Over a year ago, I decided to stop watching football. To briefly summarize that thought process, I used to be a huge football fan, but after I started reflecting on the importance of going against one’s culture/interests to do what was “right” (e.g. the idea of a conservative supporting some basic gun safety laws) I decided I should walk the walk.

Football causes intense brain trauma to players, and that affects over a million athletes across high school, college, and professional football. The summer before I stopped watching, a study came out showing that of the 111 brains of former NFL players examined, 110 of them had CTE (99% for professional but also 88% of college players examined had CTE). Then factor in that poor kids are more likely to play football as their lottery ticket out plus the link between race and socioeconomic status, and the whole thing seems wrong.

So why would I return to watching football? Has any of that changed?

No, all of that is still true. But to me, that hasn’t been the whole universe of considerations. Really what it now comes down to for me is that football is a social connection. I’ve never been to Seattle or Jacksonville, but if I meet someone from there, talking about football is a good icebreaker. 

Is The Social Benefit Really Worth It?

I think so, yes. One major concern of mine is how so many people live in their bubbles and don’t have to confront good faith disagreements from other people. It makes it easy to strawman any disagreements, and it results in a political environment of yelling at each other while the wealthy and corporations get to consume all of the economic growth from the last 40 years. Geography (i.e. urban vs rural divides) and class already make this hard, and technology has only accelerated it. I want to try to interact with more “real” people (i.e. people that don’t all think like MIT PhD students), and I think that gets non-trivially hindered by my long list of things that I gave up. Navigating those spaces are already uncomfortable and hard, and common ground can be a very helpful starting point. So maybe it’s time for me to reassess.

Let’s say you and I are at dinner and you order a pitcher of beer for us. That’s when I awkwardly tell you that I don’t drink. We get our menus, and I decline splitting a pepperoni pizza because I don’t eat meat. I guess you probably feel like you shouldn’t tell that story about the amazing T-Bone that you ate last month. But it’s no problem! You pivot the conversation to the latest Odell Beckham Jr[1] drama. Sorry, once again, because I haven’t been watching football.

In reality, I actually try to superficially talk football when meeting new people and they bring it up (but I have now missed two offseasons worth of players moving around). But the basic idea still stands: People don’t want to feel judged. Everyone just wants to enjoy their thing without feeling like someone thinks they’re a bad person. Should every problem in the world be worth causing those little tiny social wrinkles in a large number of my social interactions?

What was the last thing you changed your mind about? I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not often  from some “other” convincing me I was wrong & dumb & needed to adopt their solution. No, instead it has usually tended to be someone who I could relate to telling me “Yeah I struggle with _____ and haven’t figured out what to do yet.” That’s what actually gets me thinking about it & reflecting on what I should do. I might not end up exactly where they do, but this give and take of “the right thing” needs trust and social connection in order for us to find out how to be our best selves.

Well Then Why Is It Important for Football But Not Vegetarianism?

Essentially, it boils down to my current belief that I can’t pull off all these hard lines at once. I don’t drink for personal and health reasons, but I gave up football & meat because they seemed like “the right thing to do.” Now I think I’m at a point where one of them needs to give. And if I have to pick which one stays, I pick vegetarianism. I think the scale of suffering for animals (who don’t have any say in the matter) is worse than what football does to poor kids (who don’t have very good choices but have more autonomy than the animals do). PETA estimates in the US we kill 9 billion chickens per year; given that 70-85 million people died in World War II, that would be a death toll of over 100 WW2s each year. For chickens alone. And the way factory farms treat these animals would be criminal if done to other animals.

What Does Not Watching Football Do Anyway?

Like many things in life (such as recycling more or going vegetarian), it’s not so much about the literal individual impact. It’s more about solidarity and signalling that things could be better if everyone chose to do <insert_good_thing_here>. To me, it’s showing that you think some cause is important enough to change your own habits over, rather than just insisting that other people have to do all of the changing.

To be honest, in March 2018 I was looking for something I could do to tell myself that I was doing “more”, and sacrificing football was that thing for me. And at the time, it was probably the right thing for me as I started my journey of trying things and seeing what felt right and what seemed to help others. It was a good process of grabbing on to what I could in areas like activism, protests, governance, research, and more. There’d be no way for me to get all of the things 100% right on the first try. But it’s been a useful journey.

In December 2018, I put my convictions to the test. I was offered ~$3,000 to consult on a sports analytics high school project. Should I turn down the offer because I swore off football or should I take the job and donate the money to a good cause like fighting malaria in developing countries or promoting diversity in STEM? I decided that my participation in the project didn’t hurt anyone & I agreed to join. Now I’m using the money to help start a local chapter of Girls Who Code at my old high school. And depending on how much that costs, I could still have a lot left over to donate to a good cause that would otherwise not have gotten that money. This exercise forced me to think about putting a dollar amount to the choices I made & try to assess whether it was worth it. In that case, it wasn’t. And in the case of social costs/benefits, I again don’t think it’s worth it.

But What If I’m Wrong? What If Football Really Is As Bad Or Worse?

That could be! As time has gone on, I’ve only gotten more confused & uncertain about what is or isn’t “right”. Some things seem pretty obviously correct, such as: fairness, dignity, and education. But a lot of things are hard. I’m viewing this decision as a course correction from maybe going too far in one direction last year, but either way I should probably reassess in a year or two again and see if I feel any differently.

I feel like I’m at a point where I’m on the fence about football & could end up on either side at the end of the day. I think I’m probably more uncomfortable with my Amazon Prime membership because of how much power it gives Amazon, how it eliminates competitors that can’t compete, how much control they have over us, and how relentless the company has been about efficiency.

I really don’t like the pressure I feel like I’ve put on myself to be someone who “doesn’t watch football for moral reasons” (not that anyone actually cares what I do, but we always feel like society is closely watching & scrutinizing us). And besides, there’s a spectrum of football participation; it’s not a binary. I can watch some games without buying merchandise or attending games. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard to try to 100% avoid following the sport: what do you do when it’s on at a bar or when your newsfeed is full of football posts from friends? For now, I’m going to start with the baby steps.


[1] 02/06/21: I changed “the latest Antonio Brown drama” to “the latest Odell Beckham Jr drama” because the post was written 9/8/19 back when “Antonio Brown drama” meant weird locker room behavior to get kicked off Raiders. Now that he has been accused of rape by multiple people, “drama” is not an appropriate label.

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