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Fading Fandom: Concussions And Cal Football

Is your passion for Cal football as strong as it has ever been?

In case you can't tell, that's Zack Follett. An all too familiar scene for football fans.
In case you can't tell, that's Zack Follett. An all too familiar scene for football fans.
Andrew Burton

In a sad bit of coincidence, 90% of this article was written prior to the events of Monday's practice that resulted in a serious injury to Avery Sebastian. Thankfully Avery's injury appears to be less serious than initially feared. CGB sends our well-wishes to our fellow Bear.

I’ve been sitting on this article for quite some time. I’ve been thinking about writing it for probably more than a year. I wrote portions of it early in the summer. I wanted to wait until fall training camp, with the season right on the horizon, to see if my excitement level would come back, to see if I felt like I did before the 2006 or 2007 seasons.

This is the question I keep pondering: How much longer can I watch Cal football? It’s a simple issue. I find that my Cal football fandom is fading.

There are many, many hypothetical causes. The struggles from a win/loss perspective. The negative vibe amongst certain segments of the fanbase. The specter of burnout from immersing myself in the minutia of 24/7 Cal football coverage. And perhaps those are contributing factors. But really, there is one main reason.

For nearly four years, I’ve been struggling with whether I can morally follow football at any level. And it all started with Jahvid Best’s injury. I’ve you’ve been reading this website since Jahvid suffered a severe concussion against Oregon State in 2009, you may have read what I wrote at the time:

I couldn’t drum up a reason to care about the rest of the Oregon St. game, and I wonder if I’ll care about the rest of the season.

I can’t help but assume that anybody who sat in the stadium as Jahvid was stretchered off, or watched live on TV, was impacted on some level. But even I wondered after the fact if I would ever be as big of a football fan as I was before that game.

And, three years later, I think I’ve reached a conclusion. I’m not. I just can’t pretend that I’m as invested as I used to be. Sure, I’ve gone through the motions. Season tickets, tailgates, game day t-shirts, the whole shebang. And I do still honestly enjoy it all. But it hasn’t felt the same for a while now.

Part of me wonders if a national ranking, or wins over rivals like Stanford and UCLA, would reinvigorate my passion. Maybe the lack of good, exciting football has allowed my existential crisis to fester. If Cal surges out of the gate to start the year under Sonny Dykes, I’m willing to acknowledge that I might just pretend I never wrote this post, and go back to my die-hard football fan lifestyle, while secretly feeling like a gigantic hypocrite on the inside.

But I keep coming back to the issue of player safety. If you were to make a list of the five most popular players during the Tedford era, I would guess the list would go something like this:

Marshawn Lynch
Aaron Rodgers
Jahvid Best
Zack Follett
DeSean Jackson

Two of those players were essentially forced to medically retire. Two others have sustained multiple concussions. Five players is hardly a representative sample, but it gives me pause to think that two of the most popular Bears in the modern era were forced to walk away from the game they love (and a hefty paycheck) because of what the same game did to their bodies.

Part of the change might be brought on because I’ve started consuming sports differently than I used to. Ever since Seinfeld coined the phrase, it’s been a truism that we’re all just rooting for laundry. But since I’ve started blogging, I’ve enjoyed fandom much more if I’m able to make some sort of personal connection to the players. Not necessarily on a face-to-face basis, but in terms of some knowledge of their off-the-field personas. Larger than life personalities like Cameron Jordan, artistic talents like Jamal Boykins, inspiring people like Tierra Rodgers and Jorge Gutierrez and Jill Costello . . . the closer I’ve followed Cal sports, the more I’ve realized that it’s the athletes themselves that keep me coming back for more, and not the wins and the losses.

Avery Sebastian's injury hits close to home because he's a player Cal fans have gravitated to as hope during a trying season. His effort, passion and optimism combines to inspire passion in the fan base, and I've heard nothing but great things from people who have interacted with him directly. His injury just drives home my general feeling of malaise.

Can I really maintain a passion for a sport that harms the people that are the biggest reason I enjoy the sport in the first place? I find myself torn. On one hand, every player on the Cal football team has made a conscious decision to pursue the sport. And these days, I would like to think that they have made that decision with a reasonably knowledge of the impact that decision could have on their long term health. For many, their ability to play football might very well be the reason they have the opportunity to earn a college degree. Would it be right for me to not support that decision?

In the end, I suppose my concern is purely academic. I’m still supporting Cal football, both monetarily and philosophically. Even if I’m torn about the implications, my behavior hasn’t appreciably changed. And I’m not sure if it ever will, or ever should. For one thing, Cal athletics needs fans like us to continue to support the football team as a means of supporting all of the other sports on campus. And ultimately, football is a big part of what keeps me connected with my alma mater, fellow alums, and friends.

But then I think back to Memorial Stadium in 2009, and I imagine watching something like that or worse happen again, and the doubt creeps back in. And I don’t think that doubt is ever going to go away.