Where were you when the dream died and reality closed in? Maybe it’s still alive for you, or maybe it never was, but I’ve been asking myself that question for a few years now. Maybe more than a few.
I am not a football evangelist anymore, but I used to be. Time was, I could rattle off every NFL team’s win-loss record, division by division, and tell you which teams were in the wild-card hunt, which quarterback was closing in on a 5,000-yard passing season and which kick returner took the ball end-to-end for a touchdown that Sunday. (Dante Hall was the best at it, but Ted Ginn Jr. was my favourite.)
There was a time when Sports Illustrated posters fought for space on my bedroom walls: Marshall Faulk evading a tackle; Drew Brees threading a 40-yard pass. A confession: To this day, I own two Miami Dolphins jerseys (Dan Marino and Ricky Williams), three ‘Fins hats, two long-sleeve shirts and two windbreakers. Yes, there was a time—not altogether long ago—when Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays held ritual status. Not anymore. And as much as the dreamer in me still marvels at a perfectly-thrown spiral, a balletic end zone grab and a crunching tackle, I doubt it will ever be the same.
I’m not alone in my Super Bowl second thoughts—or my Monday Night Football malaise. More than two-in-five Coast readers in our most recent survey replied that they don’t care who wins Sunday’s Super Bowl between Kansas City and Philadelphia.
Which isn’t to say, of course, that those readers won’t be watching. An estimated 208 million people tuned in last year to watch the Matthew Stafford-led Los Angeles Rams embark on a fourth-quarter charge past the woebegotten Cincinnati Bengals. I was one of them. Commercial spots during the Super Bowl remain among the priciest ad space you can find.
But the days of fervent NFL fandom? I dunno. Count me out.
I don’t know if I could pinpoint the first tumbling ace in football’s house of cards. It was certainly before Washington owner Dan Snyder stubbornly refused for years, despite public pressure, to change his team’s name from a racial slur. Before quarterbacking legend Brett Favre got himself tied up in allegations of welfare fraud. Before Ray Rice and Aaron Hernandez and Deshaun Watson. It was sometime before Colin Kaepernick became villainized for taking a stand—or a knee, as it were—against racial injustice. Before the NFL tried to hush scientists who were shedding light on the sport’s ties to concussions and brain damage.
It was all of those things: An edifice so intent on shielding itself from scrutiny and filling its pockets that it was willing to treat its players as utterly expendable. And a sport that—even as its athletes defied age, conventional physics and imagination on-field—provided cover for some of the worst of human behaviour.
Maybe it’s naive to expect more out of a sport and its athletes—or to believe that a 100-year-old institution run by 32 billionaires would be concerned with anything beyond its bottom line. You could shrug it off as the way of the world: In real life, unlike in the commercials, Mean Joe Greene isn’t waiting to greet you in the stadium tunnel with a smile.
Maybe football—like all of life—is bound to be muddy, and ugly, and occasionally brutal, and filled with imperfections. Maybe it’s irredeemable. Or maybe the answer—and the beauty, as flawed as it is—lies somewhere in between: In a ball suspended in air, a crowd hushed, a thousand eyes focused on one moment… wondering, hoping, dreaming of what’s about to happen next.