I grew up in Washington, D.C., on football, in a football town. The Vice-Principal of my Junior High was a Dallas Cowboys fan. Every time Dallas played D.C., he’d get on the PA system before the game and taunt the student body, telling us how Dallas would win the next game. We’d respond by singing (yelling), “Fight on, fight on, till you have won/ Sons of Washington” at him in the hallways.
My high school football team lost to the juggernaut that was T.C. Williams (of Remember the Titans) every year, but we sent several players to the NFL. I went to a huge football school in college, and continued rooting for them as an alum. In the Rose Bowl, I cheered my college team on in person (a very poor person, those tickets weren’t cheap) as they won the National Championship. At the Fiesta Bowl another year, they lost and sent me and my friend JM into a depression (and near bankruptcy because tickets AND hotel).
Even though I loved the game, with its addictive turnovers and sudden swings of momentum, it’s always been clear there is something rotten in football. From day one, the players payed a heavy physical price, while the NFL was considered a “nonprofit” for decades. And while the fans’ loyalty to their team was boundless, the reverse was never true. Teams demanded new, tax-payer funded stadiums. They switched cities like extortionate toddlers if the locals couldn’t – or wouldn’t – meet their demands.
When the grim medical findings about repeated concussions surfaced, the NFL did its best to sink the reports. Former players still haven’t been fully compensated for mental and physical disabilities suffered while making billions for team owners. Many players with CTE have committed suicide.
And don’t even get me started on how the NCAA exploits its college football players, sending them onto the field of inevitable injury while pocketing billions. Like the enslaved Roman gladiators, the NCAA football players aren’t paid and can’t hold a job, but work up to 60 hours a week – which brings to mind very ugly slavery analogies, given that many of the players are Black Americans.
These were just some of the many, many reasons to give up football.
But I didn’t. I watched the games, bought the jerseys, and even wore the pajamas of my favorite teams.
You know what made me give up football?
Beowoof – Woofie for short — was a rescue dog. Born in a Los Angeles Animal Shelter, he was adopted, abused, and returned. Someone had hit – or kicked – one of Woofie’s back legs when he was a juvenile.
The joint was slowly degenerating when we adopted him at six months of age, though Woofie didn’t often limp. We saw several specialists, and debated everything from amputation to pins that would hold his degenerating hock into a static, but stable, position.
In the end, we opted for pain meds and ice, holding surgical options in reserve. Woofie was a big dog, needing as many legs as possible to hold his weight. He also loved to stretch out his back legs.
And how would he stealthily sneak up onto the forbidden couch at 2 AM with just one back limb?
You’d never know our goofy, super social dog had been traumatized and injured. That dog sprinted out any open door in search of playmates. He lived for the dog park, and never seemed to mind how easily other dogs knocked him over. He always won tug-o-war against our other rescue dog, Fey. He tried to play with every dog, cat, or human he ever met.
The only thing Woofie hated was football.
He didn’t start out hating it. He happily hopped up on the futon next to me while I was glued to the TV at the end of college football season. He gobbled up loose chip bits and napped.
Until my team fumbled – two yards from endzone.
“No!” I howled. “Goddamn it, what the fuck is wrong with you?! No, no, no!” I pounded my fist into the back of the futon, right over Woofie’s head. Then I jumped off the futon, snarling and stomping in front of the TV for at least 10 minutes before realizing my dog was gone. During a commercial break, I looked for him in the kitchen, certain he’d gone counter surfing.
He wasn’t in the kitchen. Or the bedroom. Or the bathroom. Or the living room, dining room, or bedroom.
I found Woofie huddled next to the dryer. Shaking.
My happy-go-lucky, irrepressible hound was shivering in fear.
I felt awful. Had my couch-bashing had brought up bad memories? Had I given my dog a PTSD episode? Or did he just think he’d done something wrong, or that I might hit him instead of the couch?
I didn’t know exactly what had terrified him, but I had to make it stop.
I tried to coax him out with food. He didn’t move. I tried love and belly rubs. Nothing. Tennis balls and toys. Still nothing.
I turned off the TV.
Woofie stopped shaking. He gobbled up treats. We played ball. We had belly rubs. I told him I was sorry, and that he was a good boy, over and over. He seemed fine.
The next day, I settled in to watch the NFL games while my husband made snacks. Two minutes later, Andy appeared and said, “Why is Woofie shaking next to the dryer?”
I turned off the TV. Woofie returned to normal and left the laundry room. But from that day on, every time he heard the sound of a football crowd and referee whistles, our dog went to the laundry room and shivered. Regular TV shows didn’t bother him. Volleyball didn’t bother him. The Olympics didn’t bother him. Only football sent him running.
Over the next few months, a combination of food, an extra calm human, and the mute button helped Woofie conquer his fear of football games .
I, on the other hand, never got over my dog-traumatizing trauma. I was ashamed that I’d lost my temper so badly that I’d mortally terrified my formerly unflappable dog.
I was ashamed that I’d let football have so much power that it could infuriate me to the point where my afternoons — my dog’s afternoons — would be ruined.
I began to see how much of my life had revolved around football. Not only did it wreck my mood and my bank account, but I’d started scheduling the gym, dinners with friends, and vacations around the games.
How was life taking a backseat to a game? And a morally bankrupt game, at that?
“Oh my God,” I moaned to Andy. “I’m in danger of becoming JM’s father.”
“The guy who wouldn’t come to our wedding because it was during football season and he had to be at the game?”
“I don’t think you’re that bad,” said Andy. “I was thinking you’re more like Dave the Auburn fan.”
“The one who threw his TV out the window when Auburn lost?” I asked incredulously. “That’s worse!”
So I gave up football.
It felt odd at first. I missed the excitement of watching the games and reading up on the latest news. People would comment on my old team sweatshirts and launch into “Did you see that catch?” commentary, expecting a whole conversation about “our” team.
But then it felt like freedom. My weekends opened up. I spent more time in the garden or at the dog park. I didn’t have to stress over my teams’ losses or rushing home to watch my teams.
Best of all, I no longer had to tie myself into knots, justifying my addiction to a game that the actual players will never win. I didn’t have to explain how I could support an industry that supports racism, misogyny, greed, and cruelty.
It kinda felt like giving up the Republican Party.
And you know what else happened?
My fur baby was fearless once more.
In sad news, at a recent high school reunion, my older sister learned that two of her former, football-playing classmates have CTE.
One of them isn’t expected to live much longer.