N.F.L. teams decide who gets drafted and where they go. Players who could have been successful with one franchise might fail with another and never get another shot. As Kevin Clark, a reporter who covers the N.F.L. for The Ringer, told me, “Geography is destiny in the N.F.L.” Would Patrick Mahomes be a household name if he’d been drafted by the moribund New York Jets? Probably not.
Another dirty secret is that N.F.L. teams aren’t actually all that interested in winning; even bad teams can rake in billions of dollars. “So many of these franchises are treating this as, ‘You know what? We’re gonna make some money,’” Clark told me. “It would surprise fan bases how many teams are not making, in a given year, winning their priority.”
Not this fan. My hometown team, the Cincinnati Bengals, was awful for decades. But they were still profitable (with a stadium paid for mostly by taxpayers), so they had no need to make the kind of dramatic changes that might have made the team good. In fact, teams benefit in some ways by being terrible. The worst team in the N.F.L. generally gets the number-one pick in the following year’s draft. (That’s how the Bengals landed quarterback Joe Burrow in 2020.)
So why do I root for a team that doesn’t care and that seemingly started winning because it was rewarded for not caring? Why, then, should I care? I don’t have a good answer.
And yes, I’m aware that the sport itself, the sport I love, is one in which players, from junior high kids to the pros, are damaging their brains. I am cheering in the stands while they are risking early onset Parkinson’s, dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) and other neurological illnesses that could make their post-football lives painful, difficult and sometimes unlivable.
And yet, football is still what I think about in April when other people are headed to baseball games. I watch the draft almost every year, shouting in excitement — similar to the way you might react if you found out that your kid got engaged — when a player from Michigan, my alma mater, gets chosen. It makes me happy, even though I know the game is making many other people miserable.
I am not normally this morally flexible. I have stopped watching television shows that make me feel even remotely icky inside. And I am not typically tolerant of institutions that don’t treat their employees well. I’m not proud of the compromises I make for football, and I’m not sure I understand how I’m able to make them.