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How to enjoy the NFL in spite of the NFL

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The NFL is rotten, so what a miracle it is that there is any good in it at all.

San Francisco 49ers v St Louis Rams Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Tre Mason’s mother now believes her 23-year-old son has the mental acuity of a 10-year-old. That’s not an official diagnosis, but such a thing probably isn’t necessary to someone who can see for herself that her son seems to be slipping away.

The Los Angeles Rams running back has yet to report to the team since training camp started. He was arrested in March for resisting an officer/obstruction without violence, reckless driving, failure to register a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana in an amount less than 20 grams and failure to yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle. His mother called the police on July 23 saying that Mason was exhibiting "unusual" behavior and making "irrational statements." He was admitted to a hospital for evaluation after telling officers, according to the police report, that "he was going to call the White House and we were all going to lose our jobs" and that "the police were responsible for teaching Al-Qaeda how to fly planes."

In a tape of her conversation with police released Tuesday by TMZ, an officer told Mason’s mother that Tre should be playing football. She replied, "No, actually he shouldn't because this is the football that drives everybody that no one even knows about. He gets knocked around and everything else. There's CTE and this head-injury thing. You can say he should be playing football, but this is not what it is."

There’s no direct evidence that football created what’s wrong with Mason, but then you had the same dark thought, too, didn’t you? It’d be irresponsible to foist this on the sport when many play it without becoming the man Mason’s mother described, but you know enough that the question persists anyway.

And on the day the 2016 NFL season kicks off, you think things like this make it hard to enjoy the sport. And then because you aren’t a selfish person, you think, well, what a shitty thing to think, because who cares how it affects you? Mason’s well being, and whatever chance there is that he can go back to being the person he was, should be the only thing.

But because you aren’t an entirely selfless person, the question persists: Why is it that I like this sport?

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This offseason gave us more evidence that the NFL isn’t very good to its employees. In March, the New York Times found that the NFL omitted more than 100 concussions from the database the league used to gauge the severity of head trauma. In July, the Times also found that an NFL-touted youth program to promote better tackling wasn’t at all effective at reducing concussions like the league had claimed. The NFL gave $30 million to concussion research, then tried to take the money back because it didn’t like the lead researcher. And by dragging its feet, the NFL was able to reach a concussion settlement that doesn’t award future players who are diagnosed with CTE.

But that’s just head trauma. NFL teams are also facing a lawsuit by more than 1,500 former players alleging that team doctors illegally gave them painkillers for decades — drugs like Toradol, which is used as a crutch to keep players on the field. Players still struggle to get help from the NFL’s myriad but arcane benefits programs. And the end of DeflateGate reconfirmed that commissioner Roger Goodell will almost always get the last word against any formal protest until players negotiate a better deal.

Players haven’t stayed silent. Calvin Johnson said that his health and reliance on painkillers were factors in his decision to retire with good years left in his career. Eugene Monroe — a good, young offensive tackle — also retired after becoming one of the most outspoken advocates for alternative remedies like medical marijuana. DeAndre Levy criticized the league’s drug policies while set to star at linebacker for the Lions this season.

The NFL doesn’t really need to acknowledge this groundswell of concerned athletes as long as it remains a growing league, but that could change soon. The product is being compromised from both ends. Youth participation in football is trending downwards, while NFL players are retiring earlier in part because the collective bargaining agreement incentivizes teams to keep fewer veteran players. As Kevin Clark at The Ringer reported Wednesday, NFL coaches are concerned that the quality of the game is diminishing as the average age of players in the league steadily declines.

The game is in danger of getting worse as the talent pool shrinks and players don’t stick around long enough to get good. That creates a problem that the NFL does have to confront: The enjoyment of fans, because without them prosperity ends.

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Maybe my favorite moment of last season was during Monday Night Football in Week 12 when the Ravens blocked what could have been a game-winning field goal and safety Will Hill scooped up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown to sucker punch the Browns in the midst of their umpteenth sucker punch of a season. It was an unpredictable event happening to the most predictably sad organization, and its occurrence late at night in a useless game between two bad teams made it feel like it was cultivated and plucked just for me as I sat on my couch in probably my underwear. I screamed.

Football is fun. It does a lot of good for players, too, like give them millions to play a game a lot of them really enjoy, affording them and their families a chance to live much more comfortable lives than the average American. It’s a sport dripping in history and tradition. The little incidental rituals it inspires give it character. Jon Gruden will be returning to MNF and I’m actually excited to hear him again. The NFL has a prerogative to market all of these things, and that’s fine — the world made peace with being commodified long before the NFL started doing it.

There is a danger in being half-eyed, however. Squinting allows you to mush together the peripheries and see what you want. Doing so may lead you to believe that the game once coached by Vince Lombardi and played by, like, guys off assembly lines on non-negotiable contracts is anything like the slick-functioning mechanism that the NFL is now at the league, team and unit levels. Players deserve to be made aware of every risk they’re taking by playing football, and should be able to feel that the league that looks after their affairs is doing so honestly.

The people of the NFL are worth your time, especially now when players are more widely saying that there’s more to the game than money, and in an era when, as Colin Kaepernick showed, people are more easily seen, celebrated and reviled than ever before. However you approach them, you should know that they've all been shaped by the same context, that Lombardi, Hill, Kaepernick, Goodell and Mason are all weighing in here, whether you wanted them to or not. You don't get to choose your vision of the NFL. Football is everything that makes it exciting and unstomachable.

The NFL might one day grow so big it crumbles, or it might not. Either way some fundamental part of it will remain, something maybe obscured now behind the machinations: the things that football says about people, which are a lot both good and bad. The NFL is rotten, so it’s a miracle that there is any good in it at all. And you’ll note that describes a lot of things, most notably capital-L Life itself, something you’ve hopefully found a way to navigate without being abjectly miserable all the time.

You can enjoy the NFL, and should if you want to, without guilt. Just be full-eyed, searching and celebrating what exists independent or in spite of the mechanism, and especially what breaks it.