The Pontiac Silverdome, a perfect metaphor for Detroit Lions fandom.
The best word I can use to describe my father’s family is diffuse. I know as a child that I was “Finnish,” except I thought it was “finish” and meant that what didn’t come from my Mom was just finished off by God. Like a piece of furniture that is more lacquer than wood. I knew that my Grandma Hilda was 4’10”, 100 lbs soaking wet, and a woman you did not want to cross. She was loving and the best cook; she taught me to garden and how to pick out produce at the farmer’s market. I climbed apple trees and swam in the pool, and played with a cairn terrier named “Poco” who bit me a lot but I deserved it. Hilda was a proud Finn.
My Grandpa Saari was too, but he had remarried, a lovely woman named Lorraine, who I last saw being wheeled out of their house moments after she had an aneurysm. She died two weeks later. The night of the incident was the first time in my entire life that my father, my aunt Nancy, and my grandfather were ever together in the same room. Nancy and grandpa had a falling out owed to the suicide of my uncle in 1978. The didn’t speak for most of my life. Grandma Hilda also remarried, but I won’t write about him.
I spent 2 weeks a summer with Grandma Hilda, and then a week with Grandpa Saari. They both lived in the suburbs of Detroit; grandma in Southfield, grandpa in Klassen and then in Rochester. We went to Detroit Tigers games. At least two a summer, sometimes more. We’d drink fresh A&W floats and listen to away games on the radio. I stopped going to visit Detroit when I was 13, mainly because of the person I won’t write about, but it impacted everyone. Visits became more infrequent, but there is one that sticks out in my memory.
In 2001, my father had managed to come out the other side of two brain surgeries, going blind, and two rounds of radiation. Stephen was a year away from his successful suicide, but at the time was doing well. The Detroit Lions were playing their last game at the Pontiac Silverdome, and Dad wanted to go. I knew that he was not only making up for lost time, he was trying to do certain things in case something else happened with his health. Lorraine was still alive and grandpa had just had his second knee replaced, along with a hip replacement a decade before, but he was feeling good and wanted to go. After all, he and my Dad had seen the last game the Lions played at Tiger Stadium before going to the Silverdome. We had to go.
I remember that it was cold and raining, and the parking was so bad that we had to walk over a mile. My grandfather, a bear of a man and a shameless flirt, toddled back and forth, never complaining. Our seats were nosebleeds, but the place was sold out. There we sat, drinking beer (except Dad) and watching the Lions actually win a game. It was the last game grandpa saw before he died. Stephen, too. But for that moment, we were three generations of Lions fans bonding with a stadium full of people rooting for a consistently shitty team.
Dad and I have ordered the NFL Sunday Ticket every year since 2002. Dad has been the better trooper than I; in the 0-16 season, I stopped watching at 0-12. Not Dad. He watched each game and then insisted on giving me a synopsis. Even if I refused, he would forge ahead, doling out a penance I surely deserved.
Today I told my father that I am not going to watch the 2017 season because I can no longer support the NFL. There are myriad reasons: poor treatment of current and former players; the ramifications of concussions and a lack of serious action; perpetuating a situation in which athletes often are ushered through educational institutions that don’t address their fundamental lack of skills in the classroom because of their skills on the field; a system that relies on collegiate athletics as job training, thereby paying exorbitant salaries to mainly white coaches while paying nothing to the athletes, who receive scholarships that don’t cover their total tuition, but often prevent them from working or having adequate time for studies; their treatment of Colin Kaepernick; the repeated acceptance of domestic violence as part-and-parcel of footballers’ lives; I could go on. And on. And on.
My father absolutely understands, but he was sad. Really sad. He said, “I hear you, but it is the only connection I have left with my Dad.” That hit me in the feels, like big time.
So I’m at this crossroads. I want to be as consistent a person as possible, and I blog so openly as a part of my therapy. I try to keep myself accountable because I know within me is a great capacity for mendacity. I’ve seen it. I’ve used it. And I’ve spent much of my life trying to run as far away from those tendencies as possible. I made a declaration that I was not going to watch the NFL, and now I am going back on it.
My father and I have had a difficult relationship at times, but I love him very much. The older we get the closer we become because his whole family is dead. Except for cousins in Minnesota and Finland, Dad’s only biological family is me. All the problems with the NFL remain, and I know that it is a level of privilege to say that I can ignore them because they don’t impact me directly. I don’t know how many more years my father will live. None of us know that about one another, at least for long. The disappointment in his voice hurt my heart, and I can do something about it: I’m going to watch the games.
It is a little grandiose to be writing about something like this; I get it. It really doesn’t matter to anyone but me and my father, but as someone who tries to be moral and consistent, I am struggling. It is a case of competing goods and potential impact. My not watching the Lions would not in and of itself move the NFL to address any of the above concerns. It is equally valid to say that it takes millions of individual actions to have an impact on such a large corporation, so drawing an exact equivalency between the single act and direct impact is facetious. It is an ethical escape hatch. However, the single act of not watching the Lions will have a direct and significant impact upon my father, in ways that overshadow the good I could potentially do with a collective boycotting.
For me, being a socially-conscious person means never minimizing the impact that seemingly small decisions have on yourself, on your family, friends, neighbors, the world. It means not internalizing too much when people say, “you’re a good person,” so that you begin to feel that you no longer have to do the internal work required to cultivate compassion, love, mercy, grace, and patience. It also means accepting that life is complicated, that none of us can do all that we’d like to do or needs to be done, so we must make decisions. We are all walking contradictions. My solution is just to be honest about it.