The NFL’s Biggest Threat Is Apathy

Illustration: Jim Cooke
Illustration: Jim Cooke

One Sunday this season I forgot to watch the NFL. There were some errands to be done, probably, or maybe I was elbows-deep in some stupid binge-watch fugue state. It’s not important, really. What’s notable is not what else was on my plate, but that it was more important to me than watching a football game. At some point in the last few seasons I’ve felt my interest in the sport slowly drain away, with each football Sunday becoming less of a capital-e Event and more of a low-impact way to pass some time throughout the fall and winter.


It’s probably best that I refrain from the NFL, although I can’t say in good faith that doing so was an ethical decision on my part, or even one I was aware of making. If I have children one day, I’d like to tell them I acted on principle and turned away from a sport so detrimental to the people who break their bodies across brief and brutal careers that mostly serve to enrich their billionaire employers. I’d love to be a person who could sit here and write one of those righteous, correct, semi-insufferable essays on Why I Can No Longer Watch The NFL With A Clean Conscience, but I’m not. I want to love football, and I don’t want to give up the part of me that has allowed the game to stand in for other interests—for regional pride, and for some sense of family nostalgia. I am not ready to give up the game just yet, but I am feeling increasingly certain that it’s happening anyway, with or without my conscious consent or active participation.

I believe that people like me are a bigger risk to the sport’s future than the people who draw a principled line at the league’s handling of CTE or its response to player protests against racial injustice during the National Anthem. I know quite a few people who fall into the camp of people disturbed by brain trauma, and a few who seem to have tentatively walked away given the implicit blackballing of Colin Kaepernick. The only person I’ve met personally who said he gave up the game because of the kneeling during the anthem was a guy whose dog was sniffing my dog’s butt on Super Bowl Sunday. I don’t imagine I’d agree with that man on much more than the relative merits of dogs, but in a sense I admire people willing to walk away from something they love because they believe it’s wrong not to do so. It’s the righteous way to be.

But eventually, I think there will be more people like me, who over time become slightly bored with the game and maybe the league, and then just fade away slowly. It’s one thing for the NFL to try to recapture the fans that have given up the game for specific reasons, but it’s another to try to rekindle the passion of consumers gone apathetic.

The Wall Street Journal wrote about the NFL’s dilemma ahead of the Super Bowl, selling a WSJ/NBC joint poll as “[depicting] a developing nightmare for the National Football League: Its core audience is losing interest rapidly, a potential threat to the league’s dominant role in American culture.”

“Adults who report following the NFL closely has dropped 9% since 2014, the poll finds. More alarming for the league, however, is the makeup of the people moving away from the NFL in large numbers: Just 51% of men aged 18 to 49 say they follow the NFL closely, down from 75% four years ago. The poll did not ask respondents why their interest changed. The Journal/NBC News poll interviewed 900 adults from Jan. 13-17. The margin of error for the full sample was plus or minus 3.27 percentage points.”

The piece went on to detail various reasons this could be the case, and chances are you already know those. But for me, there’s not one specific incident I can point to to say this, this is why I no longer love the NFL.

It’s the brain damage and CTE, certainly. It’s the gross labor, class, and racial dynamics that turn men into mostly disposable pawns, exploited as they make their way through the NCAA grinder and exploited again in the NFL, where they at last earn a wildly suppressed salary. It’s the simple fact that my favorite team, the 49ers, have been not just bad, but very, very boring over the last few seasons. It’s the fact that I left the Bay Area for New York and have been taken away from the culture of my team and am no longer in the television market for their boring-ass games. It’s the fact that writing about sports inevitably dulls the sensation of watching them. It’s the fact that to some extent, through maturation, I no longer need my interest in the game to prop up who I am or dictate how I relate to the world around me.


Or maybe my problem is the NFL’s constant, churning administrative drama. That constant underlying churn is the league’s least-favorite word: a distraction from the game at hand. But it’s probably not the catch rule. That can be fixed, I think.

When I watched the Super Bowl, I was hoping to see Tom Brady be humbled. I was also thinking about the flow of the game, and the way the lack of punts presented a whole New Football, one where the game moved along handily and drama was sustained from down to down. But I also wondered about the people across the country gathered in groups to watch this one game. I wondered where my interest was on the spectrum of those fans, and where I was on the continuum of “do not under any circumstances talk to me during the game” people and the “I’m just here for the chips and dip” people.


I know where I used to be. I was a nightmare to watch a 49ers game with, to the point where I preferred to watch games alone. I once shamefully yelled at someone who tried to talk to me during a playoff game. I called in sick to work after the 2014 NFC Championship loss. I wore an Aldon Smith jersey on my third date with my boyfriend; when the game was over I went into the bathroom at the bar to cry because I knew Jim Harbaugh was going to get fired and the team would plunge back into the darkness. It was fun! It was probably very humiliating! But it was fun! Or, anyway, it was exciting.

Football was, for a fairly brief period of time, something about me. Every waking moment during the season was defined first and foremost by my love of football and the 49ers, even if, admittedly, I’m not all that expert in the particulars of the game. But it’s a social game, and it’s America’s Sport for now, and like most people I know who remain obsessed with sports into adulthood, continuing to care about it had a lot to do with my feelings about my family.


But now, as I find myself moving further from football as an anchor of my identity, I wonder whether I’d be able to walk—or drift—away from football if it had remained a consistent lifelong passion. Would I even have these feelings of conflict? Would they be stronger? Do I feel fairly ready to quit watching the NFL because in time I’ve realized the 49ers have nothing to do with my family at all? Am I still holding on, to the extent I am, because I’m still not ready to give up the wispy, stubborn family ties I have fashioned around this sport?

The first independently reported feature I ever wrote was about a man named Joseph Chernach who killed himself at age 25 and was found to have CTE. He played football throughout high school. His mother is now one of the moms at the forefront of a CTE awareness campaign. His brother still loves the Packers. The New York Times rewrote the story and I screamed into a pillow. For a young reporter without access to players or credentials, the CTE beat is accessible; people want to tell their stories, and most of the professional football media is busy writing about professional football. Over the next couple of years I spoke to innumerable wives and mothers and children of men who’d given their minds and bodies to the game, leaving their loved ones suffering in the wake.


Only a handful of those interviews ever made it to print, but they are inescapable in my mind when I watch the NFL. Each hit a man takes on the field is an injury against his loved ones, too. I think of the players who post beautiful photos of their families on Instagram, and wonder what the future will look like for those small kids and the women who manage the home. I ask in interviews if these players will allow their own kids to play the game, or I listen for it in other people’s interviews. I wonder why, if they say no, they allow themselves to suffer through a game to which they wouldn’t subject their kids. I wonder what forces could possibly outweigh the still-early but supremely alarming research and testimonies on what football does to a body. I wince now more than I used to; the legal hit that knocked Brandin Cooks out of the Super Bowl made me nauseous.

But it’s not just that. Increasingly during the season I wonder about the league’s distribution of access to its product outside of prime-time and regional matchups.


In my other time, I mostly focus on baseball. For a relatively small fee, I can watch every single out of market game on, regardless of my time zone or local cable package. It’s something I wish would come to football, not in the form of the expensive Sunday Ticket, which would require me to change my cable subscription entirely, but in some way that was easier to use. To watch the 49ers in New York, I have only a few options. I can hope that they’re playing a local team or wind up in the 4 p.m. national game, I can stream the game illegally, or I can hope they show up on Red Zone consistently (hahaha). It’s pretty fucking hard to stay invested in a bad team under those circumstances, and the promise of neutral fandom doesn’t do much for me, personally.

I’ve talked about this privately many times over the course of the last year, but never expected to write it all out. Mostly, though, I know there are people out there like me—people who, despite their otherwise reasonable moral inclinations, just do not quite want to quit football. It’s an inherently shameful position, a compromise with myself and not an especially honorable one at that. But it’s where I am now, and it’s what I think about when I sit down to watch a game.


The 49ers should have some fun stuff cooking next season, especially now with Jimmy Garoppolo locked up to a big, glimmering contract, but I predict that within a few years I will slide further down the ranks of football fanatics to become a person who tunes in casually throughout the season, and makes time during the playoffs. I don’t think I have it in me to give it up altogether—as a nation full of viewers saw during the Super Bowl, football can still be very, very fun—but I don’t have much faith in that same passion, that same spark reigniting after being worn down to an ember. I want to love football, despite my better instincts, but for now, it just won’t let me.

Staff writer at Deadspin.