Five years ago was the first time I equated football with the Gladiator. Before then I thought of it the same way I thought of any sport. It had rules and risks. Players occasionally got hurt but overall, it was fun to follow. Breaking up with football wasn’t something that had ever crossed my mind.
I was talking to my best friend on the phone five years ago and as best friends do we jumped right into discussing the big things in life. Family, the state of the world, and what was sitting heavy on our hearts that day. I wasn’t prepared for what she said.
“So, I’ve been thinking I need to break up with football,” she said abruptly. I stood up straight and pressed the phone hard against my ear.
“Football? What? Why?” I asked, somewhat pleadingly. But I love football, I thought. Her answer was not short. I remember phrases like traumatic brain injuries, lack of player healthcare, players sacrificing their bodies for our entertainment.
“Court, they’re gladiators. It’s a gladiator sport. Why are we supporting this?”
I love my best friend. She is smart, funny, fights hard for justice, isn’t afraid to speak her mind, and is passionate about what she believes. I understood what she was saying but I wasn’t ready to hear it.
It’s not really a conversation I want to have today, five years later, but I need to.
Injuries have always been part of the game. I grew up in Pittsburgh and every Sunday in the fall I watched the Steelers play. As a teenager I would cringe when someone got hurt and pray when they brought out the stretcher. I knew injuries could be serious but I didn’t get a pit of anxiety in my stomach when I saw a man laying helpless on the field.
I do now.
Last night’s Steelers game was a tough one to watch. Shortly into the first quarter Ryan Shazier sustained an injury that could change his life forever. I watched it happen. I watched him roll over and squeeze his hand like he wasn’t sure if he could feel it. I watched him grab his back in agony. I watched him not move his legs.
I got a pit in my stomach. I felt sick. I got up and cleaned the kitchen while the team doctors tended to him and the network took a “short commercial break.” I kept thinking, is this man’s life over? Will he ever walk again? This is not worth it. Why am I watching this? Why can’t I break up with football?
Why can’t I break up with football? It’s been five years since my best friend made her first argument to me against football. Things haven’t exactly gotten better with the sport since then. And yet, there I was, tuning in on Monday night, feeling sick, but unable to look away.
I grabbed my laptop and refreshed my Twitter feed. It was full of prayers for Ryan Shazier, love and support for Pittsburgh, and words of encouragement to and from Steelers Nation. Everyone felt sick. From my Twitter feed it seemed like the entire city of Pittsburgh was sad and scared and sick at the same time. Repeatedly I saw tweets that captured the sentiment, “I don’t care about this game. I just want Ryan Shazier to be okay.”
That’s why I can’t break up with football. It’s not just a game, it’s a community.
As I sat here today, thinking about Ryan Shazier, I realized something. This community, the team, the players, the fans, they are worth embracing. The sport itself, not as much. It’s not an exaggeration to say that players are putting their lives and their health on the line for us to be entertained.
I know it’s their choice, I know they want to, I know they love it. I know that football has provided some with a path to a better life. I know it’s not all bad. But these men are part of the community that I hold dear. Can I, in good conscience, continue to watch members of my community put themselves at risk each week? No. The answer is no. Not in good conscience.
It might take me another five years to break up with football but I don’t think I’ll ever be ready to break up with the community it brings.