This week’s Courier Herald column:
The NFL has been in the news a lot lately. Too much, in my opinion. And yet, for the second time in three weeks, it’s the basis for the words written here.
Sunday’s local matchup featured the Atlanta Falcons at home versus the Buffalo Bills. Hardly a marquee game, the pre-game hype was almost non-existent. The first clue was that parking in my usual spot was $10, at the bottom of the range that correlates to game day demand.
The crowd was a late arriving one. As the teams took the field for kickoff, I snapped a picture of the lower level premium seats. Those sections – on the lowest level of Mercedes Benz Stadium between the 20 yard lines – remained sparsely populated throughout the game.
I posted the pics to Facebook and Twitter with a joke that my fuzzy memories of childhood attribute to Skip Carey when calling lightly attended Braves games. “At kickoff for today’s Falcons game, most lower deck fans are disguised as empty seats.” It didn’t take long for the post to take off.
What I found interesting is that it was shared by friends of mine on the left and the right. Many were quite happy that their hopes of a boycott had come to fruition. Never mind that I hadn’t referenced a boycott or even provided commentary. I even noted to some that asked down the thread that the upper club level seats were mostly full, and the upper deck also more full than those lower, yet very visible, sections.
There’s a brief lesson here in a trap of anecdote vs data. My pictures (updated a couple of times throughout the game) provided anecdote. I have no idea what the paid attendance was, nor how many of those who paid actually hit the turnstiles. The pictures alone prove nothing.
If I wanted to make the case that a boycott (from the right, left, or both) were successful, then some data would be needed to provide the context. If I were trying to encourage a boycott, then taking pictures from inside the stadium during a game would make me a horrible ambassador for that idea.
The truth is, I am watching fewer televised games than usual. That’s not because of what’s happening on the field, but due to the commentary that is now provided with professional sports. What was once an escape is now just an extension of my day job – all politics, all the time.
As I’ve mentioned before, I go to NFL games primarily because of my sister. She holds the season tickets, and I go mostly to spend time with her (and usually my niece). Boycotting games in person would hurt me more than it’s going to hurt players or owners. I’m also quite safe from the rantings of Bob Costas in our stadium seats.
As I continued to watch comments on social media a familiar pattern emerged. There were charges of “fake news”, arguments breaking out between those commenting, and new editorial content added to pictures the more frequently they were shared. It was like watching a modern day version of the old children’s game “telephone”.
Many of the folks commenting were certain the pictures affirmed what they believed to be true. Some attempted to counter the narrative with facts of their own. Hour by hour, the numbers of opinions multiplied, and the topic itself was muddled. The most interesting part of it all was that in all of the comments I observed, neither the player that started the protests nor his cause were mentioned once.
When I was in 8th grade, two of my friends got into a fight of some sorts. Things escalated. Eventually, almost our entire 8th grade class was on one side or the other. I was friends with both, so I started asking what the fight was about. No one could ever tell me, other than I needed to pick a side.
The fight lasted through the entire school year. The two eventually got over it, are best friends today, and still can’t say what it was actually about. There was an argument, things snowballed, others got involved, and eventually the original issue was buried under other people’s grievances.
Right now, there are a lot of folks using the NFL as their current proxy to air their political grievances. They may eventually move on to something else, and/or they may consume the league in the process. The original issue has been eclipsed. It’s now all about joining a side. Our entire country is bickering like aggrieved middle schoolers.
The Falcons lost the game Sunday. To me, that loss is relatively inconsequential.
Our institutions – public and private – that once united us are now being used to divide us. We don’t even seem to care what the issues are about; we just can’t let the other side win.
That’s not a recipe for winning. This is how America loses. For all of us.