it was quickly apparent that Griffin wasn’t a bust, and it was safe for this long-suffering Redskins fan to point at the TV screen and tell his son to watch Number 10.
I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew something would happen… and I wanted my son to see it.
As the season got underway, the replacement refs were as big a storyline as the games themselves. My son is only 5. He doesn’t understand the game. But he notices and says “I saw a yellow flag.” He knows the guys in the striped shirts are there to enforce the rules. He’s not old enough that I had to engage in any philosophical discussions about fairness and integrity as it related to having under-qualified, over-matched replacement refs trying to officiate NFL games.
The other subplot to this season was the concussion and player-safety issue. Long before President Obama and NFL players past and present were weighing in on whether they’d let their kids play football, I’d already been thinking about it. Hell no I’m not gonna let my beautiful and smart little boy bash his skull in! Are you kidding me? Watching a guy get lit up over the middle, seeing him lay motionless on the ground as the TV affiliate quietly excuses itself for a commercial break… this was The New Fan Experience. I didn’t know if the guy was okay… and I wasn’t sure if I wanted my son to see it.
But my son’s still young. I haven’t had to explain replacement refs and performance-enhancing drugs and whether a couple of guys beat their wives and which ones got DUI’s and which ones are the good guys. The real super heroes. Griffin’s leadership, humility and personality off the field are what really make him a hero, but he was also otherworldly on the field.
Week 6: Minnesota at Washington. My son started calling RGIII “Griffin Number 10,” which was way cuter and less annoying than the game announcers insisting on saying “THE THIRD” every single time they called his name. Late in the game, I once again pointed out Griffin Number 10. I didn’t know what would happen, but I knew something would happen… and I wanted my son to see it. RGIII took off down the sideline for a game-sealing 76-yard TD run.
After years of wallowing in putrid mediocrity, the Redskins mattered again because of this guy Griffin Number 10. And just as my son was reaching the age of learning team names and colors, I suddenly found myself instantly transitioned from “fan” to “father” faced with decisions about concussions and role models and the age of questioning whether I want my kid wearing certain guys’ jerseys….
It’s a little much, y’know? I just wanna sit on my couch and watch the game! But when we ponder the future of the league, and “bringing in new fans,” this is where it comes from. The kids.
So we show up at my cousins house on Thanksgiving just before 4pm. Tables are set and flatscreens are tuned to a little pregame warmup and there’s a blue team with stars on their helmets, and there’s a burgundy and gold team. Shortly after our arrival my son tugs on me and asks to whisper something in my ear. I lean down, “Yea, go ‘head, what is it?”
He says, “Is Griffin Number 10 playing?”
Fast forward to the end of the year, after 7 straight wins and a second victory over Dallas in the season finale had landed Washington in the playoffs. Somehow, with a suspect defense without the injured Brian Orakpo, with a rookie QB and RB, they won the NFC East. That’s “why football,” because a guy like Robert Griffin can swoop in make dads tell their sons to “watch this” as they transform a crappy team back into a respectable franchise seemingly over night.
I tried to explain what “playoffs” meant and that only a few teams were left, and that tomorrow we’d watch Griffin Number 10 play the Seattle Seahawks. He said, “Is his knee okay?” Either my son was having some freaky premonition, or everyone on the planet inherently understood this injury was an issue except Mike Shanahan.
I grew up a Redskins fan; my wife is a Steeler fan. We live in Ravens country. I figured I would raise my son a Steeler fan, as my only retribution toward Dan Snyder and because I didn’t want my son wearing racist logos and nicknames. (There are plenty of ways to boycott Mr. Snyder, and in addition to several recent columns in the Washington Post, a Redskins blog Hogs Haven gave a nice quick breakdown on accepting a name change.)
My wife and I aren’t so hardcore that we’ve drilled any of this fandom into his skull. We just love football. In fact, despite the rivalries, we don’t care if he ends up going to school and loving the Ravens cuz all his friends do.
So then I tried to explain what “Super Bowl” meant, and that there was only one game left for the championship. He knew that Griffin Number 10 was done. He understood that our local team the Baltimore Ravens were in the Super Bowl. And I told him that the San Francisco 49ers had his initials, SF, on their helmets. The two coaches were brothers.
I found myself trying to explain what “retirement” meant, and that this guy #52 running out from the smokey tunnel was one of the best players ever, and that he was gonna stop playing. Thankfully my son is still young enough that I didn’t have to explain deer-antler spray and cheating… or why I’d want him to be more like the Ravens Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was compelled to use his Super Bowl media platform to speak out against homophobia, and less like the Niners Chris Culliver, who told a media throng that he wouldn’t accept a gay teammate.
Watching the season through a child’s eyes, or eventually having to explain some challenging issues to our kids as they become fans…. what happens? What actually “works” as far as bringing in new fans? What sells? Busty beer ads and power rankings and graphics and bloated panels of talking heads from the jockocracy? No.
Players like Robert Griffin come along. And Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson for fathers and sons in other parts of the country. They make us tell our kids to “watch this.”
Sadly my boy wont be as athletically gifted as RGIII. So, no, I probably won’t let my son play football. Just letting him watch it might drive him crazy enough.