By Andy Rice
At the beginning of this football season, dismayed by the recent news about long-term brain deterioration as a result of concussions, angry about the ugly lockout and stories about racism at the NFL combine, and frustrated by the graft scandals in the NCAA, I decided to boycott football viewing for the year. It was a general sentiment at first, and the details needed to be negotiated along the way, so I settled on not reading online articles about the NFL or NCAA, and not watching any football games unless they were integral parts of social events with friends and family. At the beginning of the year, I told everyone who was willing to listen that I was doing this boycott, not least because I was sure it would be a challenge for me, and I needed witnesses for my transgressions.
I grew up in a household that spent many a weekend afternoon watching football games on TV, and celebrating the values of teamwork, camaraderie, and no-excuses attitude that defines the sport. My father went to the University of Florida in the late 1960s, when the legendary Steve Spurrier played quarterback and won the Heisman Trophy. As a result, my father became a lifelong dedicate fan, passing this loyalty onto my brother and I. Spurrier, as luck would have it, became the head coach of the Gators when I was a boy, and took his “fun and gun” offense, outrageous comments to the press, and feisty sideline demeanor to national prominence in the years that I developed as a filterless sports junkie. I even attended a game at “The Swamp” (the name of the Gators’ football field) one year dressed head to toe as an alligator, which my mother fashioned out of a green sweatsuit appended by vinyl stomach scales and a tail. At the same time, the Denver Broncos, our professional team of choice after living for years in Colorado, played an exciting brand of football behind the gritty John Elway, known for his late game heroics, bullet passes (rumored to leave bruises on his receivers’ abdomens), and beaming smile. While football became only one of many rituals of competition to which we paid homage, it was an important one. My parents even retired to Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. To this day, attending a Florida Gators sporting event provides me with that warm, elevated sense of consciousness that I imagine other people feeling when they hear the national anthem or go to church.
For eight weeks, barring two exceptions to watch Gator games when my family was visiting San Diego, I did pretty well. I noticed that on weekends I was spending more time with my wife and kid (I even learned how to sew!), and I was somewhat less distracted from my schoolwork, which usually demands hours on the weekend that competes with football viewing time. I honestly didn’t know which teams were doing well or poorly, and I wasn’t too bothered. There were side effects, however. For the first time since my childhood baseball card collecting days I began to pay attention to developments in baseball. I also began checking, (for reasons I cannot entirely explain given my current financial situation), the ups and downs of particular stocks. The Yahoo news headlines more often seemed irresistibly compelling, even the ones about red carpet fashion. The temptation of these diversions became stronger in the moments when my workload became larger, or at at times when I felt more anxiety about it.
Then, in week 9 of the football season, the Denver Broncos benched their struggling quarterback Kyle Orton and replaced him with the controversial Tim Tebow, the Florida Gators’ most decorated quarterback who, now in his second year as a pro, had been something of a mystery. He was not a prototypical NFL quarterback. His horrible throwing mechanics, sloppy footwork, and an inclination to run through people rather than pass over them (he’s built more like a linebacker than a quarterback) gave ammunition to a chorus of critics, who proclaimed that Tebow was an experiment doomed to fail. Moreover, Tebow had always worn his evangelical religion on his sleeve, praying in the middle of games, writing scripture verses into his eyeblack, publicly proclaiming his virginity, and performing circumcisions at Christian hospitals in the Philippines, the country of his birth, in the off seasons. He was an icon of the religious right, and had one of the best selling jerseys in the NFL even as a third string quarterback on a lousy team. He was also known, in spite of his shortcomings, as a winner with a preternatural sense of calm in high-pressure situations, who never said an inappropriate word in press conferences. He exhibited a perfect public morality. For me, the chatter around his actions on and off the field provided a fascinating glimpse at American culture in the wane of its empire, suggesting an implicit glimmer of hope that the values tied to the ideology of American exceptionalism did still pencil out. In other words, Tebow’s entre into the league was the perfect storm to lure me out of my boycott.
Tebow has not disappointed, leading the Broncos to a string of ridiculous fourth quarter comebacks and inspiring a growing legion of commentators to hazard theories. His pastor claimed it was divine intervention. Bargoers in Los Angeles chanted his name in hilarious mock irony when his wobbly 30 yard completion to Eric Decker led to his first NFL victory over the Miami Dolphins. The Broncos defense miraculously seemed to improve overnight, holding opponents for weeks to just few enough points to compensate for Tebow’s awful first three quarter performances. Even Saturday Night Live spoofed the Tebow phenomenon, writing a skit in which Jesus rode a cloud into the Broncos locker room the week after Matt Prater’s last second, 59 yard field goal kept the team alive for another overtime win. Jesus let the team know that he wouldn’t be able to help them against the Patriots the next week because he had a birthday coming up (and the Broncos did end up losing that one). Paying attention to all of this has enabled me to connect with my family, which is significant when Carla, Oliver, and I live 3000 miles away and only see them a couple times a year.
But the Tebow thing has also led me to slip a bit more on the boycott. I pay attention to the other teams in the Broncos’ division, and see how they do. Then there are the teams the Broncos play, and my brother’s passion for fantasy football, which leads me to check in on his team’s players. Other stories start to seem interesting, too. Perhaps the Chargers will pull out a few victories, and then we’ll have playoff football in San Diego (not to be, though). Tebow, in other words, was something of a gateway drug for me.
All of this makes me wonder what it is that makes these stories of competition and games so appealing. Granted, I’m probably something more of a sporting nutcase than the average surfer of weekend television, but I imagine that I am not entirely alone. These respites from the difficult things we do are always welcome and alluring, and not without their consequences. When I was looking forward to a Thanksgiving of gluttony and a social event where I could watch football without breaking the boycott, I talked to someone who was going with family to volunteer with their church at an orphanage in Northern Mexico for the holiday. It’s the kind of thing Tebow endorses, but I’m not sure that this family paid any attention at all to football. There is some irony in this, that the time I spend watching Tebow use his public platform as a football player to advertise faith and good works, is probably the time I have in my life to enact good works and experience something like faith. It’s too simple to say that sports narratives substitute for real engagement with a community of care and support, as care and support can happen through shared engagement around such narratives, but it’s also pretty easy to slip back into the old habits of mindless consumption that doesn’t do much good for anybody. It’s the devil in the game, really.