NFL Kickoff 2017: How I Learned to Love the NFL Again
The 2017 NFL season’s infancy is for the most part sticking to script. Star player (in this case Ezekiel Elliott) possibly suspended for the opening weeks as the result of an NFL investigation that is more probable than not lacking in credibility. Supremely talented rookie (in this case Joe Mixon) embraced after committing a heinous act of abuse against an ex-girlfriend. More players sprinkled throughout the league who have beaten women, collected DUIs and used illegal performance enhancers. Head trauma concerns continue to skyrocket.
This edition of preseason cringe has added a deeply painful wrinkle: blackballing Colin Kaepernick for expressing his first amendment right. Mr. Anonymous and all of his anonymous cousins can denigrate Kaepernick’s ability and character all they want, but the evidence – most recently, Brock Osweiler getting another job first ‑ overwhelmingly points to the unsavory truth. This saga has exposed the darkest, most hypocritical underbelly of the league, where owners happily employ criminals while casting aside Kaepernick and the $800,000 he has raised for oppressed communities as distracting. Honestly, it’s gross.
Because of these flaws in mentality, for me, football in general has felt less fun and way less like family unless your family is of a specific political belief.
It is getting harder for thinking, socially conscience people to compartmentalize it all. We typically do so with fantasy football where we morph living humans with names into nothing more than simplistic acronyms (RB2, WR3) and stat lines. But even fantasy is often not family-friendly. I drafted with my six-year old son a few weeks ago and subsequently got to teach him about DUIs after one of our wide receivers, Willie Snead, was suspended.
Relaunching and managing a website promoting this league has at times been a struggle this offseason, to put it mildly. The nucleus of the sport remains unchanged. Players exhibit jaw-dropping feats of athleticism and skill operating as pawns during the world’s most glorious chess match. The compelling strategy and nuances of football, not to mention the hoopla, can mask a lot of the ickiness.
Still there have been days when I have approached this NFL season the way most teenagers watch slasher film, with their hands forming a cupped dome over their eyes so they can only see a little bit. While questioning the direction of the league, but staying true to my goal of engaging more of its female fans, I have done a lot of soul searching. In a quest for positivity and fun, I have had days where I only watch film and ignore social media. Other days I have read prior Grudenims that at least guarantee some temporary smiles. I have daydreamed about Roger Goodell and all 32 owners holding a press conference where they admit political bias against Kaepernick, apologize and let him choose the backup job he wants. (In this scenario, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti would get the most mic time.) Yet it is never enough to mask the cloud.
But just as I was trudging into the season with a mix of duty and dread, one pillar revived my confidence in making this league my livelihood and promoting its ups and downs.
The players. Altruistic, intellectually curious players.
Tragedy can often show a true person’s colors. If what J.J. Watt has managed to orchestrate in relief for Hurricane Harvey victims is any indicator, he should earn a Presidential Medal. Watt set a modest goal of raising $200,000 a week ago. As of this writing, donations were closing in on $20 million. Watt’s constant video updates that drip of emotion and appreciation are not sponsored or required. They are the product of a really amazing person using his platform to positively impact an innumerable amount of lives. Watt is hardly the first player to use his status for good, nor is this Watt’s first charitable rodeo, but his inspiring efforts are a strong reminder of just how powerful that NFL pulpit can be.
Another tragedy, Charlottesville, united players in a way that has long been missing in the NFL. While Kaepernick has been ostracized from the NFL in an effort to squash anthem protesting, his friends like Michael Bennett and Malcolm Jenkins carried on the powerful statement, making clear that racial inequalities are the culprit.
The roots of this message were sadly on display for the world when empowered KKK and Nazi groups spewed their own brand of hate and violence. The reverberations were real and far reaching. More players kneeled in the aftermath unable to see the American flag solely as a beacon of military achievement as the NFL intends. But it wasn’t just black players who feeling the oppression. Their white brethren started to feel the effects, to ask more questions, to understand the root causes of Kaepernick’s message and as a result started publicly showing support. They placed hands on their black teammates shoulders during the anthem. They kneeled in solidarity.
Even players like Aaron Rodgers who still stand alone for the anthem, seek to understand: as he told ESPN’s Mina Kimes:
“I think the best way I can say this is: I don’t understand what it’s like to be in that situation. What it is to be pulled over, or profiled, or any number of issues that have happened, that Colin was referencing — or any of my teammates have talked to me about….But I know it’s a real thing my black teammates have to deal with.”
There are other exciting elements of the current NFL – a full-time female coach in Katie Sowers, a compelling dynasty in New England and the sheer talent the league trots out each Sunday but it is this recent, organic power of player goodness and unity that has me energized. Is it kickoff yet?