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The Inevitable Pain of Football Season


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.

Football season.

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.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

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.

And to watch sports is to choose pain. Trust me on this. I’m an Atlanta sports fan. I know all about pain from sports, and that’s only going back a few years.

Image result for life is 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.

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Bowl-Shocked


In less than a year, two of my hometown teams have suffered two of the most embarrassing, soul-crushing losses in recent sports history.

In last year’s Super Bowl, it was my beloved Atlanta Falcons running the hated New England Patriots out of the building for three quarters, only to allow a historic comeback in the 4th that led to an inevitable loss in overtime.

This time, it was my alma mater, the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFP championship, keeping the dynastic Alabama Crimson Tide at arm’s length for three quarters, only to allow (hmm, this feels familiar) a huge comeback in the 4th that led to an inevitable loss in overtime.

It’s one thing losing when your team is bad. You accept that they’re going to suck, you don’t get all invested in them, and you move on with your life. It’s another thing when your team makes it to some of the biggest stages in sports. You believe a little more, you buy in a little more — but it’s still possible to say such aphorisms as “win or lose, it’s nice to have made it to the big game.” I started both nights — last year’s Super Bowl and this year’s Championship Playoff — with the highest possible skepticism and grizzled resolve. I fully expected both teams to lose — that’s just how Atlanta sports go — but I was just happy to see them on the big stage.

But my teams have done something worse to me. My teams gave me hope. No, worse than that, they gave me assurance: The Falcons led by 25 points, and the Bulldogs led by 10 late in the game. That’s victory! Teams don’t lose with margins like that! In the space of a few hours, both games took me from “well, they probably lose, but it’s cool to see them in this game at all” to “hey it looks like they might have a chance” to “holy shnikes, they’re actually going to do it, they’re going to win!”

A loss without climbing the mountain would have been a lot less painful. A loss even halfway up the mountain would have been fine. But to scale the summit and be moments from planting your flag in the highest peak is the worst kind of disappointment.

So I’m bowl-shocked with the rest of the Bulldog fans out there. I’m proud of my team (well, my teams — the Falcons are in the hunt again) but I feel so hurt, and for me at least, a major part of the hurt is that I allowed the game to become more than a game. I allowed it to become a story.

Crazy, right? That the wannabe writer-guy sees story in everything? But I can’t help it. I was rooting for my teams, but even more than that, I was rooting for the story.

Take Atlanta: Consistently mediocre for years. Never won the big game, haven’t even been there in two decades. Occasionally they make the playoffs, but they go out with a whimper. Then: they’ve got a new head coach, young, hungry players, and a few veterans coming together at the right time. Who do they face off against? Only the most dynastic team in the NFL, whose current QB had four titles to his name already. Four! Most players are lucky to even have a chance at a single win.

Then, UGA: Again, some local success but never making a lot of noise outside the community. They won a title back in 1980 (the year I was born — coincidence? I THINK NOT) but haven’t even sniffed the big game since then, and it might as well be an entirely different sport these days. And all of a sudden: the team has great leadership under its seniors, who forego the NFL for one last season, one last shot; and like a bolt from the blue, new talent crawls out of the woodworks under the brand new coach. And hey fight and scrap and fight and scrap and face off again — who? Only the most dynastic team in college football, whose current coach has five championships in nine seasons. Saban wins the biggest game in the country more often than he loses it, and most teams — even great teams! — never even sniff the title bout.

Both situations are a little bit Star Wars, aren’t they?

Star Wars

Scrappy underdogs taking aim at the big, bad Empire? Going into a battle that you know in your heart doesn’t favor them? But you blink, and all of a sudden, they’re winning. And not only that, they have the Emperor on the ropes, lightning spraying from his arthritic fingers, cackling madly as he falls into the reactor. And in the final moments, the Empire is smashed, the Death Star explodes, and the Emperor is no more.

That’s how the story is supposed to end.

Unfortunately, real life is not fiction. In the real world, the Empire survives, the upstarts have certain victory snatched from their fingers, and those who have had more success than anybody has any right to take home more trophies. (Fighting, fighting, fighting the urge to go political here.  HRRRGGGG okay I’m over it.)

It’s enough to make you give up on your teams.

But also unlike fiction, these “books” don’t have endings. There’s a next year, and a next, and a next, and in sports at least, there’s nothing to stop the little guys from taking shots at the Empire, no matter how long the odds.

So don’t give up on your teams, even if they lose the big game, or even if they lose a lot. Embrace the suck.

Unless you’re a Patriots or Bama fan. In which case you can GTFO.

(Image lifted from Starwars.com.)


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