By Colin Daileda
In kindergarten, I stood before my class for show and tell wearing a silver helmet marked by a blue star, dressed as former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith.
Emmitt Smith was already a legend by then. He would go on to be the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. I didn’t want to be like Emmitt Smith when I grew up. I wanted to be Emmitt Smith.
But five-year-old me is the only version of myself who has known the Cowboys as anything but a team that toys with its fans’ emotions. We (listen to me, saying “we”) had just finished the greatest four-season stretch in football history, and I’m too young to remember any of it. I don’t really remember Troy Aikman, the star quarterback, as anything but an announcer. I don’t really remember the star wide receiver, Michael Irvin. I barely remember Emmitt Smith.
Still, I surrounded myself with the team. Cowboys bedsheets, Cowboys pillows, Cowboys curtains, Cowboys pajamas, Cowboys socks, Cowboys shirts, Cowboys sweatpants, Cowboys keychains, a Cowboys football, a Cowboys Christmas ornament. Actually, I think I still have all that stuff.
I’ve spent truly unreasonable portions of my life compiling stat after stat in defense of why current Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is the most underrated of all-time. Most days if you let me sit in bed all day I’ll go right ahead and do it, yet when the Cowboys are playing I can’t sit down. If I sit then I am not invested and if I am not invested then they will feel it on the field and why is it that an albeit small but very real portion of my being actually believes this?
It’s kind of like the small but real portion of my being that started to realize football was unsettling to watch. It started in ways that weren’t in-your-face. Troy Aikman, the announcer version, trying to downplay the number of concussions he received during his career. That obliterating Brian Dawkins hit on Reggie Bush that welcomed Bush to the NFL. This guy and that guy carried off in neck braces on a stretcher.
All these things are like cracks in the frame of my football fanhood, but I still watch. When the Cowboys went 12-4 in the 2014-15 season, I refused to miss a quarter. The Cowboys went 4-12 last year, and I thought, hey, maybe I can use this as a way to detach myself from the game. Yet I still found myself staring at the team on bar TVs and obsessively refreshing my phone for game updates.
So began my realization that I was going through some version of the five stages of grief. Call it the Five Stages of Fanhood Grief. Maybe you’re going through something similar. Find out below, with my handy explanations of all five stages.
I wasn’t denying that football and the NFL have a problem, I was just denying I was part of it. I didn’t think about how eyeballs on televisions translated to revenue for an organization that didn’t seem to care that its modern gladiators suffered all sorts of brain trauma and other physical nightmares during or after their careers. I didn’t think about how watching Greg Hardy — our star defensive end and a known domestic abuser — gave tacit approval to the idea that it’s OK to abuse women so long as you hit the other team’s quarterback really hard. I just sat on a barstool somewhere trying to get a beer, watching between sips.
I’m not really sure who I was mad at. Mad at myself, for slinking off to watch a game when I knew I was trying not to? Mad at the people around me for letting me watch these games or mad at them for talking to me about them and therefore making me want to watch? Mad at the NFL for not doing more to assuage my guilt?
This is the phase I was going through last year. I’ve become a man who will just watch the second half, or maybe just this quarter, if the game’s good. Or maybe I’ll just watch this game because it’s an important one. OK, sure, I’ll be on a bus during the game, so this would be a good time to just not pay attention, but maybe I’ll just hit that little refresh button on my phone roughly 100 times over the next three hours. Someone else turned the game on? Oh, OK, I guess I can sit here and watch.
This was every Sunday, sometimes Monday.
I’m assuming this will come in two forms — depression from knowing I kept watching the NFL despite its failure to address the trauma the game causes its players and depression from no longer watching.
In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell asked whether football and dogfighting were really that different. In the article, he mentions that in 1905, a University of Chicago professor called football a “boy-killing, man-mutilating, money-making, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” Football 111 years ago is nearly unrecognizable when compared with today’s game, and yet that description still seems apt, which makes my failure to just turn off the TV a little more sobering.
But the other part of this depression will likely be harder to get around, even if it’s not based on morality.
Football is about conversations with my Dad about his Super Bowl champion Broncos, it’s Sunday afternoons shouting with friends and long stat-filled arguments about why this guy’s better than this guy. It’s highlights you can play over and over to avoid work. It’s like 90% of my room back home. Something- – different topics of conversation, different arguments, different bedsheets — will have to fill all those spaces.
I have no idea what this looks like, or if I’ll even get to the depression stage, let along here. Maybe it’s a different Sunday routine. Maybe it’s avoiding most Sunday texts. Maybe it’s getting really, really into basketball, a sport I’ve always liked playing more than watching. Maybe I’ll be able to get a ton of laundry done. Or maybe I’ll just wait and hope that there will soon be a new, somehow safer and NFL-less football, kind of like what Bill Barnwell proposed in Grantland in 2014.
Colin Daileda is a co-founder of Or Something and a staff reporter at Mashable. Follow him on Twitter @ColinDaileda.