Editor’s Note: I am excited to introduce New Voices on Masculinities, a series of original content written for The Bridges We Burn, in which author’s explore topics related to their identity. The first author in the series is musician and educator, Matt Bogdanow.
On February 1st, 2015, I watched the New England Patriots––my hometown heroes––defeat the Seattle Seahawks to win their fourth Super Bowl. The elation I felt witnessing Malcolm Butler’s improbable game-winning interception in the final minute was otherworldly. I screamed with joy at the television, high-fived childhood friends, exchanged a series of “HOLLY SHIITT!@##@!” texts with my family, and delighted in getting a rare glimpse at the “Bill Belichick Celebration Face,” an almost imperceptible smirk from the notorious curmudgeon. We toasted to the greatest football team in history, and basked in the champagne afterglow.
I have not watched a single football game since.
As an adult, music has been more than a career; it’s been my identity. I can trace nearly every friendship I’ve made over the last fifteen years to music in one way or another. These friends, by and large, view sports with a range from indifference to vitriol. Football in particular is looked at as an encapsulation of nationalism, machismo, and hyper-competitiveness––not exactly the most cherished traits among us dirty hippies.
Personally, I’ve never been able to shake that early-childhood enchantment with professional sports. From my desk right now, I can see a Red Sox wall calendar, a vial of dirt from Fenway Park, a Dustin Brown Kings miniature hockey stick, a Mets 50th anniversary glass, an admittedly deflated basketball, and a Tommy Lasorda Dodgers garden gnome. Fortunately, I don’t have to experience fandom by myself, due to the friends and family who knew me before I had ever picked up a drumstick; they love sports. We track time by triangulating the seasons of the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots––October being the lone month where all three play simultaneously. In 2002, our first year after high school, a group of friends convened in upstate New York to watch the Patriots win their first ever Super Bowl, because we couldn’t handle the thought of not watching together. It instantly became the sports highlight of my life, surpassed only once, by the 2004 Red Sox.
As we’ve gotten older and settled into different cities, we’ve found new ways to follow our teams together. One recent email chain regarding the Red Sox offseason free agent signings got so long that Google automatically split it into multiple threads. We hold annual “winter meetings”: multi-person Skype sessions to discuss the state of the league. We text each other during the most stressful game moments, often just a single period which has come to convey: “I am watching this, you are watching this, I have no words.”
I always enjoyed my identity of being the “sports” guy with my music friends, and the “music” guy with my sports friends. As the years went on, however, I found it harder and harder to reconcile one factor in the equation: the National Football League. In order to be a Patriots fan, I was willfully ignorant of the NFL’s feckless domestic violence policy, its racial and economic exploitation of players, its rampant corruption, including an abundance of taxpayer-funded stadiums, its unconscionable homophobia, its indifference toward drunk driving, and perhaps most famously, its Big Tobacco-esque cover-up of the long-term health impact of concussions.
In December of 2014, perhaps in response to my increasingly vocal discomfort with the NFL, my aunt and uncle introduced me to a book that explores these issues: Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Having just read it, they were now struggling to answer Almond’s central question: Once you accept that football is harmful to society, can you continue watching? As an ill-fated Jets fan, my uncle’s offseason had already begun, but with the Patriots heading to the playoffs, I still had a month of potential exhilaration ahead of me! This was no time to wrestle with morality; I wrote down the name of the book and enjoyed the Patriots championship relatively guilt-free.
Shortly after the Super Bowl, I checked out Against Football from the library and finally confronted Almond’s stark reality. Like me, Almond had spent decades loving football––he wasn’t some angry outsider, shaming us for enjoying the sport; he was just a guy who could no longer, in good conscience, support the National Football League. Ultimately the most compelling angle was one I hadn’t yet considered: the health risks for children who play on youth football teams.
I had been so proud when my cousin’s 9-year-old son started playing Pop Warner little league football. It was the perfect outlet for his energy, and as one of the youngest starters on his team there was no doubting his natural ability. An email from his mom to me read: “It is as though he was born to play football.” Later, when he sustained his first on-field concussion, I remembered comparing it to my own childhood experience of falling off a swing set and landing on my head. Within the context of Against Football, it now felt much more sinister. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was making millions of dollars at the expense of my family’s health. My “cous-ephew” spent two nights in the hospital, and it would be another five months before he was cleared for all activities. Suddenly my decision didn’t seem hard at all.
I resolved to boycott the 2015-2016 NFL season. My original fear of “but I like watching football” was easy to move past; there are plenty of other great ways to spend Sunday afternoons. I could go hiking, visit a museum, attend barbecues without constantly checking my phone for updates on my fantasy football team, or even just stay home and watch basketball and baseball instead. The more pressing concern was how this would impact my relationships with friends and family. Could I opt out of the football season without opting out of these relationships? I hoped so.
The first test came in August during preseason when I received an invitation to re-activate my fantasy football team. This particular league consisted of friends spread across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, to Los Angeles, and beyond. I did my best to explain that I had to bow out due to my “experimental boycott” of the NFL. They responded well and no one questioned my decision or tried to argue with my reasoning. However, my quitting had a cascading effect that resulted in the end of the league, which had been our primary source of communicating with each other.
Once the season began, I realized I had neglected to tell my parents about my new anti-football stance. This was perhaps a mistake. Here’s a selection of text messages I received from my dad during the first couple months:
“Texans, again! Yates!”
I wished I could share his excitement over what I assumed were some pretty spectacular plays on behalf of his hometown team, the Houston Texans. Still, it was easy enough to either reply with a football emoji and some exclamation marks, or just ignore them and let my brother (who was undoubtedly watching the games) respond. I eventually came clean with my parents over Thanksgiving and they were incredibly supportive, although both decided against reading the book, in an effort not to taint their own enjoyment of the game.
My friend Alex’s texts, over that same time span, were much trickier to navigate:
“You could come over and watch the pats at 10 too”
“I’m back if you want to come over and watch the night time pats game”
“So pats play at 130 some folks are coming over”
“The pats play tonight”
“Pats play at night”
Alex and I have been best friends since his family moved into the house that shared a backyard with ours in 1987. We’ve watched more games together than I could ever count. After high school it would be twelve years before we lived in the same city again, but when I moved to L.A. we immediately settled back into our familiar viewing patterns together. How could I explain that I didn’t want to hang out on Sundays anymore because of some book I read from the library?
When I finally explained the situation to Alex, it was easier than I’d expected. We’ve been friends long enough that he’s grown accustomed to hearing about my boycotts––whether it was in 1998 when I decided to boycott pig dissection in science class because I thought it was senseless murder, or 1999 when I decided to boycott Napster because it felt like stealing (this didn’t last), or in 2003 when I decided to boycott the meat industry after reading a particularly convincing PETA pamphlet (this did last), or in 2012 when I decided to boycott Chick-Fil-A for their homophobic tendencies, or just last year when I decided to boycott Manchester by the Sea due to Casey Affleck’s history of sexual harassment. Alex doesn’t always join me on these boycotts, but he accepts them as a part of who I am. The difference here was that this boycott would directly lead to us spending less time together, and that was just plain shitty.
Meanwhile, most of my friends were completely oblivious to this struggle, because they’re completely oblivious to football. I was still that drummer who wore Celtics T-shirts and baseball caps. Sure, every once in a while there’d be a reference to Coldplay’s infamous 2016 Super Bowl halftime performance that would go over my head, but that was about it. Those relationships remained unchanged.
The first season was a challenge, but once I skipped the Super Bowl, an event that even my most anti-sports friends celebrate with nachos and cheap beer (ironically or not), my identity as “that guy who doesn’t watch football” solidified. Newton’s law of inertia kicked in: My boycott would continue indefinitely, without much effort on my part. No one asked me to join their fantasy football league, no one invited me to watch the Patriots on Sundays, and I only got one errant “Texans!!!!” text from my dad.
As for the relationships with my childhood friends and family, did they endure? Hell yeah they did. The former members of my fantasy league started a new email chain that somehow managed to include trash-talk and camaraderie without the confines of the NFL––a few of us even recorded an album bicoastally through the magic of Dropbox. The group text with my family shifted its focus to adorable photos of my toddler niece. Alex and I got sick of not hanging out on Sundays, so we started our own podcast, forcing us to spend several hours a week watching movies and chatting pop culture together. It turns out these relationships were never really about sports, after all.
This past February, in their record-setting ninth appearance, the Patriots overcame the largest deficit in Super Bowl history to win the first-ever overtime Super Bowl. I hear it was quite a game.
Matt Bogdanow is an educator, performer, and author of the instructional drumset method book, The Backbone of Drumming. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2005, Matt moved to New York City where he completed the Community-Word Project Teaching Artist Training and Internship Program. He spent 8 years in Brooklyn (including one as Brett’s roommate), teaching for Urban Arts Partnership, Marquis Studios, and Manhattan New Music Project. Now in Los Angeles, he leads workshops for teachers and parents of students with severe behavioral, developmental, and physical disabilities as part of Everyday Arts for Special Education, while also producing music and fronting the rock band, The Polar Quest. His podcast, Clearing The Queue, is co-hosted by Alex Popkin and can be found on iTunes.
Edited by Brett Goldberg & Carrie Morrisroe