Ruth: Why I gave up watching pro football

The list of NFL players with brain injuries continues to grow.
I used to be a rabid fan of the sport, but I can’t do it anymore.
The list of NFL players with brain injuries continues to grow. I used to be a rabid fan of the sport, but I can’t do it anymore.
Published Jul. 3, 2017

I was raised in a football household. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, on Sundays we worshipped the Good Lord and then the Cleveland Browns, though not necessarily in that order. My mother knew more about the NFL than 99 percent of men.

I played football. I broke my nose several times. Badges of honor to bleed for St. Vincent High School. As a 17-year-old kid writing for my high school newspaper, the very first person I ever interviewed was the Browns Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield. I was awestruck. I still am.

I was an original season ticket holder for the Tampa Bay Bucs and sat through 0-26. Good times, good times.

I was a classic football junkie. Watching two or three games sitting in front of the television every Sunday, then Monday Night Football.

I … was. And now I can't do it anymore. Even for a lapsed Catholic of more than 50 years, guilt runs deep.

A few days ago Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who spent 13 years in the NFL, most of them with the Bucs, announced plans to donate his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation to help with research on traumatic brain injuries suffered by former players. Sapp discussed his own growing cognition problems, such as forgetting the location of his child's school and not remembering what he was supposed to pick up from the grocery.

It is not going to get any better for a man who once so dominated his sport. My heart broke for Sapp. And I don't even like him.

As an athlete, there is no question Sapp was world-class. As a public figure, he could be incredibly rude and declasse. But he doesn't deserve to watch his life slip away. And we don't deserve to have to be a witness, either.

This has been an epiphany long in the works.

My baby step journey away from football probably began in late 1985. As a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I was kicked over to the sports department for a few weeks to help out with the coverage of the Chicago Bears' impending meeting with the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. I was in heaven.

Then I interviewed Darryl Stingley, a brilliantly talented wide receiver for the Patriots in the 1970s who had a front office job with the team. He was in the front office because on Aug. 12, 1976, during a preseason game with the Oakland Raiders, he had endured a brutal (but perfectly legal at the time) hit from defensive back Jack Tatum, which left Stingley a quadriplegic.

That was when the first little doubts about embracing such a violent sport began haunting me. Now it has become a full-blown virus of remorse.

The list of NFL players who have succumbed to brain injuries continues to grow — Mike Webster, Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Frank Gifford, Kenny Stabler, Tom McHale, Andre Waters. Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon has revealed his own posttramatic brain injury travails. On and on and … now Warren Sapp.

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Played at its best, professional football can be a thing of beauty — the perfectly thrown pass, the leaping catches, the thrill of an open-field run, a gritty goal-line stand and yes, a drive-stopping tackle. Thrilling. Exciting. And scary, too.

It is also certainly true that no organization is better at marketing its product than the National Football League. It sells brutality masked as entertainment. It sells a vicious, crippling sport as an American tradition. It's sells family values while abandoning its employees for the sake of a dollar. And there is no shortage of customers eager to be served up young men willing to risk having their brains turned into tapioca.

In a few days, the Bucs will begin their 2017 training camp. Hopes are high.

The sports bars will be packed. The stadiums will be sold out. The television ratings will be high as the public eagerly awaits another year of literal gladiatorial combat. There will be blood, enough for our dining and dancing pleasure.

But I can't do it anymore. Perhaps you see incredibly gifted and superbly conditioned young men performing on the gridiron. I did too, once. Now I see guys who won't remember their kids' names when they are 50. I see Darryl Stingley and Warren Sapp.

I used to be a rabid fan. Now I feel like a recovering enabler.

No more.