At first, it wasn't the politics that turned me away. The protests in the National Football League were fairly small-scale at the start of the 2016 season, when I sat down to watch the Denver Broncos face off against the Carolina Panthers. In the middle of the game, Cam Newton took a vicious hit to the head and stayed on the ground for a bit. Then he got up, stumbled over to the sideline, and play continued. It was clear that he was not 100 percent ready to return to the game, but a few plays later, there he was, taking another hit that kept him on the ground a bit longer. The process repeated itself: He made his way to the sideline gingerly, and re-entered the game during the next series.
By this point, I had been an NFL fan for as long as I remember being into sports. The NFL was accessible on television even for families without cable. It also afforded a fantasy of participation for those who loved the idea of the game (because of its violence) but had little interest in playing the game (because of its violence).
Maybe it was the increased knowledge about what brain trauma does to players after the game is done with them, or maybe it was the way Cam Newton wobbled as he walked back onto the field, fighting to stay upright. All I knew was that I no longer felt good, and turned the game off.
Last week, the NFL announced a new national anthem policy, whereby teams can discipline players who choose to protest during the anthem. Now, players who might wish to kneel during the anthem will remain off the field so that viewers can't see their disobedience. This is an extraordinary response to a simple gesture that started with ex-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who launched this silent and peaceful protest by sitting down during the national anthem at the start of two 2016 preseason games in mid-August of 2016. By the third game, a 49ers reporter tweeted out a photo of Kaepernick sitting during the anthem, which began to gain traction. This forced Kaepernick to expand on his reasons for protest. He said, among other things:
I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, I'll stand.
I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. They fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That's not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn't holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.
A few NFL players began to join Kaepernick, but not nearly enough to hold off the firestorm that began last season, when Kaepernick—by this point out of the league—drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who first attacked Kaepernick and then the NFL and its owners at large, using a fall 2017 rally to insist that owners penalize players who kneel for the anthem. He persisted, tweeting about the NFL and its few kneeling players over the course of the next few days, which caused a performative bout of kneeling throughout the NFL for one Sunday: players locking arms and kneeling together, owners kneeling with players. It all looked large and meant nothing. Trump had effectively shifted the target: away from police brutality, and onto the players, who many in his base seemed to think were spoiled millionaires with no right to do anything beyond playing a sport for our amusement. It was easy bait, and many were more than willing to take it.
It was a rehash of a tired routine: Trump (and the machine by which millions responded to Trump) warped the meaning of these protests: They were now about a flag, or a song, or anything except what Kaepernick very clearly and directly said they were about. The NFL responded in dismal fashion last week, prioritizing respect for a song above the American right to protest. This is how a symbol is made to seem more important, and more vulnerable, than the actual people living under it.
When I was last at a professional sporting event, some people stood as the national anthem played. A few removed their hats, and even fewer placed hands over their hearts. The majority of people whispered to each other, or ambled around, buying beer, or taking a moment to run to the bathroom. For many of us, playing the national anthem before a sporting event offers a moment of relief, a chance for the fan to do some task before their attention is consumed by precious game action. Viewers' avowed frustrations over players who protest during the anthem are often belied by the behavior of the fans in the stands, many of whom dismiss the anthem to pursue their own needs. Those who play the game but have an interest in justice outside of the game are held to a higher standard than, say, the average person who simply wants to get in the beer line before kickoff.
When I committed myself to stop watching the NFL, Kaepernick's protests were still new. What has kept me away from the game is the way the NFL has bowed to reactionaries and stripped away the right to public protest—a concession made in part out of fear of Trump himself.
It is hard to imagine a world without watching football. I am from Columbus, Ohio, and I live less than two miles away from Ohio State University's football stadium. I remain captivated by how the atmosphere of the city shifts in the autumn, and how its fortunes seem to rise and fall in rhythm with the Buckeyes. It is easy to romanticize all sports, but it was always easiest for me to romanticize football for fear of what my life would look like if I let it go.
I'm not all the way gone. I still tune in for the Super Bowl. I still watch the Buckeyes if a friend has the game on their TV on a Saturday when there's not much else going on. But I don't seek out the game as I once did. It finally got too hard for me to separate the sport from all of the league's glaring flaws. There is no ethical consumption of major athletics in America, sure. But I found myself drawing a line and putting football on the other side of it. I don't think this grants me any moral high ground, and I'm not automatically impressed by people who give up watching, pretending it makes them a better person, as opposed to a person who simply reached a limit. I figured I could sacrifice a Sunday to something else slightly less conducive to inner turmoil. And after the past week, I don't imagine myself ever turning back.