To many Americans, Thanksgiving means turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, family for certain and hopefully some expression of gratitude, all interspersed with a heavy helping of three NFL games spread over 10 hours.
For my Thanksgiving tomorrow, I fully intend for it to include all of those first elements (okay, I’m an apple or cherry pie guy, not pumpkin), but will gladly make do without the football. Others gathered with us can sneak away to the television with their dessert or sneak a peek at their phone app for an update on their fantasy team. I will be focused on the task at hand — food, family and thanks, though presumably not in that order.
This, for sure, has not always been the case. For way too many years, I’ve dedicated way too much time to this game. Too many Sundays have gone by in front of the television. In recent years, that primarily involved the Red Zone channel, a wildly intoxicating overdose of scoring hype with the screen often divided into quadrants.
Of course, Sunday morning and afternoon was not sufficient devotion so I would often give over Sunday night as well. And Monday night. And Thursday night.
Then there were the demands, or was it just the allure, of fantasy football. With its own weekly schedule for trades, waivers, injury updates, expert advice, lineup juggling, and so on. Being rather competitive, my philosophy has always been that if you are going to play, you might as well win. So fantasy football took on an increasing intensity. Soon, one team in one league wasn’t enough, so I took on a second team in a second league. More, more, more.
Embarrassing but true disclosure: I would often set an alarm for the wee hours of Wednesday mornings to check on waiver claims and see if I could add some obscure, unclaimed player before others in my league might awake. Competition is a powerful drug. No matter that this player pick-up would almost invariably take up space on my virtual bench and never score a point for me.
Through all of this, I consciously regarded football — both real NFL games and my fantasy teams — as a guilty pleasure. But as the years went by, the guilt became ever more dominant and the pleasure waned.
We’ve long known that football is a brutal game. But with each passing year, we learn more about the price of that savagery. If you can watch the 2015 movie, “Concussion,” and not have it dampen your football viewing pleasure, then you have a stronger stomach than mine. Or a stronger capacity for dissociation.
My guilt came in two forms. First was the guilt of knowing that this was far from the highest and best use of my time. As we age, time becomes more precious. Thank you very much, Roger Goodell, but I’d prefer to read a book or write a column or plan a trip or go for a bike ride or put on the snowshoes or throw the ball for my dog to fetch over and over again.
The second part of the guilt carried an even stronger message. That was the guilt of giving my time and mental energy to a sport I found less and less worthy. The injury toll was first and foremost. This is not some video game, despite how television often packages it. Those are flesh-and-blood players out there risking and often sacrificing life and limb.
I grew tired of watching this player or that leave the field on a spinal board. Of hearing the announcer say that we’re not going to show some replay because the injury is just too gruesome. Of reading how Indianapolis fans booed their star quarterback after he had the nerve to retire early for the sake of his family and his own longevity. Of one bad actor after another, in trouble for either on-field or off-field conduct, but with too many fans willing to forgive most anything if he could just help win one more for the home team.
And the game has grown less and less watchable. It is replete with penalty flags everywhere; endless video reviews; referees enthralled with their own voice; any excuse for a commercial break; even a ridiculous “two-minute warning” as if some coach making millions of dollars can’t read a clock.
The wholly separate game of fantasy football started taking up way too much mental space. My teams became “my guys” as if we actually shared some bond. I’d see a crawl across the bottom of the TV screen indicating that Calvin Ridley had eight receptions for 97 yards and one touchdown — and instantly calculate that meant 23.7 fantasy points. What worthless brain function.
A baseball guy, George Will’s wonderful quote played ever louder in my head. “Football combines the two worst things about America: It is violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
So this past August, I made a simple but personally important decision: That I was going to take a one-year sabbatical from football. No watching on television. No fantasy teams. I determined to allow myself nothing more than a cursory check of the scores.
Yes, I made this choice before the Broncos embarked on their dismal season. Would I so easily maintain this resolution were the Broncos Super Bowl bound? Who knows. Though it didn’t take some particular genius to understand that wasn’t their trajectory.
The personal decision of whether this sabbatical is to have more permanence is for another day. For today, though, it is liberating and guilt-free.
The point of this column is not to preach. For many, many Americans, football is a religion. That worship is between those fans and their God. But for readers here, if there is a voice in your brain, even if quiet and in the recesses, telling you that something is not right with the sport and that there are other callings for your attention, you might listen. I did, and so far without regret.
Tomorrow, I will relish the turkey. Sans the pigskin. Happy Thanksgiving.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His column appears every Wednesday in Colorado Politics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann