Giving up crimson: A farewell to football


Iron Bowl 2008

At the Iron Bowl in 2008 in Tuscaloosa

I used to love college football with all my heart.

My default setting for Saturdays in the fall would be settling in for the Alabama game, an uninterrupted 4 hours of watching (sometimes listening to Eli Gold), yelling, tweeting, laughing and eating. I loved going to games, following the teams, just breathing it all in year-round.

It’s second only to Christmas in overblown holidays/seasons in these parts.

I never did follow the NFL. Lord knows I’ve been to enough high school and college games as a member of the marching band, and a handful of pro games. But college football has always been my one true love.

But I’m swearing off the stuff this season. The problems — both on the field and off it — have ruined my carefree enjoyment of the sport. (This pretty much leaves me with the Olympics. We won’t delve into its numerous issues today.)

This is not a crusade, but a simple lifestyle choice. If invited to watch or attend a game, I might say yes. But I reclaim my Saturdays for other diversions: a movie, a book, a walk in the woods.

The problems with college football have accumulated over the last few years, to the point I can no longer ignore them. Most are not new. Many elude a simple solution.

1. Brain injuries and the NFL coverup. Reading “League of Denial” [aff. link] in the middle of last season was edifying and horrifying. Authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru cite a growing body of research that points to the lifelong effects of the jarring repeat collisions.

Even teenagers, properly outfitted head to toe, can sustain brain damage through hits in practice and in games. Better helmets have reduced outright concussions, but have enabled players to play longer and take more hits.

Science has made the game safer in the short term and ever so much more costly in the long term. Breakthroughs have also contributed to another phenomenon of the modern age: bigger players at younger ages. These heavier and better conditioned high school players run faster and hit with more impact. The results:

“League of Denial” documents how the National Football League knew the research, and like the tobacco industry, launched a major decades-long campaign to smear scientists, ignore crippled players and tout the safety of the sport.

Read it, or watch it below.

Video: “League of Denial,” a “Frontline” report

I can’t continue to support a pastime that leaves so many players permanently and significantly damaged.

2. Cheating. I love coach Nick Saban. I love The Process. Do I think Saban cheats at college football?

Hell yes I do.

I don’t have a shred of proof, other than an acknowledgment that most top university programs bend the rules daily for academic requirements, keeping boosters in line, steroids and other supplements, cutthroat recruiting tactics and whatever else you got. Saban is probably very good at cheating and very good at hiding it. (Sorry, Nick.)

Sadly, this is not a new problem in big money college athletics, including men’s basketball. Nor is it a new problem at the high school or the pro levels.

I’ve always glossed over this unsavory part of the game. But no longer.

3. Criminal behavior. Some of the cheating tactics I mentioned above also happen to be illegal. But college football is a haven for players, coaches, administrators and students engaged in criminal activities.

Hardly a day goes by without a player somewhere being accused of theft, assault, rape or other crime. Students running sports betting operations, coaches involved with employees, and administrators turning a blind eye to all of it.

It’s been 16 years since Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” debuted, and I still think about this monologue from anchor Casey McCall in the premiere:

“Look, I got into this because I like getting people to like sports. And I’ve turned into a PR man for punks and thugs. And any atrocity, no matter how ridiculous, or hideous, or childish, it doesn’t matter. I make it sports.

“Ten-cent bagman whacks a skater’s leg with a crowbar, that’s sports. Second-round draft pick gets cranky in a Houston bar, and that’s sports. And let’s not forget the mother of all great sports stories: a double homicide in Brentwood.”

Video: Casey McCall considers quitting “Sports Night.”

Casey reaches his breaking point, and he’s paid to enjoy sports. Maybe I’ll stick to movies and television. No criminals and miscreants in Hollywood, right?

4. Declining sportsmanship. I don’t know if sportsmanship is actually declining. I do know that I like winning, and if Alabama loses, I still congratulate the other team and its fans. Even Auburn. (I have even been known to secretly pull for Auburn when it’s not the Iron Bowl.)

I don’t call fans by derisive nicknames nor do I take pleasure when rivals suffer misfortune. I enjoy my team and support them win or lose. That has always been enough for me.

What aggravates me is the boorish behavior by fans of all teams, amplified by social media. I regularly spot an acquaintance or three taking a pot shot at another school. It’s ugly, it’s classless, it’s demoralizing.

I don’t want that in my life anymore, though short of signing off all social media channels, it’s nearly impossible for me to avoid. And by leaving college football behind, my tiny positive voice will no longer be part of the fray.

Oh well. Roll Tide.

5. Exploitation of student-athletes. I have never come to a satisfactory resolution in my heart about the NCAA and the labor of student-athletes. Institutions make billions of dollars through donations, ticket sales, television and other media, licensing and secondary channels. (One example: Alabama’s winning record in recent years has resulted in record enrollment and skyrocketing revenue from tuition.)

Student-athletes get a free opportunity to learn and grow at a university. For most, the degree will become their ticket to a brighter future because making the pros is unlikely.

While I haven’t reached my own answers about balancing the exploitation of successful sports programs, a federal court has. Earlier this month, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the NCAA has violated antitrust laws in preventing football and men’s basketball players from compensation for use of their names and images.

This is a landmark decision, one that is perhaps decades overdue. But student-athletes are still a long ways off from receiving a paycheck for their many hours of practice, working out, studying playbooks and participating on the field.

I’ve decided to stop paying into the system by watching games and buying tickets.

Those five reasons got me here, to a life without college football. Even if somehow these problems disappeared tomorrow, I still cringe at the personalities and their tarnished legacies. Do you cringe when you hear the names Jerry Sandusky … Joe Paterno … Jameis Winston … Harvey Updyke … Lane Kiffin? And those are five off the top of my head.

I don’t know how I’ll manage a basic conversation without expressing my latest concerns about the team’s sluggish play or its next opponent. I don’t know if it’ll be worth having less flavor, less color in my routine.

But these problems rob me of my enjoyment, and I can no longer pay attention to the flow of the game, only what happens once the combatants are used up.

I love college football. But I no longer support it.


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