Football: The Pleasure Remains, But The Pain Is Harder To Ignore

Sep 9, 2019

Football season used to be a five-month national holiday for me. I’d watch college games from noon to midnight on Saturday, and NFL games until the last snap on Sunday. I had elite-level skills with the remote control. I mainlined the Red Zone Channel, which shows every scoring play from every NFL game. I spent weekends in a football trance.

And, look, I’m still a fan. I follow my Georgia Bulldogs and, of course, the Panthers. I’m in the same fantasy football league for the 25th year in a row. But in some ways, the thrill is gone. I’ve made the mistake of thinking too much about what football does to the people who play it.

Before this NFL season even started last weekend, two of the league’s best players retired at age 29. Andrew Luck was a star quarterback, and Rob Gronkowski was the best tight end in the league for years. But both of them had missed huge chunks of seasons because of injuries. Gronkowski took a hit to his thigh in the Super Bowl – just a normal NFL tackle – and it hurt so much that he couldn’t sleep more than 20 minutes at a time for weeks. He had a liter of blood drained from his leg. Just a totally normal football play.

Well, OK, you might say. But they’re pro football players. They get paid millions to play through the pain.

Well … what about college players, then? They get scholarships, but they don’t get paid a salary to play football. Their coaches sure do – Dabo Swinney, the coach at Clemson, recently signed a 10-year, $92 million contract. But the players are the ones who put their bodies at risk. And college football is more likely to feature dangerous mismatches. Charlotte plays at Clemson in a couple of weeks, and Clemson will be bigger, stronger and faster at pretty much every position on the field.

That doesn’t mean Charlotte can’t win – Georgia State, a huge underdog, upset Tennessee to open the season. But college football features too many games that are designed to be beatdowns. And the players on the lesser teams take the beatings.

One of my friends has cut his football intake to one game a week – the hometown team he can’t quite shake. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get there. I love the way football balances brute power with speed and deception. I love the sound of a crowd when a big play happens. I love how the game changes as summer becomes fall becomes winter.

Football – especially NFL football – is America’s favorite TV show. Of the 20 highest-rated broadcasts of all time, 19 are Super Bowls. (The other one is the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”) It turns out there are few things we enjoy more than watching young men break their bodies for our entertainment. At some point on a football-drenched weekend, it might be nice to take a moment and think about that. 

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.