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My Abusive Relationship

I realized it this year. I'm in an abusive relationship. It's not with my husband or my work or my family. It's with the NFL.

I became a football fan back in college, but I watched it long before then. I watched it in high school when I was in the marching band, but my relationship with football started long before then. My dad was a high school football referee. Each week, usually on Friday night, he'd sit on his bed with a big black leather bag at his feet. He'd start to empty the bag on to the bed, and make sure he had what he needed: the striped shirt, the white pants, white socks with black stripes. He'd sort through the various tools of the trade: the bands to count the downs, the yellow flags with the weighted clips, the small bean bags to mark the site of an interception or important play. We'd rifle through the bag, looking for the coins he used for the coin toss or playing with the whistles, all while he quietly sat there and polished his black leather shoes. It was that ritual every week that taught me the difference between cream shoe polishes and wax shoe polishes. I learned about when to use a brush, when to use a buffing cloth. Eventually, by the time I was in sixth grade, I was getting to polish one shoe and use the things I'd learned while he polished the other. I almost got as good at that as he was.

Then, one year for Christmas, we bought dad an electric shoe buffer. After the first couple of weeks of using that, polishing shoes just lost its shine. Ahem. Sorry about the pun.

Anyway, even prior to those memories of sorting through the referee's bag, paging through the rules of the game in dad's rule book, and pretending to throw the penalty flag at my brother, I had already staked my claim with the NFL. I was a Seattle Seahawks fan. The team was established when I was 5 years old. I didn't care. My family, like many other Montana families, had thrown their lot in with the nearest NFL team: the Denver Broncos. My dad had grown up just north of Kansas City, so he was a Chiefs fan and, more importantly, a Raider hater. I was okay with most of that, since I didn't really care, but as I grew older, I had to do what all teens do: I had to separate from my parents. I did it with football.

Why football? I hear you ask. Well, it was simple. My dad loved talk radio. This was before the modern era of talk radio. When we traveled to those small towns to referee games, we listened to the radio in the van. It was always one of two stations: KOA, a talk radio station out of Denver (which we could get better at night than during the day, due to the way AM radio works) or NPR. We listened to "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Whad'ya Know?" We listened to callers in Denver complain about local ordinances and politicians. And, of course, when they were on, we listened to Broncos games. My mom got tired of listening to NPR as much as we did and was constantly asking my dad on Sunday afternoons to find a Broncos game. We just sat in the back and desperately wished he would let us listen to music, for once.

As I grew up and moved away for college and medical school, and then established myself somewhere far away from my parents (living in Tennessee for residency, then Alabama and finally settling in North Carolina), I had less and less locally in common to discuss with my dad. But there was always football. We could talk smack to each other about how whose team was doing and who was going to the Super Bowl. We could discuss trades and player achievements. Where there had previously been a teenage daughter fighting with her old fashioned dad, there was now solidarity in the love of football.

Unfortunately, as I've grown and started my own family, the NFL has become harder and harder to love. The ticket prices and souvenir prices have become astronomical. The work the NFL has done to raise revenues has been exhausting. The game has changed, always under the guise of "player safety" but with players still ultimately unsafe. Criminal charges among NFL players seem like an acceptable part of the game. Every week, it feels like there's a new story of a player involved in some sort of crime, up to some sort of bad behavior. Racist and homophobic and other controversial comments and actions by players are more and more common. It was starting to get harder and harder to swallow.

And now, this season, the issues related to players involved with domestic violence has come to a head. I'm not going to recount the Ray Rice story here, you can look it up elsewhere. More disturbing are the other stories of other players involved in these cases, the way that the NFL treats cheerleaders (who are paid less than minimum wage), the way they take advantage of breast cancer awareness month to sell more products and tickets, all of their bad behaviors. And, of course, the Redskins.

And I find myself making excuses: it's not the individual players' faults. If I stop watching or boycott, it won't make a difference. Maybe as I fan I can encourage them to change by voicing my opinion. There aren't other sports that I enjoy as much or as consistently (even hockey, which I love).

They are all weak excuses. None of them is a good one. But I still find myself struggling to boycott. I flirted with not re-ordering the NFL Sunday Ticket package this year, and I put it off until the very last minute. . . at which point I caved and clicked on the "activate package" button in my Direct TV account page. I make myself feel better by following players like Derek Coleman and Russell Wilson on Twitter, who are outstanding citizens and men in their lives off the field, as are hundreds, if not thousands of players and former players.

I know that I should boycott, stop wearing my Seahawks shirts, stop giving the NFL my money. I know I should boycott their sponsors. Well, that's easy with Budweiser and McDonald's but what about the others who aren't so obvious? Granted, for domestic violence offenses, the claim is that a player will get a 6 game suspension (the first time that now you can miss more games for hitting your girlfriend than you miss for hitting a bong--which is a 4 game suspension). But that was only after the outcry at the initial 2 game suspension. And Rice got suspended indefinitely, but only after we saw real, video proof of the hit (nevermind that we saw him drag his now wife out of the elevator and he was CONVICTED in court-with an incredibly lenient sentence). Hardy, who plays for the Panther, was also convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend, but he's still playing (well, his team de-activated him--like he's a toy or a bomb, just hit a switch). Peterson, who beat his son with a switch so hard that a doctor reported him for child abuse hasn't been punished by the league.

So I have to have that conversation with myself all of the time: is it time to leave? How can I stay? And, disappointingly, I haven't come up with what I know is the right answer yet. I guess I'm still attached to watching the team run in, remembering reading a book in the sun at the games my dad was refereeing. The simple joy that comes from remembering that time with my dad, helping him unpack and then repack that gear bag. The smell of shoe polish still makes me think of football. I know I won't be giving up those memories if I stop supporting the NFL, but a wee part of me is afraid it might fade. And maybe that's what I don't want to quit. I don't have a good answer. I just know that the Chargers just recovered a Seahawks fumble, and that means now my team needs me.

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