Couches around the United States are girding their loins. It’s football season.
You know it because even though the days are still too bloody hot, all of a sudden there’s a hint — just a whisper, a faint whiff — of fall in the mornings before the sun comes up. You know it because school’s been back in for weeks and you just need that release of watching large men knock each other around in a sophisticated war simulation. You know it because you can’t not know it: football takes over the airwaves like a soccer-mom-driven Hummer swooping across six lanes of traffic on I-75.
I’m from the South, (you can tell because I capitalize “South” as if it’s an actual place and not merely a cardinal direction) where football is as much a religion as a pastime, so it’s somehow baked into my DNA to get hyped come this time of year. Football season. Hell yes. Burgers and beers and rivalries and lots and lots of hours spent on the couch (and jumping off of it).
Of course, football is problematic these days. To be clear, it’s always been problematic, we just didn’t know quite how problematic until recently. It’s essentially been proven to do some form of brain damage over time to anybody who plays (for a good look at this, I heartily recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. Excellent in general, but he did a deep dive on CTE and it’s … shocking to say the least). It seems ethically questionable to partake in such a pastime; it’s not that far removed from the days of the Coliseum when viewed through that lens, except the players don’t die right in front of you, they die years after the fact, wracked by brain disease.
And then there’s the question of pain. Not the physical pain of the players, which is immediate enough and severe enough that it should give us pause. But the mental pain of the viewers, the fans. The pain we choose.
I recently read Everything is F*cked by Mark Manson, which is an analysis of pain in the modern world and a treatise on choosing the pain that you can live with. Not about eliminating pain — that’s impossible, claims Manson, and I tend to agree — but choosing pain you can endure. For example, I love my current job teaching theatre to high school students — but there is still pain associated with it that I didn’t have when I was just a run-of-the-mill English teacher: long hours after school, dealing with my students’ emotional issues (which they share with me now on a level I was really not prepared for from teaching English), deadlines and demands on creativity. These things put pressure on me (and by extension, those that love me), but on the whole, the goods outweigh the bads, to oversimplify things to a point of ridiculosity — so I choose that pain.
To watch sports is to choose pain. Overwhelmingly so, and for virtually all sports fans. Because, unless you’re an Alabama fan, your team doesn’t win all the time. The nature of the game dictates that they can’t win all the time. In fact, the nature of the game dictates that only one team can win — in the NFL, that’s out of 32 teams; in the NCAA, that’s out of over 100. Everybody else is doomed to lose: either right away so that the losses quickly become demoralizing and sad to watch, or at the last possible moment, so their fans get the exquisite pain of literally tasting victory before having it snatched away, or at any unfortunate point on the spectrum in between.
To watch sports is to choose pain — for almost everybody who chooses to watch, almost all of the time. It stands to reason, then, that we would be mentally happier if we didn’t watch. All that pain — the disappointment, the disillusionment — gone, just by not watching, by not drinking at the fountain of pain.
But because we are human, and we have evolved the dubiously useful skill of acting outside of our best interests, we watch anyway. Despite all the pain. In fact, we seem to relish the pain, to luxuriate in it, even. Which seems supremely silly, when viewed from outside. Yet here I sit, warming up my couch, getting ready to go on the ride again. A fan account for the Atlanta Falcons says the following:
You just know that it’s going to go badly — and probably catastrophically badly — at some point.
But we ride anyway.
We choose the pain.
This is not me telling you that you shouldn’t watch football, or shouldn’t watch sports, period. We choose the pain we can live with. But we can choose it mindfully, knowing what’s in store, rather than choosing it blindly, as if we don’t know the outcome.
Besides, Georgia plays Vanderbilt tonight. Should be a slaughter.
Bring on the pain.
This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.