Football is about rhythms. The snap, the catch, the throw. The hit, the crunch, the thud. The drums of the high school marching band beating steady, the speakers of NFL stadiums pumping out top-40 hits. The refs blowing whistles, the players making guttural sounds as the huddle breaks. The stands chanting names, clapping hands.
As a fan, you feel these cadences somewhere in your chest. Maybe the pit of your stomach. They define your Sundays. They bleed into your Monday nights, your Thursday nights, your Friday nights, your Saturdays. For those who love it, football is a metronome that ticks throughout the fall to structure the weeks and order the days. It ticks back through time, too, anchoring you to your school, your family, or your home.
All sports do this, but football has become Sunday Service in America in a way that basketball, baseball, and hockey — with their massive, sprawling schedules and nightly games — have not.
So what happens when football goes away?
There’s no real way to figure this out, because football is woven into American culture like the stitching on a Starter jacket. But as people start to ponder the future of the sport — will parents let their kids play while evidence mounts that, hey, football might not be so great for you? — it’s a valid question to ask.
The best simulation of an America without football is to check in with the fans the Rams left behind in St. Louis a year after the team relocated to Los Angeles. I thought about finding a high school or college that no longer had a program, but I wanted to talk to the biggest group of people who had suddenly lost the team they loved. Rams fans (well, mostly ex-Rams fans, as it turned out) seemed like my best bet.
I put a call out on social media and got emails from more than 60 people. There wasn’t anything scientific about this. I didn’t target any particular cross section of any particular demographic, so the responses aren’t necessarily true for the entire region, nor is it indicative of what taking away a team elsewhere might be like.
But it is a glimpse into a collection of fan psyches. St. Louis wasn’t the biggest football town, you might argue — not compared to Dallas, Boston, Pittsburgh, or Green Bay. The Rams weren’t that good. It still was a football town, though, one that is now suing the NFL for a whole lot of money. And many people still loved the Rams.
The split was ugly. It left a group of angry, disillusioned, and bitter fans in its wake, many of whom described it like a nasty divorce. The ones I talked to took the time to answer an eight-question survey, often with close to 2,000 words. They wrote about their families, their team, their time, and their new, post-Rams lives. Many of them said writing it all down was cathartic. Their responses are below, edited only for length.
Several themes came through my inbox. Some weren’t surprising, such as how painful it was when the Rams left.
It was kind of like it was like a divorce. That’s the best way to put it. Where you’re trying everything you can to get your spouse to stay, trying to go to counseling, trying to buy them a new car, trying to work it out. And they just want nothing to do with you because they’ve got a girlfriend in L.A.
— James Kendall, Western Kentucky
It was a mixture of anger and sadness. With everything that happened in Ferguson a few years ago, it is hard seeing St Louis completely trashed by a slime ball like Stan Kroenke (who somehow is in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame). I was angry at the NFL for allowing the farce of the relocation process to take place. Their "guidelines" are a joke designed to give political and legal cover to greedy billionaires that simply extort local governments and fans dedicated to their hometown team.
— Alex Kuhn, Wildwood
All sorts of things. Extreme anger, mainly, which I expressed in my mind by visualizing me Ric Flair chopping Stanley Steamer Kroenke's throat into oblivion. Also, I went through a semi-severe depression for a few days. I cried some the night after the relocation was announcing, sobbing in my bed until my now fiancee reminded me that real people die every day and maybe that would be something more worth crying for. I then ignored her and weeped some more, until the a copious amount of tears ran down into my neckbeard and made me feel like a wet dog. That was my cue to stop.
— Zachary Poelker, St. Louis
Many were somewhat devastated that their kids wouldn’t be able to grow up with the same team they had. Some felt they were losing the franchise that connected them to their parents at St. Louis itself. Almost all of them said it was harder than they expected it to be.
I’m 18, and I’ve been a fan for all my life because my dad is from St. Louis. I’m currently a high school in senior. I go to school about 30 minutes south of San Francisco. [...] My dad loves the city and my grandparents live there but for me the heritage of the city will always revolve around sports. Currently, I’m in search for a new favorite NFL team. Now that the Raiders are out of the question (because they are moving from the Bay Area), I’m going to have to turn to the 49ers or the Chiefs because they are the only other Missouri team. I was planning to be in St. Louis a lot more, specifically at this sports bar named Lester’s with some of the best fans in the world: Missouri sports fan.
— Ellie Lieberman, San Francisco
I have a 9 month old son. My wife and I found out she was pregnant about a month before the relocation vote had happened. It's is really sad to think I'll never be able to take my son to a game in our hometown. [...] Some of my best memories of time with my Father were from the 99 Rams season. The Rams had been a pretty rough team to watch in their first few years in town. It reached a point where every Sunday, my dad couldn't give tickets away at Sunday church. But when 99 rolled around, we had Marshall Faulk, we had Holt, Bruce, Hakim....it was on. I went to every playoff game at home. I remember dropping to my knees at our house during the Super Bowl praying to GOD PLEASE, PLEASE DON'T LET THE TITANS SCORE. The Greatest Show on Turf in my opinion was the most excited team to watch of all time.
— Christopher Marischen, St. Louis
Many fans said they weren’t sure what they’d do with themselves on Sundays before the season started, but ultimately found that life without a team wasn’t so bad.
I thought I was going to still watch football. My dad and I watched it every Sunday for years. But I ended up doing everything else. I went to MO Wine Country with friends. I went to special events. I went to parks. I went to family events. I drove up to Chicago to watch the Cards-Cubs at Wrigley. It was the best Fall I have had in years. I accomplished so much and never wasted a Sunday on the couch.
—Jeff Dreste, St. Louis
I'm a proud family man. I'm happy to spend time with my daughter and wife.
— Daryl, St. Louis
I thought I’d sleep, eat terrible food, and watch terrible 80's movies featuring Michelle Pfeiffer on the CW because I am too poor to afford cable. And I ended up sleeping, eating terrible food, and watching terrible 80's movies featuring Michelle Pfeiffer on the CW because I am too poor to afford cable. Oh I also go to the grocery store on some Sundays now, maybe about twice/month, which beats my previous high of never going to the grocery store ever so…
— Zachary Poelker, St. Louis
The Super Bowl was the first NFL game I watched start to finish last season. I watched here and there during the playoffs, mostly as background noise, and if I was with somebody who was watching a game I wouldn't storm out of the room in protest. But mostly, I stopped caring. I'd run errands or watch other sports or watch Netflix. It's actually pretty amazing how much more productive of a person I was--it turns out that drinking beer at 9 a.m. on Sundays was not the most efficient use of my time.
— John F., St. Louis
About half of the responders said that they kept watching the NFL but chose new teams like the Titans, Chiefs, and Packers (a few people said they went with Green Bay because the team is publicly funded). Others shifted their focused to root for college programs. Some said they hoped St. Louis got an expansion team again someday.
But a lot of them just ... well, stopped watching football. And some of those people said that they could easily imagine a world without the NFL, since that’s basically what their lives had become. For many, fantasy teams were the only reason they paid any attention at all.
At the end of the day, football is just a game, and I refuse to let the greed of a few disrupt my life. The sun still comes up in the morning, I still have a family and a job, and St. Louis still has franchises like the Cardinals and Blues that are run with fan-interest in mind, not just the financial interest of a crooked owner. I miss caring about the NFL. Much of my pigskin interest has transferred over to Saturdays and the college game. Hopefully my love for the NFL will return at some point, but right now I feel like a guy who just got dumped by his girlfriend for a richer, flashier guy who will take her for granted and never love her the way that I did.
— David Jones, Fenton, MO
As you can tell with my other answers, the rhythm of my life has not be disrupted at all. I've got more free time on NFL Sundays than ever. I can now spend more time and energy on NCAA football and rooting for my not-so-good Mizzou Tigers. :)
— Ben Choi, Columbus, MO
"Rams" had become part of my friends and my lexicon of language. Sort of tongue-in-cheek, but we used "Rams" as a replacement for anything positive. "You got a 98% on your biology final?! Rams!". Honestly, that is the only real rhythm disruptor. Outside of a long-running joke, the only hangup was finding a shelter to give the dozen or so Rams shirts and jerseys I had collected over the years.
— Timothy Barnes, St. Louis
I hope in my lifetime the NFL ceases to exist - not because they took my team away, but that process definitely opened my eyes to the creepy machinations of the league and allowed me to critically see all the complete shit they are able to get away with. Of course, 'my' team moving pales in comparison to real-life issues affecting actual people - like player safety, long-term healthcare of ex-players, co-opting cancer awareness drives to make cash, bilking municipalities into subsidizing billionaires' clubhouses, using 'patriotism' to make cash / pump up the USA's military-industrial complex, mishandling off-field issues involving players, et al. Those are all real issues that this sociopathic league gets away with every single year. Shame on me, I suppose, for not turning against the league until it affected me personally.
— Jack Kelly, St. Louis
Aside from making money, the one thing that the NFL seems to be best at is angering large portions of the country. Some Rams fans even said they started rooting for the Patriots — perhaps the most hated team in the league — because they were also battling the NFL.
If you make people hate you, they won’t wish you well. That’s not surprising. But what was surprising to me was how many of those people: a) said they were living happy lives without football, and b) were as surprised as I was by that turn of events.
This is a fairly simple takeaway. You might think, “Well, yeah, of course it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a game,” but I think that underestimates just how much it means to people. How baked into the schedule of people’s lives it can become.
The fact that many fans seemed relieved to realize they were capable of structuring their lives themselves is important. It shows that a league constantly trying to snake its tentacles as firmly into as many fans’ hours as it can might not always have as firm a grip as you might imagine. Many fans said they were happier now that their Sundays were free of Stan Kroenke and Jeff Fisher (although everyone’s are now free of Fisher — 7-9, baby). They spent more time with family and friends. Caring less — or not at all — about football gave them stretches of free time that they previously thought they didn’t want.
When I started this, I was expecting only negative reactions to the void football left. I was expecting people to say they missed their personal connection to the league, that they wanted their team back more than anything they put in its place. I assumed the American appetite for the NFL was insatiable.
Instead, I found a small pocket of people in a small corner of the country who have learned the (very) hard way that life goes on without football. And that sometimes, losing the thing you love can actually set you free.