I'll tell you the moment when I officially realized football wasn't fun for me as a fan anymore: two weeks ago, when Jay Cutler lowered his shoulder to score a four-yard touchdown run against the Vikings. Though Jay probably could have reached the pylon by continuing his run on an angle, he cut it inside, thinking that "the shortest distance is a straight line."
It was arguably the right football move, and certainly one that inspired his teammates, yet inarguably the wrong life move. I remember grimacing as he did it and just hoping he was okay, and I don't mean okay as in I hoped he didn't separate his shoulder, although certainly that was true too.
I mean okay as in I hoped the hit didn't contribute to Jay one day, years from now, putting his cell phone in the toaster.
I'm not the first person to express this "fun" sentiment and I won't be the last. But usually I'm reading stories from ex-players saying playing the game is no longer fun, or stories like this one from Dave Zirin wondering how long people will play football, or stories (and a book) from ex-fans saying that watching the game is immoral, or at the very least rife with questionable values, like taxpayer-funded patriotism or the annihilation of black bodies or the economic bullying of Draft Town in Chicago.
(And seriously, read that one on the impact of the NFL on black people, by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Great stuff.)
But here's the rub.
Nearly every other sport has these issues, or ones like them. Baseball wrote the book on racism in sports and later gave the world BALCO and a canceled World Series. The NBA has had two work stoppages in my life, a players vs. fans brawl and racist owners. College sports are a mess.
But only in football are these problems built into the very structure of the game. When LeBron James lifts off for a dunk I'm not thinking about an athlete's wellbeing. When Jay Cutler cuts a run inside and lowers his shoulder, I am.
As a result, I find that I watch football now more out of reflex, habit and a sense of obligation than out of true enjoyment for the essence of what is happening on the field. Being a sports fan is supposed to be fun, right? The Google definition of fun includes the phrase "lighthearted pleasure." Dictionary.com includes the word "mirth," which means "gaiety or jollity, especially when accompanied by laughter." Webster's defines fun as "an enjoyable or amusing time."
None of that describes what I feel when I watch football.
I'm not telling you anything you don't know. We're all football fans. I've made my living as a football writer. Players have told me personally that they don't worry about injuries. And I'm not talking about so-called "meat heads." I'm talking about Nick Roach, a Northwestern graduate who majored in art theory and practice.
I love football. Since childhood the game has defined my Sundays and by extension my week. It was a huge part of my relationship with my grandfather and is already forging bonds between my friends and their new children. I haven't stopped watching yet. I don't know that I will. Unlike with B.B. King, it's not the thrill that is gone.
Like I said, I love football. I just don't like it. Can I still be considered a "fan"?