I’m not supposed to be an NFL fan. I like writing, books, wine, condiments, ambient music, and US Presidents. In high school, I was muscled out of team sports after ninth grade, and never had the size, athletic ability, or killer instinct to play football at all, beyond stunted games with fellow nerds in the deep snow of a Minnesota backyard.
Also, I was a huge baseball fan as kid; televised football, at best, was something that helped pass the time until spring training, and I didn’t even watch it attentively. My dad, who’d played football in high school, didn’t pressure me to pursue any level of fandom or participation, perhaps because it was obvious that my talents and interests were clearly elsewhere. In any case, when he saw me spend a Sunday afternoon reading Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years by Carl Sandburg and listening to Brian Eno, he never once figured that I’d be better off with a protein shake and a concussion. I thank him for this.
Now, twenty-five years later, I attentively watch NFL football whenever possible. This confuses many of the people in my life, many of whom I share pretty much everything else in common with. How can I like this brutish, tedious sport? How can I tolerate sports bars when so many of them have the charm of a public urinal, with the food of an unpopular truck stop? What’s more, it’s clear to anyone who cares that the NFL has, time and again, pointedly neglected and mismanaged the welfare of its players and ex-players, and this year seems to be one of the worst yet both in terms of player and league conduct. Why do I condone it through watching it?
It’s a great time to be finished with the NFL, for certain. Steve Almond’s well-timed book Against Football coincided with the dissolution of my ESPN fantasy league, which was comprised of mostly writers and filmmakers; suddenly it seemed to me like a lot of intelligent, reasonable people were giving up football, and for a host of good reasons. What’s my problem, then? Why do I continue to watch entertainment that I can objectively assess as fundamentally problematic?
For me, like a lot of people, the primary factor is community. I first seriously became a football fan when my high school friends asked me to join a fantasy football league that they started in 1992 (I joined in 1996). My first fantasy draft was fun, and competing with my friends weekly was fun as well, but it forced me to keep up with, and even watch, multiple games over a weekend. This was not something I was accustomed to doing, but it was a great excuse to get together with people I liked, and join in this weekly occult spectacle that I’d only heretofore dabbled with.
This is not an argument in favor of fantasy football, as such, which helps make the football audience far more cruel and selfish than even the default setting for football fans. Now, for example, you no longer have to be an Eagles fan to cheer an injury to a Dallas Cowboy, if your opponent “owns” him; fantasy football not only sanctions such behavior, it adds a financial incentive. At best, making a contest out of the specific fortunes of individual football players adds a thrillingly arbitrary and perverse overlay to an NFL game. Like all gambling, it’s an emotional ride, and like all competitions with friends, it’s personal.
This fantasy league has kept my high school friends and I in regular contact for almost two decades. As many of us as possible assemble in person for the draft every August, and I always feel that it’s one of the best days of the year. We have border rivalries where tangible awards are exchanged, we have side bets on the outcomes of our fantasy games, and we even started our own podcast, which is kind of ridiculous. At times, we’ve hit fifteen subscribers, a number I find unsettling, considering we’re in a twelve-team league. Like most sane people, I consider the data of any fantasy league I don’t participate in to be useless and annoying; I can’t imagine what those three strangers glean from our closed-shop emanations.
In the face of the reasonable arguments against football, the importance of this community, which existed well before we started the fantasy football league together, feels like both an excuse and a buffer. Perhaps we could choose another sport, or stay in touch for another reason, like through a book club or political activism. I think football persists as our public square because, for twelve people who have known each other since we were teenagers, it’s something we have that we can all agree on. As we’ve spread across the country and live diverse adult lives, it’s a lingua franca that unites us but also connects us with other people from all walks of life.
For me and my eleven friends, it’s also a way of marking time and connecting with each other; in my experience, it’s a time-tested way for guys to maintain friendships with guys. I like knowing that, for instance, I am 16-13 all-time against Tim Chamberlain, who was at my third-grade birthday party, where he’d worn a dinosaur puppet on his finger. I would be in touch with him either way, but this league gives us an excuse and framework to connect over a dozen times a year, during which time we also talk about other things having nothing to do with our league. Fantasy football is the handshake and slap on the back.
Enjoying the game itself is far more problematic. As Steve Almond writes in Against Football:
What does it mean that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in America circa 2014 features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage? What does it mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood—run, leap, throw, tackle—into a corporatized form of simulated combat? That a collision sport has become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning, and the undisputed champ of our colossal Athletic Industrial Complex? I knew that, like, it wasn’t normal. So what was it?
The reason I started writing about football for The Rumpus years ago was because, as inhumane as organized football’s structures and effects can be, at the center of it all are people, people who have to do something pretty magnificent to get to the point in their lives where they can make a career out of playing a sport that, at its best, is startlingly difficult and beautiful. When a person works from childhood towards an apotheosis that may only last a couple of years, or a couple of weekends, they have to make extraordinary priorities that us sports bar shlubs cannot and would not consider.
Cluttering this ecosystem of personal strength and physical pain are public rewards, both real and intangible, that are often brief and deeply vulnerable. As professional sports are the only six- and seven-figure fields with an unusually high number of employees from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are also issues pertaining to class and class mobility that can follow an athlete well into their professional career and beyond. Take, for example, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, the product of a violent, broken home, who eventually made the Dean’s List in college and became a pro football player, but chose to retire for a year in part to escape the demands of gold-digging friends and family. The details of his journey are unusual, but similar hazards are frighteningly typical.
Sure, there are also seemingly immortal demi-gods of the game, like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but for everyone one of them there are a hundred guys with names like Kiero Small, Bjorn Werner, Margus Hunt, and Orleans Darkwa, all of whom beat some fiercely hideous odds to make a short life of this dark art we call pro football. There is a staggering amount they have to overcome internally and externally, and the work does not stop.
I’m intrigued by these people, and given the vagaries and vicissitudes of the public spectacle to which they’ve devoted themselves, their hearts and minds are worth our time. Hate the game, as they say, in moments of equal or richer dissonance—not the player. These young men, the wondrous avatars and violent children of our weekends, have something to teach us.
One of the most moving stories in football last year was that of Seattle Seahawks fullback Derrick Coleman, only the third legally deaf player in NFL history.
Diagnosed at age three with near-total hearing loss—“Without my hearing aid, I’m a like a one or a two [out of ten],” he tells Tricia Romano of Grantland—Derrick stood out from his peers since childhood, and even his athletic ability didn’t ensure immunity from playground taunts.
According to his mother, May Hamlin, Derrick was called “four ears” at school and often refused to wear his hearing aids, just to avoid the abuse from classmates. “Yes, you are different—that doesn’t mean you are less than,” May told the web site Hands and Voices, repeating what she told Derrick as a child. “If anyone can’t accept you with hearing aids, you don’t need to be around them. If someone doesn’t like you, move on. Don’t stay in that place where you feel sorry for yourself.”
In football, Derrick perceived an outlet where his athletic ability would silence his detractors. Although his parents were initially reluctant to let him play the sport, and his coaches were hesitant to put him on the field, he set out to earn a place on the team just by working harder than everybody else. As a person dependent on lip-reading, he had to learn to be assertive on the gridiron and get the attention of his quarterback when he needed clarification.
“I don’t care how you do it, you get yourself in the front of the pack,” his mom advised him. “You advocate for yourself and ask them to repeat what they say. When you do, people will respect that and adjust for you.”
By the time Derrick was in high school, his skill with the game of football not only ensured that he wasn’t picked on anymore, but had begun to lay the path for a potential career. “He showed up to Troy [High School in Fullerton, CA] confident, assertive,” his coach, Kevin Hastin, told Grantland. “He was easily the best player I’ve seen here at Troy, and in our area for a long time.”
Hastin even viewed Derrick’s hearing loss as potential advantage. “When you are deaf or hard of hearing, you have to pay closer attention to everything else around you,” he explains. “You see things others don’t. [Derrick] doesn’t go off the quarterback hike. Derrick goes off movement; he reacts off the movement. He’s been doing that his whole life. He reacts faster than anybody I’ve seen.”
Southern California universities took notice, and Derrick chose to attend UCLA, where he majored in political science, made the Honor Roll, and led the football team in rushing touchdowns his senior year. Still, this guaranteed him nothing. One more time, he had to win people over to the idea that a deaf athlete could be an asset.
After every pro team passed on him in the NFL Draft, and he was dumped by the first team that signed him as a street free agent, he agreed to join the Seattle Seahawks as a practice squad player—a guy that helps the team during scrimmages and drills—just happy to have a football job at all. Even if he never saw the field during an actual game, he could say he’d made it farther than most.
Yet, he did go farther, making the roster in 2013 and scoring his first NFL touchdown. This February, Derrick became the first deaf player to appear in (and win) a Super Bowl, and movingly portrayed his odyssey in a commercial that quickly went viral.
The commercial inspired a fan letter from a hearing-impaired child on social media, which in turn inspired a personal response, but this (along with the 100 sets of hearing aids he passed out for free during Super Bowl week) just happened to be more public examples of an advocacy that’s been his life’s work. When he’s not playing football, or giving active-duty servicemen his first-class airplane seat, he’s busy with his charity, the No Excuses Foundation, and visits schools for the deaf. “Derrick is a much better person than he is a football player,” says his high school coach, and I’m inclined to agree.
This year, however it looks bleak for Derrick’s NFL career, and it has nothing to do with his hearing. A broken foot landed him on injured reserve on October 25th, and he won’t be able to return to the field until next summer, when he’ll have to compete for his job again. “Hopefully it works out here and if it doesn’t, hopefully it works out somewhere else,’’ Derrick told the Seattle Times before the start of the 2013 season, his second year in the NFL. At three years, Derrick’s tenure already mirrors the average length of an NFL career, but the coldness of the NFL cannot diminish Derrick Coleman, who was a success story long before he wore a Seahawks jersey.
Bearing in mind that the NFL didn’t initially want Derrick Coleman, his presence in the Super Bowl says much more about him than the league or even the sport. Whether he happened to pursue as a career the most visible entertainment in America or something much more directly meaningful, Derrick started changing lives when he chose to be great at something and be defined by something he chose.
“I know how you feel,” wrote the nine-year-old hearing-impaired girl, Riley Kovalchik, before listing the things she and Derrick had in common, hearing aids being just one of them. For her, to watch the NFL, and see someone with two hearing aids, someone like her, was fiercely meaningful. Given the NFL’s status as the king of mainstream sports entertainment, it has an obscene amount of power to validate and normalize, and given the diversity and backgrounds of its participants, interesting and even surprisingly good things can happen on that manic stage. As the NFL lowers its blinds to its systemic problems, men like Derrick, by their own talent and will, are slivers of light between the slats, and give those of us who alternately admire and admonish this game something undeniable to cheer for.
Feature photo © David Engelhardt, Getty Images
Derrick Coleman photo © Joe Barrentine for the News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)