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R. D. Rosen | January 4, 2013

How I failed to kick the NFL habit

In one of legendary sports photographer Neil Leifer’s books, Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, there’s a wide angle, end-zone photo of Chicago Bear Bob Jencks kicking an extra-point against Green Bay in the Bears’ 26-7 victory on their way to the 1963 NFL Championship.

It was as if everything good about life was condensed into three intense hours of Sunday afternoon

I’m in the photo. I’m one of the spectator specks in the lower grandstand along Wrigley Field’s leftfield line. I remember the game vividly, as I do every Bears game I attended at Wrigley Field in the 1960s. It was as if everything good about life was condensed into three intense hours of Sunday afternoon.

But when I look at the photo, or any picture of a Bears game I saw between 1960 and 1965, I also feel like a crackhead looking at a picture of me doing my very first line of coke. For more than 50 years, I’ve been addicted to watching NFL football games at what feels like the cellular level, snorting the game long past the point where I derive any deep emotional satisfaction from the activity, let alone social benefit or monetary gain. For the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve tried to wean myself from the practice, but with no more success than my attempts to stop my decades-old two cigarette-a-day habit.

And in that analogy lies a clue to the intractability of my NFL jones: an addiction of modest proportions doesn’t cross the shame barrier, thereby forcing you to do something about it to avoid the censure of friends and loved ones, the general disapprobation of society, and the fear you are doing great harm to yourself. Like those two pleasurable hand-rolled cigarettes, my two-games-a-week NFL fix feels only like a moral annoyance, one of those behaviors that flies just below the self-esteem radar.

Could my NFL habit also have a physiological component? Does the NFL act on my dopamine reuptake no less than nicotine? It’s possible, but doesn’t explain the original attraction any more than nicotine addiction explains the initial appeal of smoking. The game’s hold on me is so much bigger than mere physiology.

For years, well into adulthood, my attachment to NFL games seemed rational in the closed universe of my childhood passions. I nursed an almost infantile attachment to the Bears, rode the bucking bronco of my fanaticism to happiness or despair, depending on the final score. Eventually, disenchantment crept in, like a strike replacement team taking the field while my back was turned. Parenthood intervened. One day, I woke up and no longer knew the vast majority of the players or cared half as much whether the Bears won or lost. Every play began to look like something I’d seen 10,000 times before—and probably had. The dozen franchises I had grown up with in 1959 had proliferated like the sorcerer’s apprentice, all now wearing black, purple, or teal. The commercial stoppages wouldn't stop and the games dragged on like bad love affairs. The selling of the game— Pete Rozelle’s clever alignment of it with both America’s warrior and rebel traditions—offended me at every level. The use of rock ‘n’ roll immortals (Mick Jagger? You must be kidding) to sell Monday Night Football erased every border of good taste known to man.

I hardly needed to spend four-to-ten hours a week enslaved by a game to which I objected in every intellectual and moral way, and to which I had lost my primal connection. Moreover, I had no betting or fantasy team interests to protect. Although I had traded in my dysfunctional marriage to the Bears for a more discreet fair-weather relationship with the Belichick-Brady New England Patriots, there was nothing to prevent me from reclaiming those four-to-ten hours for my own personal use, and avoid the dull football hangover that clouded my Sunday and Monday nights.

Here was my chance. A full, clean break; cold turkey

On top of which I was disgusted by the research connecting football concussions to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy that has damaged the health of so many players, shortened so many lives, affected so many families, and been responsible for too many suicides. On the very day that I began writing this, the New York Times reported on the largest study ever connecting repeated and routine mild head trauma to degenerative brain disease.

Here was my chance. A full, clean break; cold turkey.

And yet you have before you the wreck of a man in his sixties, a man who apparently never gets sick of watching bubble-screens go for no gain, never grows weary of the interminable wait for official review officials to render the decision already made obvious by slo-mo replays from eight angles, never tires of being reminded by the relentless Cialis commercials that I’m not the same man, vascularly and hormonally speaking, that I once was. The off-tackle two-yard gain, which I’ve seen, at last count, 28,513 times, never entirely loses its appeal. I watch it all with as much fascination as Magellan seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I detest the way the league has become the raw material for video games, and a refuge, if not a haven, for real-life criminals. I sometimes regard the game as a kind of crypto-Mengelian medical experiment to test the human brain’s resilience. (A recent story in The New York Times revealing that most players don’t wear any protection for their private parts only raises further questions about the their mental stability.) Yet the mere knowledge that a game, any game, is being televised turns me into a Pavlovian pussycat.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote at the end of his 2009 New Yorker article “Offensive Play: How Different Are Dogfighting and Football?”:

“There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.”

I don’t think it’s that simple. I submit to you now a variety of theories that might better explain the intractability of my habit.

The Path Dependency Theory

It’s a nice phrase, favored by economists, which simply means that the longer you stick with something, the easier it is to use or understand, and the higher the “transaction costs” of switching to something else. The benefits of an alternative to NFL games would have to be substantial to justify a change. Frankly, nothing else I’ve tried —“The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Pawn Stars,” “Restaurant: Impossible,” hot stone massage—quite measures up.

Path dependency is sometimes also referred to as laziness.

The Tedium-is-the-Message Theory

Our brains are now conditioned to want their fast-food meals of mediated, pre-masticated reality. Television and print news is served to us in ever smaller bites of flavorless news. NFL games, diced by quick-cutting directors into a familiar grammar of wide shots, reaction shots, and replays lull us with their rhythms of calm and collision, order and violence. The tedium of the medium is the message that we’re safe and home, out of danger from the challenging or unexpected.

This makes the game imperative, yet not actually necessary to pay attention to

This makes the game imperative, yet not actually necessary to pay attention to. I rarely watch a game without a magazine, book, or laptop on my lap. This is an effort to con my superego into believing the game is serving only as the background to more honorable activities. (Of course, I have watched entire games only to discover that I’m still on the second paragraph of the book review I began reading at kickoff.) NFL games have become indispensable to me because I can choose to pretend to do something else while watching them without fear of missing anything.

Basketball games, with their high scoring activity and ever-changing score, offer no such leeway. Football just hits the spot with its widely-spaced spasms of injurious action. Should something sensational occur on my television screen while I happen to be leafing through my Territory Ahead or Levenger catalogs, instant replay allows me to watch it eight times (and eight more on ESPN)—or six times more than necessary. Multiple replays have turned the live action into nothing more than fodder for the game’s real business: the time-wasting, microscopic scrutiny of instances of beautiful brutality.

Hey, if I can watch two straight hours of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (that’s twelve straight identically structured, shot, edited, and scripted segments), four or six straight hours of NFL football, which has the bonus advantage of unscripted outcomes—as opposed to D, D & D’s unfailingly awesome food — should be no problem for me.

And it isn’t.

The Theory of Maximized Reversals of Fortune

An NFL football game’s unpredictable outcome is one of its great lures

Although it may appear to contradict my previous theory, an NFL football game’s unpredictable outcome is one of its great lures. The combination of the familiar and the unknown is the recipe for success in many areas of life. We are drawn to other people who blend characteristics we already admire or desire with the enticingly foreign. We are drawn to books that invoke other books we’ve loved, but promise the unexpected. What we want from a new restaurant experience is familiar food with a twist and prepared better than we ever imagined. And I am drawn to a game that offers a great deal of tedium, however violent, with an uncertain ending.

I’ve tried without success to find statistics for what percentage of games in our four major professional sports are decided within the last, say, 10 percent of playing time. I would guess hockey would have the lowest percentage, then baseball, then football, followed by the basketball, whose prolific scoring makes comebacks in the last few minutes of the game almost routine.

Because of its relatively infrequent scoring, NFL football holds out the promise of an “unbelievable” comeback far more than NBA basketball, from which we can expect frequent seesawing battles in the last few minutes.

Is it possible I would ruin my life for the chance to see a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive by a team whose earlier ineptitude forced me to turn away repeatedly from the television screen in exasperation (without ever actually turning the device off)?

I know you know the answer to that question.

The Theory of Couch-Based Rubbernecking

NFL football is “Jackass” with uniforms -- various people performing dangerous and repulsive stunts, while we watch to satisfy a pathetic, all-too-human desire to see other people’s stupidity in action. If we have played some football, or if we are just armed with even a modest amount of information on the perils and handicaps faced by retired NFL players, we cannot deny that we watch them pound each other with a mix of excitement and admiration, but also with schadenfreude and a partially-concealed disdain for their disregard for future infirmity.

Watching an NFL game is the civilized man’s snuff film

A football player’s capacity for denial is fascinating. Exhibit A would have to be Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bear and member of a panel determining disability benefits to former NFL players, who told a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that he questioned whether players’ cognitive and emotional struggles were related to football. In 2011, after recognizing the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in himself, Duerson shot himself in the chest so that he could donate his brain to the NFL’s brain bank. The neuropathologist who studied Duerson’s brain found indisputable evidence of the disease, and no evidence of any other.

Even if we had the talent, how many of us would choose to trade our presumed future well-being for a few years of gridiron glory? Even their high salaries lose their power when you consider this: In a piece on Junior Seau’s 2011 suicide, according to award-winning investigate sports journalist Jill Lieber Steeg, “Within 24 months of retiring, three out of four NFL players will be one or more of the following: alcohol or drug addicted; divorced; or financially distressed/bankrupt.” Is it really worth it just to have 12 flat screen TVs in your house and superior access to 19-year-old girls with pierced tongues?

In other words, just as most motorists can’t resist slowing down to inspect the scene of a traffic accident, I can’t resist dropping everything to inspect the scene of a 60-minute human pileup.

Watching an NFL game is the civilized man’s snuff film.

The Tiny Dick Butkus Theory

With age and maturity has come some hard-earned control over my aggressive impulses, or at least the wisdom to run when I see infuriating people and situations on the horizon. But there still dwells inside me a tiny Dick Butkus with balled fists and eyes bulging with rage, yet with no outlet. The only thing that satisfies this bristling homunculus in my amygdala is the sight of a grown man doing what I—and even he—no longer can: knocking down another human being and spitting on him, or attempting to separate his anterior cruciate ligament from his tibia with a well-aimed helmet tackle.

The Late Pleistocene Man Theory

I once heard a very interesting theory that the human male’s predilection for channel surfing is related to the necessity of our Pleistocene forebears to scan the horizon looking for threats both human and animal while their women raised children and roasted Mastadon steaks. Quite apart from this theory’s inapplicability to watching the same channel for three and four hours at a time, I shy away from these arguments based on evolutionary psychology since they posit a tendency only, and not the actual immobilization of the human mind and body while watching the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans turn the ball over to each other.

There is some appeal to the theory that, in watching NFL football, we males are measuring ourselves against the competition that has the highest social status—virile young athletes. But why would we measure ourselves against precisely the mutants with whom we could never compete in a billion years, let alone do compete with them at my age?

* * *

I don’t know which of these theories, and in what proportions, explain my uneasy feeling that the NFL has a lifelong lease on my brain, but I’ve come up with a kind of aversion therapy that may help me kick the habit once and for all. From now on, I’m going to watch NFL games wearing a football helmet, which itself will make the experience a little uncomfortable, but here’s the genius of it: Every time there’s a brutal hit to the head, illegal helmet-to-helmet contact, or potentially career-ending horse-collar tackle on the field, I’m going to whack my own head as hard as I can against the coffee table.

And I’ll keep doing it until I can’t stand it anymore and decide to turn off the TV. If I’m still conscious, that is.

About the Author

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R.D. Rosen is an Edgar Award–winning mystery novelist and a humorist whose work has appeared on PBS, HBO, CBS, and—with Harry Prichett—on National Public Radio.

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