Like countless other middle-aged American men, some of my happiest childhood memories involve watching professional sports with my dad. So it was an unexpected delight when my eight-year-old, previously largely indifferent to my New England Patriots obsession, showed sudden interest a few weeks ago. Last Saturday night, he proudly dug out a long-unused Patriots jersey and joined me on the couch late into the night as the Patriots dispatched the Indianapolis Colts.
It was wonderful. And it made me a little sick.
It made me sick because I could see the game through his eyes. And it wasn’t pretty. My son, unfamiliar with the NFL’s pieties, assumed that hurting the other team’s players was the goal. To his untutored eye, the violence that guilt-ridden fans like myself decry was a feature, not a bug. He didn’t cheer the injuries; he’s too sweet for that. But despite my insistence to the contrary, I suspect the message he took from the experience was: The only thing you need to know about the large man writhing in agony on the screen is whether he’s on our team.
When my dad made me a football fan, the press wasn’t filled with stories about the way repeated blows to the head erode brain tissue, causing a lifetime of confusion, depression, aggression, dementia, and memory loss. Former players didn’t attach suicide notes like the one found in 2011 in the apartment of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, which read, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” So my father can’t be blamed for fostering in me an emotional attachment to football that overrides the moral analysis I’d apply to some other activity that physically and mentally disfigures its participants.