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  • In the latest Weekend Read, we examine NFL fandom in 2018, Arthur Ashe’s remarkable journey and reveal our favorite stories of the week.
September 07, 2018

By Charlotte Wilder

Professional football: It’s back! Look, I know: Every day more evidence mounts that this sport is bad—very bad—for people’s brains. Some former NFL athletes say they wouldn’t play the game knowing now what they didn’t know then. That they’d prefer if their kids picked a safer sport. If I ever have sons, I’ll certainly suggest they take part in almost anything else after school besides football. Listening to men who’ve retired describe the effects the sport has had on their bodies and minds, and watching guys get hit hard on the field—sometimes with dire consequences—makes me question whether it’s OK to love this sport.

Because I do. Despite everything I just wrote, football is easily my favorite league to watch. I’m floored by the beauty of the formations, the stunning catches and insane athleticism of the players, the chess-like maneuvers of the coaches. Games are finite and packed with action. One Hail Mary pass, superhuman block, or battering-ram of a run can give us endings that would seem too unbelievable for a movie.

And when it comes to the athletes, part of me feels like watching the NFL honors what they’ve chosen to do. They’ve sacrificed so much to play, to make money, to give back to the families and the communities that got them this far. Following the sport somehow seems like respecting the players. Until the system is overhauled from the pros to Peewee—somehow making changes to the game so there are fewer risks—not watching feels like punishing the wrong people. For every athlete who says he wouldn’t have played if he’d known the risks, there’s at least one who says he would’ve. Deciding not to watch or read up on the league when I still want to would feel a bit performative to me, especially knowing that my absence wouldn’t make a dent in the NFL’s bottom line. On the other hand, maybe that’s the only way to make a difference—by being that miniscule dent until others join in to deepen it.

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The truth could be that I’m just clinging to a ritual I’m not ready to give up: With only 16 games a season, each becomes a marquee event. Sundays turn into an eight-hour excuse to sit on your couch, stare at your phone calculating fantasy points, and drink beers/inhale chicken wings with your friends and family. After the first NFL weekend, I find myself wondering what I do with my time during the offseason. I cherish the rhythm football brings to my life.

The bottom line is that I have no answers. I only have all the terrible information about the sport and the contradictory good feelings I get from watching. These two conflicting truths that rattle around in my brain as I read up on the Patriots and eagerly await the first Sunday of games. If you’re trying to live your life as a just person who does the right thing but also really wants to win her fantasy league, football is an exercise in having your head and heart constantly at war with each other.

Maybe that’s OK, maybe it isn’t. One thing is for sure: loving football these days is messy and hard to reconcile. A mirror of America in 2018.

RECOMMENDED READING

• How did one team fall so far? Inside the Nationals' break down (by S.L. Price)

• John Elway was one of the best QBs to ever play the game. Will he ever find a worthy heir in Denver? (by Robert Klemko)

• America's most decorated taekwondo athlete and his coach are accused of using their power and influence to sexually abuse several women (by Jeremy Fuchs)

• The SPORTS ILLUSTRATED staff makes their predictions—champion, award winners, storyline to watch—for the 2018 NFL season

• The breakout star of Hard Knocks—Browns O-line coach Bob Wylie—gets one more moment in the limelight (by Jenny Vrentas)

VAULT PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Beginning on the afternoon of Sept. 9, 1968, renowned photographer John G. Zimmerman chronicled the 36 hours that changed tennis. On assignment for Life, Zimmerman went along with Arthur Ashe on his remarkable journey. His photos are being shown for the first time in a new book, Crossing the Line: Arthur Ashe at the 1968 US Open, published by Hannibal in cooperation with the John G. Zimmerman Archive. They capture not just a sport in transition, but a man as well, showing Ashe's journey to becoming a tennis icon.

Find a collection of those photos—and a groundbreaking VR experience—here.

BEST OF THE REST

• Ivan Maisel, a senior writer at ESPN, wrote about getting to know the parents of Tyler Hilinski, a football player at Washington State who took his own life last year. Maisel also lost a son to suicide, and this is a raw and moving account about how deep a comfort it can be to know someone else understands your pain. Even if it’s a pain you wouldn’t wish on anyone. (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED chronicled the Hilinski family's search for answers in the wake of the suicide in a feature-length documentary.)

• The Boston Globe’s Nora Princiotti went on a deep dive about Bill Belichick’s undefeated season as a student at Phillips Academy Andover, a prep school outside of Boston. As another product of New England prep schools and avid Pats fan (I’m sorry, I can’t help any of it), this was right up my alley.

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• This story about Kansas City Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough’s search for his biological parents has a wild twist.

• SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee wrote about the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run battle in 1998. I remember being on the playground in fourth grade arguing with kids about who was better (Sammy was my guy, even though I had both of their baseball cards). This brought me back and raised really interesting questions about how and why we started caring about whether they were on steroids.

• A fascinating look at one girls’ planned-out route to becoming the next best thing in U.S. women’s soccer.

• I’d read Mina Kimes if she rewrote the phone book, and I’d listen to Jalen Ramsey talk if he read it out loud, so I practically inhaled this profile of Ramsey by Kimes. I finished it and felt like I’d hung out with the outspoken Jaguars cornerback myself.

• I’m halfway through Mark Leibovitch’s book about the NFL, which is excerpted here. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the culture of the billionaires who own football teams, the players who are trying to beat mortality and the fans who can’t live without the sport. It comes out Sept. 11, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. The NFL will hate it, which makes it even better.

Editor's note: What kind of stories and content would you like to see in the Weekend Read? Let's chat at SIWeekendRead@gmail.com.

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