In 2003, while living in Chicago, 27-year-old Geoff Gass began to feel his connection to his home state of Minnesota diminishing. It was only a seven-hour drive or a 90-minute flight to Minneapolis but he felt further away. It was as if his roots were gradually receding.
That is a common realization for someone in their 20s, as they are entrenched in the workforce and settle far from where they were raised. Many react by becoming fervid followers of a sports team, as Gass did with the Vikings. That June he joined the online community at Vikingsmessageboard.com, and it provided more than a forum to communicate with fellow Vikings fans; it was a link to home.
“I became a much bigger football fan after I moved to Chicago,” Gass says. “And what I learned was that many of the people posting on the site, most of them it seemed, were like me. They were living somewhere else and the Vikings were this connection.”
Few people outside the membership of Vikingsmessageboard.com were even aware the site existed until earlier this week, when it suddenly received national attention. On Monday, the same day that the Vikings reinstated running back Adrian Peterson despite the fact that Peterson faces child abuse charges in Texas for hitting his 4-year-old son repeatedly with a switch, the site was abruptly shuttered. The homepage was blank save for this statement:
Vikings Message Board has been shut down permanently. It will not return. There are two primary reasons.
1. The Vikings cowardly decision to reinstate a child abuser and think that an apology will make this blow over. We will not stand for this arrogance and we will no longer be the home of any support of the Vikings. We stand for those who cannot defend themselves.
2. We will not give a voice to thugs who think child abuse is "cultural" or worse, openly advocate child abuse as a reasonable method of punishment. This ends here. Yes, a few board members have ruined it for everyone. Congratulations, a--holes.
The termination of the site has been reported as a group decision, as if the entire community agreed to send a message to the Vikings organization. But the decision to shut it down was Gass’ alone, and the reason he did it is far more complex than the 109-word explanation he placed on the homepage. Shutting down the site was not solely Gass’ reaction to Peterson’s deplorable acts and the Vikings' decision to reinstate him (which the team later reversed). It was the final step in a difficult divorce, the completion of Gass’ years-long effort to say goodbye to football.
“Geoff had called me a while ago and asked if I wanted to run the message board again,” says Mike Perkins, aka the Kansas Viking, who started Vikingsmessageboard.com and then handed it over to Gass in 2008. “He said there were some things he learned, knowing what he knew now about football, and he couldn’t do it. He just said, ‘I can’t be part of this anymore.’”
Gass doesn’t want people to know where he lives or where he works. He was dismayed when he learned that a reporter had called his parents back in Minnesota. “Please do not contact them again,” he says after calling from a blocked number. Then he hung up.
He called back later, but only because he was informed via email that a story was going to be written about him whether he participated or not. “I really wish you wouldn’t write anything,” he says. “But I guess that isn’t an option now.” He sighs. “What I did, it wasn’t something that I intended to be a statement. It is something personal. … As a computer programmer, you think I would have known that nothing posted on the Internet is personal, but I guess I didn’t think about that when I did it.”
Like most diehard NFL fans, Gass once scheduled his life around games. When he planned a trip home to see his parents, he would make sure to go when the Vikings were hosting a game. On Sundays, he could be found at a Chicago bar with many other Minnesota transplants singing “Skol Vikings.” On the days between games, he visited websites and discussed the team with others; he was on one Vikings Google group as early as 1997. In the offseason, he debated the draft and free agent moves with people online.
When he found Vikingsmessageboard.com in 2003, he says: “It was largely a lot of the people from the Google group, a good chunk of the community migrated there. I developed friendships and I met a couple of them at games. We had this shared interest.”
When he became the administrator of the site in 2008, after Perkins determined he didn’t have the time to manage it, Gass didn’t consider it a chore because, “I would have been reading everything that was posted there anyway.” On average, Gass posted at Vikingsmessageboard.com about 1,000 times a year.
Around 2009, Gass and the rest of America woke up to the concussion crisis in football. Gass read story after story about the mental and physical toll on those who had played the game; one article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker that year really stuck with him. Gladwell compared NFL contests to dogfights, and near the end of the story wrote of the concussion problem: “There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else -- neither considerations of science nor those of morality -- can compete with the destructive power of that love.”
The more Gass read, the more he understood what was happening to the players on the field, the more difficult it became to watch Vikings games. “I’d cringe every time I saw someone get hit in the head,” he says. When he attended or watched games involving Northwestern, his alma mater, “it felt even worse watching those crunching hits to the head. At least the guys in the NFL are getting paid.”
Gass got married and in 2008 he had a child. He had less time to devote to watching football, but he would have made the time if he hadn’t become so uncomfortable sitting through a game. “And then the suicides started,” he says. “There was [Dave] Duerson [in 2011] and [Junior] Seau [in 2012]. Seau was a big one for me. For some reason, I remember him from that Nike commercial with Dennis Hopper when he is on the beach. And, he was one of those really great players from my teens and early 20s.”
Gass tried to keep watching, but kept cringing at the hits, swallowing hard and pretending to ignore what he saw, what he knew. By last season he couldn’t do it anymore, and he drew his first line: He would not attend any Vikings games or watch any of them on television for the entire 2013-14 season. “I kept my season tickets to Northwestern. That was my connection to my school, to my past,” he says. “But then I went to the first game and I got that sick-to-your-stomach feeling.”
A few months after the season started, Gass read a column by ESPN’s Rick Reilly and, “it expressed how I was feeling better than I could.” In it, Reilly wrote about how he now fully understands the toll the game takes on the players and he shared the guilt he felt for enjoying the game for so long. “I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to,” Reilly wrote.
That column crystallized all that Gass was feeling and also made clear what he had to do: Cut football out of his life completely. When the 2013-14 season ended, he gave up his Northwestern season tickets and vowed not to watch that team on television just as he’d done with the Vikings.
The final step, Gass knew, was ending his involvement with Vikingsmessageboard.com. He had been an infrequent poster and, at times, an absentee moderator during the 2013-14 season, but cutting himself off completely wasn’t easy. Like a morning cup of coffee, the site was part of his daily routine. He also knew that if he stopped visiting the site, the friendships he forged there would surely end. He would be severing his connection to that community and to Minnesota and that was no small step.
“I struggled a lot with it last year,” Gass says. “What do I do?”
Over the summer, he contacted Perkins, the Kansas Viking, but Perkins said he was too busy to return as administrator. Eventually, Gass found another frequent poster who agreed to take over the site. On Aug. 26 Gass announced his departure on the forum. “Unfortunately, I’ve found myself losing my love of the game,” he wrote. He then mentioned and linked to Reilly’s column. “I don’t mean to try to convert anyone or bum anyone out. I just can’t watch anymore. It saddens me because this board and football in general have been a lot of fun over the years.”
The responses from other posters were universally supportive. Most just thanked him for keeping the board running all these years.
Gass was gone in spirit and still transitioning the site to the new administrator when the news broke last Friday that a warrant had been issued for Peterson’s arrest. A short time later, pictures of Peterson’s 4-year-old son with lashes on his arms and legs were posted on the Internet, and Gass was monitoring the posts on Vikingsmessageboard.com as the news came in.
“When the thread started there were very little details,” Gass says. “But then you followed it as the news dribbled out, and then you see people who now know what happened, who saw the pictures, and they are making excuses for it, saying like Charles Barkley did, that it is a cultural thing. Then you have people who start saying that the country would be better if more people did this.”
Gass started banning people from the board, something typically reserved for fans of opposing teams who troll the site. “I probably banned like 15 people,” he says. That may not seem like a lot -- the site has more than 2,000 registered users -- but Gass says there are really only a couple hundred active members. That meant he was banning a sizeable percentage of the community.
The fervor died down over the weekend, but then the Vikings reinstated Peterson on Monday. “Then came more and more people trying to justify that decision," Gass said. "There were some people saying it wasn’t child abuse because in Texas the specific charge is different, it is reckless or negligent injury to a child, as if it isn’t abuse because in Texas the language used in the law is different.”
Gass banned more people, and then he decided to do something drastic. “There were lots of people on the site who were not posting offensive comments but there was this sizable minority and I had just had enough,” he says. “This was running on my servers, and I was not going to host that level of dialogue. I was not going to support that. And, I was horrified by what the Vikings had done. I was not going to support the team in any way.”
Gass talked briefly with his wife, who he says, “could see how it was distressing me.” Monday evening, with a few key strokes, he ended the 11-year run of Vikingsmessageboard.com.
Some members were outraged; others just felt lost. At purplepride.org, where many of the posters from Vikingsmessageboard.com migrated, they wrote of feeling like “refugees” and “orphans.” Wrote one poster: “I think I can speak for some of us at least, those of us from VMB are deeply saddened by the loss of our home.” Many spewed hatred at Gass, but several showed a surprising understanding for why he did what he did. “Plenty of us ... have been having some pangs of conscience with following a sport that has a lot of problems and gives lots of reasons to question one's loyalty ... but eliminating the medium through which we could discuss what is a major ordeal (AD's horrible/ ignorant acts) was not the answer.”
Gass found that thread and, after reading it Tuesday night and more Wednesday morning, he realized he’d made a mistake. Killing the site was the impulsive act of someone in the final stage of a split from the sport and teams he once loved. Gass contacted the person who had agreed to take over as administrator and sent him a backup of the site he’d made just before taking it down. By Wednesday afternoon, Vikingsmessageboard.com was back up and people were posting there again, including Gass, who apologized to the group for “a rash decision [that] brought down a community much larger than me.”
It was a more appropriate goodbye to his friends on the site and to football.
Gass is one guy and drawing a grand conclusion about what his choice means for the future of football might be unwise. But if the concussion crisis can drive a diehard like Gass from the sport, what are other fans thinking now, after the deplorable acts of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy and Peterson? Who else is turning away?
“Don’t take this the wrong way, because I think what Peterson and Rice and them did was wrong, but there is a younger generation that views these things differently,” says Perkins, who is 61-years-old.
What if that younger generation’s response is different too? What if, unlike their forbearers, they don’t just roll with what is going on, don’t just blindly move on to the next weekend of games? What if they find that turning away from football isn’t so bad? What if they discover that it is easier on the soul?