I Fought the NFL and the NFL Won: On ‘Against Football,’ Illegal Streams, and San Francisco’s Fallen Camelot

By Ryan Henry Joe


The rallying cry of the perennial loser: At least we’ve got talent!

Three years ago, with then-San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers landing the ball everywhere but between the uprights, I’d scurry into my bedroom and hide under a blanket whenever he trotted onto the gridiron for a high-stakes field goal attempt.

An outburst of cheering — provided it was a home game — meant success.

In my more fragile moments, however, I’d mute the television and refresh Twitter for game updates. I don’t enjoy 49ers games so much as I survive them, and mediating particularly tense situations through a mobile app kept me more or less on an even keel.

I got used to following live feeds of the game because, for a while — living in New York City and watching TV via high-def antenna — it was difficult to see 49ers games at all. Only recently did the team start performing well enough to warrant nationally-broadcast games.

Still, I needed my fix. I never enjoyed watching football with a bunch of strangers, so I avoided sports bars. I soon discovered FirstRowSports, a site collecting low-res, illegal, live streams of NFL games — though I had to install a sketchy-looking driver to use its video player, a fee I gladly paid.

Eventually, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized the site’s domain, which now routes visitors to this ominous anti-piracy PSA. Since then, FirstRowSports has re-launched, presumably it is hosted in a country unlikely to be raided by the U.S. or its allies.

coverI justify my decision to circumvent NFL-approved broadcasts by saying it’s for moral reasons, similar to the issues Steve Almond articulates in Against Football.

I refuse to support a business that presents itself as a purveyor of wholesome, All-American family fun, but that is — even overlooking the concussion issue — greedy and cynical. The NFL cares about breast cancer only inasmuch as the disease will increase female viewers. Salute the troops? Sure, for a price.

The real reason I watched 49ers football using a hodgepodge of live updates and pixilated streams, of course, isn’t because of genuine moral outrage, but because I’m too damn cheap to pay for NFL Sunday Ticket, but at the same time too attached to my team.

Even despite all the well-documented problems with the NFL as a business, it puts together a marvelous show. Hate the dealer, love the product, as it were.

The NFL has achieved every corporation’s dream: It has made its product personal. How do you quit the NFL — how do you quit your team — when it’s so tied to whom you are as a person?

Growing up in Northern California, I was a casual follower of the 49ers – letting my mother carry the weight of fandom. I’d play video games while, in another room, she’d put the color into the commentary:

Catch it, jackass.
Throw it, asshole.
Jeff Garcia shouldn’t take off his helmet. He looks a lot better with it on.
Okay. That’s enough. From now on, no one named Steeeeeeve is allowed on the team.

The last one was in response to a bad play during the Steve Mariucci-Steve Young era. Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst, was a mildly successful head coach who led the 49ers to four playoff appearances in six seasons.

And Young is, of course, a hall-of-fame quarterback whose biggest sin in my mother’s eyes was that he only won one Super Bowl, and that he was not Joe Montana.

But when I moved to Southern California, I became an avid fan. I needed something to identify myself as Northern Californian, so I clung to my sports team as if it were a fetish. When I landed on the East Coast, my grip only tightened.

Winning was a given when I was a kid. In retrospect, that makes for some boringly predictable storylines. But by the time I’d graduated college, the team had become a fallen Camelot — its presence in the playoffs only a memory. Victory was no longer a Super Bowl championship; it was losing without getting reamed.

I was a 23-year-old grad student in 2005, the same year the 49ers, after a spectacularly dismal season, used the first overall pick in the draft to pin their hopes — and an exorbitant amount of money — on Utah quarterback Alex Smith. That they passed on Cal quarterback and Norcal native Aaron Rodgers was, and still is, a pundit talking point).

As I struggled through my uncertain 20s, I watched the 49ers struggle as well. Smith, after significant improvements in his second season, settled into what seemed to be his default state as an injured interception machine. Mike Nolan, the young, intriguing head coach who’d drafted him, managed to build a nucleus of talented players but was fired four disappointing seasons later. (The rallying cry of the perennial loser: At least we’ve got talent!) I was eating at a diner in Union Square when ESPN confirmed his mid-season dismissal.

His successor, former Bears’ linebacker Mike Singletary — a motivating orator but an uninspiring head coach — was expected to fare better (“This is the last time our season ends in December,” said 49ers owner Jed York upon Singletary’s hiring.) but instead fared much worse. While I don’t recall where I was when news of his firing broke, I remember the feeling of a weight lifted, as if somehow Singletary’s ineffective leadership kept my own life from advancing.

But then Jim Harbaugh coached the team to three consecutive NFC Championships, resurrected Smith’s career, before dramatically replacing him with Colin Kaepernick, an ultra-athlete quarterback who ran like a gazelle and whose 60-mph rocketball literally ripped fingers from sockets. Was this what it was like to be a fan during the Walsh-Montana-Young years? It was an era of excited emails and — coincidentally? — stability in my personal life.

Now Harbaugh is gone, magnificently flaming out with the 49ers’ back office. The mystery surrounding the specifics leading to his firing — fed by double-speak and rumor mongering — as well as Harbaugh’s status as a celebrity coach have elevated what’s likely an episode of employer-employee friction into an epic on par with the Fall of Troy. I’ve spent hours searching the wreckage on that one — scouring for hints in columns posted by the team’s beat writers, or in a since-deleted Facebook post, allegedly written by Harbaugh’s son.

That’s the insidious beauty of the NFL: Sometimes the games themselves, despite the very real cost exacted on the players, seem like nothing more than action sequences in a never-ending drama that has somehow entwined itself with my life. Even as roster decisions are made in offices across the coast, as games are won or lost in stadiums I’ve only seen on TV, it’s impossible for me not to feel a part of it.

So, even if I forego NFL-sanctioned gamecasts in favor of short story collections or poetry chapbooks, there’s no way in hell I’m truly giving up the NFL.

Unlike my 49ers, whose fate this season is anything but certain, the NFL will keep on winning.

Image Credit: USA Today Images.

4 Comments on “I Fought the NFL and the NFL Won: On ‘Against Football,’ Illegal Streams, and San Francisco’s Fallen Camelot”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: