A Skeptic in Football Paradise

PHOENIX — It hasn’t been easy being a skeptic this past week, in this desert city, ahead of the biggest sporting event on the American calendar.

Consider Damar Hamlin. The National Football League wasn’t about to let anyone forget him, especially not during the glitz-and-glam run-up to the Super Bowl.

The young Buffalo Bills defensive back nearly died before our collective eyes on a cold Cincinnati night just six weeks ago. Who among us wasn’t pulling and praying for him? Who hasn’t seen the glimpses of his recovery and felt deep relief and joy?

The N.F.L. never misses an opportunity to gild its image, even if that means promoting the fortunate outcome of a near tragedy. The league made sure Hamlin showed up in Phoenix. Sure enough, there he was on Wednesday, accepting a community service award from the players’ union, dressed in a red suit, looking confident and sure.

And there he was again on Thursday, at a red carpet N.F.L. gala, standing in front of the trainers and doctors who saved his life. He thanked them, and spoke of continuing his quest to be a beacon of hope.

“I have a long journey ahead,” he said, “a journey full of unknowns and a journey full of milestones, but it’s a lot easier to face your fears when you know your purpose.”

I’m calloused about the N.F.L. But watching Hamlin in person on Wednesday, I felt goose bumps. I could see a woman nearby shedding a tear.

What a narrative arc.

The N.F.L. is more than a sports league. It is a narrative-spinning factory churning out gift-wrapped stories that drive its popularity and obscure its faults. Hamlin’s appearance in Phoenix was the perfect, made-for-streaming N.F.L. plot point: a tragedy-turned-miracle wrapped in a bow and beamed to the world during Super Bowl media week.

The ugly violence that leaves many of the league’s players with debilitating damage? Hey, look over here on this stage — a fallen hero in the flesh, sending his appreciation and love.

All of the league’s other nettlesome problems? Well, why talk about all that when there’s another corporate-sponsored jubilee to attend.

So, yes, I’m dubious about football — and not just because I’m a reporter whose job requires skepticism.

I’m the father of a 12-year-old. I will never let him play the game, not given what is known about brain trauma. I’m an African American disgusted by the league’s failure to hire Black head coaches and stung by the fact that it took until 2023 for two Black quarterbacks to lead their teams in the Super Bowl. The league’s penchant for brushing misogyny under the rug is a stain I cannot abide.

That said, I’m no different than many other skeptics. I love the game, detest the game and am conflicted by the game. The N.F.L. has a way of pulling me in. It’s the spectacle — the choreographed beauty and drama, the marvel of teams trying to find control amid utter chaos.

I know I’m hardly alone, even if, walking among the crowds at the multitude of fan events in sun-scorched Phoenix, being a doubter felt more than a little lonely.

The league adds to its reach and self-serving mythology by setting up camp at each year’s Super Bowl. It makes each host city its own: a traveling football road show that clamps down on a metropolis like an occupying army.

Phoenix and its flat maze of suburbs saw it all this week. Fan fests. Mixers. Photo ops. Award shows. Flag football. School visits sponsored by the N.F.L. and “farm-to-table” meals sponsored by the Super Bowl host committee. Entire blocks felt like they were sponsored by Tostitos.

As I walked the streets and talked to fans at the sprawling football-themed carnivals in downtown Phoenix, Hamlin and Tagovailoa were rarely mentioned. When I prodded, I was often told about the power of prayer and the significance of miracles, that Hamlin’s brush with death was merely a freak thing, that quarterbacks like Tagovailoa know the risks, so, hey, what to do?

“I know it’s a dangerous game,” one fan told me. “It’s probably more dangerous than I know or want to see. And I don’t ever plan to stop watching.”

Sahred From Source link Sports

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