It's that time of year. That lovely late summer weather. Grilling and beaching and capturing those last fleeting warm rays.
Most importantly though, it's almost football season.
Praise the athletic deities, we made it through another long, cold off-season and it's time for the greatest sport outside of curling that man has brought to bear.
This is the time of year where we swing by Dear Old Rutgers to see how my Rutgers Scarlet Knights are going to fare. This is the time of year where we enjoy the annual viewing of the stellar, Ray Diddy-laden Philadelphia Eagles NFL films documentary.
Yes my friends, it’s football season. Hallelujah.
However, for this writer at least, this is the time of year where I question my love of the gridiron. I question whether it's the right thing to do to support a barbaric sport that does so much harm to its practitioners. I question whether I want to support a value set that hands down harsher punishments for taking a protein supplement than committing violence against one’s spouse.
Is it morally wrong to pour passion and time and money into an activity that leaves it's actors with permanent brain damage, non-functional limbs, or financial woe? Every study released brings the question to my mind and this time of year I'm forced to ask myself: "Is this the right thing to do?"
The sport is undeniably changing and changing for the better. New rules that protect its players, better attention to head and body injuries, sports medicine that borders on science fiction.
The results of the CTE studies of today report on a past generation of football, of 3 yards and a cloud of dust, of two-a-days, of smelling salts and mysterious injections. The results of future studies will reference the present iteration of American Football; safer, cleaner, faster. Better for all.
In and of itself, these developments are signs of hope, but there's a deeper truth.
Youth participation is down. Parents are afraid to let their children play the sport. The best athletes are quitting in their prime because of health concerns. A generation is growing up watching these athletes embarrass themselves with scandal after scandal.
Once the "rub some salt on it sissy" generation stops consuming football, the sport will begin an inevitable and profound fall in popularity. At which point, one of two things will happen: Football will change or football will die.
As someone who loves watching the sport, playing the sport, talking about the sport, I hope it's the former. I also believe that it will in fact be the former, given that the sport has changed for the better so profoundly over the past decade. I hope that change will not only continue, but will increase the rate of change year over year, until we see a sport that combines the game we love with a sustainable model for its practitioners.
However, there's also the other option. The naysayers and conservative voices dominate the conversation and the football governing organizations fail to enact meaningful change.
Or worse, the sport regresses to its brutal roots. Too late, the sport realizes its folly and a generation sick of the nonsense has moved on. Perhaps to another sport, perhaps to eSports, perhaps to the burgeoning VR/AR revolution, perhaps to nothing at all. Interest in the game wanes on a mass scale, investment ceases, product quality declines, and the game we know and love is gone.
Football is a beautiful sport. It combines incredible athleticism with remarkable intellect wrapped in General Sherman-grade strategy. It's a rare thing that brings a hundred thousand people together to scream, curse, celebrate and despair as one. It connects people across continents, literally pulls people across nations, and gives us an excuse to set everything aside to spend time with those important to us.
Football will either live or it will die. It will either adapt to the modern world or it will not. By taking part in the sport, you are indeed supporting it, but this is not synonymous with tacit approval. Providing the raw material - revenue, fandom, societal relevancy - for the sport to operate will move it along its course, ultimately to be decided by the actions of its key stakeholders and the uncaring, unyielding march of capitalist free markets.
Years past, I felt this same moral conundrum nagging at the back of my mind. This year however, I feel unconditionally good about rooting for my Knights and for my Eagles for the first time in a long time. I'm satisfied taking part in this sport because I know that it will either be held in safe hands, or it simply will cease to be. Either these years are the waning twilight of a once great pastime, or they are the beginning of a new era of athletics entirely.
Either way, get your friends or family together to revel in the game, in this magnificent spectacle, enjoy it with a clear conscience, and appreciate what we have now, for it may not be there tomorrow.