For 97 percent of my life, I was not a football fan. I wasn’t just not a football fan, I was vehemently anti-football. The men who played it, the men who were fans of it, seemed to be part of a culture of toxic masculinity, where anger, aggression, rage, violence, and all the things that can go hand-in-hand with those attributes were also present. Football people were not my people. My people were freaks, geeks, commies, hippies, queers. I’d gone to college and spent my 20s in Seattle, and, after stints in New York and Los Angeles, I returned in 2011, when the Seattle Seahawks were, unbeknownst to me, in the middle of a resurgence.
The team had flatlined since their Super Bowl loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006, but they had recently hired a new coach, the University of Southern California’s upbeat, perennial gum chewer, Pete Carroll. They soon had a new quarterback, Russell Wilson, running in circles like a whirling dervish. They had a bruising running back, Marshawn Lynch, picked up from a deadbeat team, and brought to new life in Seattle. They had the “best corner in the game,” Richard Sherman, as loud and brash as he was talented—and he was crazy talented. There were other players, too. The quiet, intense wide receiver Doug Baldwin, and the boisterous, hilarious, and soon-to-be political activist, Michael Bennett.
I didn’t know any of this yet. But sometime around the middle of Russell Wilson’s first season, I ended up at a bar with my friend Mike, who patiently explained the game to me like you would a three-year-old. Slowly, the game came into focus, like one of those optical illusions made of dots, where if you look at them long enough you can see shapes.
I became attached to these big personalities. I was proud of Marshawn Lynch’s rebellious retort, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined,” during the Super Bowl media day, a middle finger to the way the corporate and white ownership of the NFL dictated the mostly black players. Later, as the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, it heartened me to see Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett have deep, serious discussions about BLM at press conferences, long before rival quarterback Colin Kaepernick ever took a knee. And when last season began minus Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, I was moved when Bennett took his place as the movement’s leader and sat out the anthem, and moved when his white teammate, center Justin Britt stood beside him. When Donald Trump re-ignited the anthem controversy by telling the NFL to get the “son of a bitch” players who were kneeling off the field, the Seahawks as a team decided not to come out on the field at all during the anthem. The team’s top brass put out statements backing the players’ stance. Even with all the controversies around injuries, racism, domestic violence, the Seahawks were a team that made it okay to be a social justice–minded, somewhat uncomfortable-with-football football fan.
There’s a saying in sports: “Love the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back”—meaning cheer for the team, not the players on it. But I wasn’t just rooting for the Seahawks, the corporate entity. I was rooting for Cliff Avril, who spends his off-season in Haiti building schools for impoverished children. I was rooting for Doug Baldwin, who attempted to address police brutality through legislation and bridging the communication gap between cops and communities. I was rooting for Bennett and Sherman; I was rooting for these guys specifically, because of their work off the field.
The team was successful on the field, too; winning one Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos, and losing another to New England Patriots. But each season since has been a slow deterioration, and many of these players are now gone: Sherman and Bennett have both been traded. Avril has a neck injury and has been cut. Lynch retired and unretired so he could finish his career with his hometown team, the Oakland Raiders.
This off-season, Colin Kaepernick’s workout with the team was canceled, allegedly because he would not commit to not kneeling during the anthem.
But it’s also possible that the freewheeling, live-and-let-live image we’ve come to believe about the Seahawks was never true in the first place. That the activism was simply something allowed to fester, and once the team stopped winning, the politics and the personalities that came with it had been deemed a distraction.
And it’s possible that new voices and new leaders will emerge and protests and activism will continue. Doug Baldwin co-wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging Trump to pardon nonviolent drug offenders—many of whom are African American. Duane Brown, the new left tackle signed midseason last year, has already voiced concerns about the latest NFL policy around the anthem protests (kneel and you’ll be fined) and has assumed a leadership role on the issue. The Griffin brothers, Shaquill and Shaquem, seem like stars in the making who could later find their political voices. But without Bennett, Sherman, Avril, and possibly Earl Thomas, it will be an almost entirely different team on and off the field.
When the season starts, I don’t know if I will still love the name on the front. But maybe I will find new names to love on the back.