Tell Us: Are You No Longer an NFL Fan?

Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones loses his helmet as he is tackled by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Shea McClellin on Sunday, December 13, 2015, in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh / AP)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For millions of Americans, fall begins with the first kickoff of the NFL season. Like many children growing up in the U.S., I tossed a football around with my dad in our backyard and rooted for our beloved team (in our case, that came with the disappointment familiar to every Chicago Bears fan). I remember years based on which team won the Super Bowl, signifying the warm nostalgia I held for the sport.

But something changed recently: I don’t like the game anymore.

There’s been enough reporting by now to know that constant collisions in football cause traumatic brain injuries. New rules and public statements from the NFL promising to curb these dangers are an annual routine. Every time I’ve forgiven the league, more players take major hits to the head and more former athletes go public about their brain damage.

In early May, shortly after I covered a series of lawsuits by former college players allegedly suffering from permanent brain damage, I got an email from a reader who said he played college football in the 1980s and sustained at least four concussions. He never thought about the long-lasting damage until he began having suicidal thoughts in recent years. “I have never told my wife or kids of this, as I didn’t want them to worry,” he wrote me. “However, I want to admit that I think about suicide weekly, if not daily.” He eventually wants to donate his brain to research head injuries. His email was the last straw for me.

I’m not the only fan turning away from the sport. After this season’s opening game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, where Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s head was repeatedly targeted with helmet-on-helmet hits, I noticed a group of college friends on Facebook discuss their waning interest in football—surprising, considering I’ve seen them all root zealously for their hometown teams. The conversation started when my friend and fellow Bears fan Mark Micheli posted a video compilation from Deadspin showing the repeated hits to Newton’s head without a single penalty. Here’s the most brutal hit:

After watching the video, Mark wrote, “I have a harder and harder time caring about this game anymore.” Other friends joined in:

“We’re watching men get brain damage for our enjoyment.”

“Modern-day gladiators. My guess is we as a society will look back in the future and view this game in a similar way.”

“First year in ages I’m not doing Fantasy Football.”

Could this be a turning point? Are other Americans turning away from football?

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, Austin Murphy imagines a world without the NFL, where the league is eventually bankrupted by lawsuits and declining interest among youth players. Rugby, it seems, is the next great American sport, to fulfill our need for “bloodlust and the seizing of territory”—but it doesn’t involve “using one’s helmeted head as a missile.” There would be consequences: the loss of a $63 billion league, along with the money that colleges, retailers, and television networks would have brought in from the sport’s popularity. But, Murphy writes, “The more Americans learned about the true price for their once-beloved game, the less they were willing to pay it.”

This may just be a fantasy. There are no data indicating that fans are fleeing football. In fact, the highest-rated TV programs last fall were NFL games. According to USA Today, 26.8 million people on average watched Fox’s late-afternoon games that year. And the Super Bowl remains an audience juggernaut. While 1.5 million fewer people watched the 2016 Super Bowl on television than the year before, 111.9 million people still tuned in, making it the third-highest rated Super Bowl in history. These figures don’t even count online viewership, which has been on the rise.

I asked one of the guys on Facebook if he could fully abandon his fandom. Gregory Wolf, a Seattle resident and Seahawks fan, said football is doing less for him than it used to, but he’s not ready to completely give up. “I’m not sure I would ever totally be done,” he told me. He’s become a bigger soccer fan in the last decade. Even professional hockey, he says, seems to have dealt with head injuries better than the NFL, despite its violent nature.

Part of me understands his position. I still checked to see if the Bears won on Sunday (they didn’t), and I looked across the bar Monday to watch part of the game between the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s hard to go cold turkey when football is everywhere.

Are you a former fan of football? What changed your mind about the sport? Do you have problems with the violence but find it hard to completely give up on the game? Write us at hello@theatlantic.com.