The Best Parts of Being a Football Fan Are Off the Field

They say it takes 10 years to become a real New Yorker, but Aaron Rodgers seemed to earn his bona fides in just one summer. In March, after solemn contemplation at what he called a “darkness retreat” in Oregon, the 39-year-old announced, with pomp befitting his superlative N.F.L. résumé, his intentions to continue his career with the New York Jets, a young and hungry team whose otherwise first-rate roster happened to be missing a serviceable quarterback. The move took Rodgers from the league’s smallest market, in Green Bay, to its largest, and he leveled up accordingly, refashioning himself as a city boy. He purchased a $9.5 million home in the New Jersey suburbs, naturally, but treated a young teammate to dinner at Carbone in Greenwich Village. He sat courtside at Knicks games, next to Jessica Alba, and shopped downtown at Rag & Bone. He went to MetLife Stadium for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour and later visited the Gershwin Theater to see “Wicked.” And the Jets, newly hyped as Super Bowl contenders, were selected to be featured on the 18th season of the all-access series “Hard Knocks,” ensuring that HBO cameras would be on site to document the early days of his tenure in the Meadowlands.

Indeed, to have watched Rodgers storm out of the tunnel on Sept. 11 at the team’s season opener, brandishing an American flag like the Marines at Iwo Jima, was to understand something of what was expected of him. But as is often the case in the N.F.L., fortunes changed abruptly: On just his fourth snap as a Jet, as Rodgers scrambled to avoid being sacked by the 240-pound Leonard Floyd, he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon. “I’m completely heartbroken and moving through all of the emotions,” he wrote on Instagram, the day he underwent what was most likely a season-ending surgery.

I am not a Jets fan myself, but I happened to be watching with several of them — friends for whom Rodgers’s arrival in New York promised nothing short of deliverance from the hapless quarterbacking of Zach Wilson and a lifetime’s worth of general disillusionment. (It has been 54 years since the team last won, or even appeared in, the Super Bowl.) This, of course, is one of the principal joys of fandom: to play general manager, to mythologize the only human, to imagine your team is just a single player away from glory, even if that player is pushing 40 in a physically debilitating sport, treats a Covid infection with ivermectin and sometimes alludes to the potentially curative benefits of ayahuasca and the sounds of dolphins making love.

This is not to suggest that Rodgers’s embrace of unconventional science or even his age rendered him particularly liable to injury. Only that fandom, like hallucinogens, impels a sort of magical thinking, one in which the cruel and random nature of sport is bypassed in favor of more attractive notions of destiny and redemption. That the protagonist of Frederick Exley’s 1968 book “A Fan’s Notes” — a hard-drinking New York Giants die-hard — spends his time in and out of mental hospitals is an amusing, if dark, metaphor for the experience of loving a team unconditionally. If I admitted how much time I spend looking at the Baltimore Ravens injury report, trying to determine the difference between a high- and low-ankle sprain, you might suggest I be institutionalized, too. But for the fan, powerless to affect the outcome of the game itself, the difference is endowed with particular narrative urgency. And it is in narrative, as much as anywhere else, that the fan stakes his claim.

For Jets fans, Rodgers’s injury could be integrated smoothly, if begrudgingly, into their enduring sense of misfortune. Soon enough they had moved on to entertain new and ever more fanciful possibilities for salvation. Perhaps the team’s owner, Woody Johnson, would call up the retired 46-year-old Tom Brady and offer him a short-term lease to the kingdom. Maybe the Jets would reach out to the former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who hasn’t taken an N.F.L. snap in five years, or recruit the emergency services of Colin Kaepernick, who has been inactive even longer. So propulsive was the discourse machine, and so Pavlovian the fans’ response to disappointment, that it was only a matter of time before Rodgers’s setback had birthed a fresh search for a knight in football pads.

This is almost certainly how the league would prefer it. The N.F.L.’s most serious crisis, aside from the perceived corruption of its ownership class, is the brutal reality of its product, made clear by the dire actuarial tables of its players and the troublesome but utterly mundane experience of seeing them carted off the field. But when fans can channel their enthusiasm from a comfortable distance — in round-the-clock punditry, online betting or the managerial cosplay of fantasy football — our attention is pleasantly redirected from the field of play to the abstractions of the depth chart or the waiver wire. Over the course of a football fan’s life, you learn how — you are, in fact, conditioned — to engage with the game so that its most disagreeable elements are made tolerable, or even forgettable. (It may be no coincidence that as our understanding of the long-term effects of concussions has grown, so too have our modes of fandom, most of which focus everywhere but the game itself.) One player’s torn A.C.L., suggest the talking heads, is his rookie replacement’s big break, a tale of opportunity rather than loss.

Sometimes this diversion isn’t conditioned but forced, as the league and its TV affiliates decide some part of the game isn’t fit for public consumption at all. One week after Rodgers’s injury, for instance, when the Cleveland Browns’ star running back Nick Chubb’s knee went sideways on a routine draw play, ABC refused to air a replay. “Yeah, we’re not gonna show it,” said the commentator Troy Aikman. “It’s as bad as you can imagine.” From the whimpers in the crowd at Acrisure Stadium, we could figure it out ourselves. Or we could head to YouTube, where one of several clips of Chubb’s injury now has over two million views.

It is a central paradox of football that, if you do get queasy and decide to look away, you might miss something that temporarily reaffirms your faith in the whole masochistic enterprise of fandom. From the panicked headlines the morning after Rodgers’s injury, you might not have immediately discerned that the Jets actually won that game. Down 10 points to the Buffalo Bills, they staged a comeback, sending the game into overtime. By that point the air had long gone out of the Brooklyn apartment where I watched with the Jets’ faithful: Two left 90 minutes earlier, at halftime, and the others were slumped over in states of numb disbelief. Then the little-known Xavier Gipson, a 22-year-old rookie receiver whom the team signed this summer after no one picked him in the N.F.L. draft, took a punt back 65 yards for a walk-off touchdown. There would still be heroes, it turned out, just not the ones anyone expected.

Still, by morning, ecstasy had turned back to agony. “I’m tuning it all out/not a fan anymore,” wrote one Jets supporter in our group chat — adding, somewhat impractically, that he no longer wanted to be sent any football-related texts for the remainder of the season. I could understand the impulse. But fandom tempts us always with fun plotlines and fresh promise. The following weekend we gathered in front of the television yet again.

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