finYou made it too, laughably bad stock image!

It’s been 213 days since there was last a meaningful NFL game. Even now that the wait is over, I shudder to think about how long it was. I feel like I aged seven years during that span, though that could also be the byproduct of reading Peter King on a weekly basis. Put it this way: the off-season was so long that media types spent days – days! – talking about Colin Kaepernick wearing a Dolphins hats. That’s boredom and desperation at its most toxic.

There’s a point when the countdown to the new season drops below 100 days and a few people get excited. You think, “You fools! 99 days is not that close. That’s still more than three months away.” Briefly, you allow yourself to recall how glorious football season can be. That’s when the off-season really hurts. So you go into shutdown mode, resigned to plodding afternoons of baseball and not being happy about being alive.

That’s a tough mindset to break. It might take a full half of tonight’s game for it to sink in that the NFL season has started. To accept that not only is football here, but it’s just getting started. I know the first few Joe Flacco checkdowns to Ray Rice I’ll have to remind myself, “Oh wait, that dump off counted!”

More so than any other major team sport, football is about change. Change that goes beyond just new strategic elements (hey Chip Kelly). NFL players have the shortest average career length of any major team sport, making turnover a constant. The violent and damaging nature of the sport compels its caretakers to do what they can to rein it in, to convince themselves that there’s a way to control it.

As with the past few years, the NFL is welcomed back with a slew of thinkpieces about how troubling it is to watch football knowing what it does to its players and how troubling it is that such a sport enjoys cultural primacy. Here’s one:

The NFL is king, now more than ever.

And like any good king, it keeps winning wars, keeping the kingdom intact. On the Thursday before the last NFL-free weekend until February, the National Football League settled its lawsuit with the nearly 5,000 former players who were suing the league over mishandling of concussion-related issues for $765 million, plus lawyers’ fees. There was no admission of NFL wrongdoing, and any fans who felt at all guilty about setting their fantasy lineups can put that lingering unpleasantness out of their minds.

The NFL isn’t a king. It’s vastly popular diversion with financial partnerships with massive corporations (hey ESPN/Disney) but it’s still an entity that derives its status from the support of the masses. Oh, and the media. On one hand, the media decries the power and the reach of the league, while on the other hand helping to extend that reach by making the NFL an ever larger part of its sport coverage. Because which media companies are principled enough to sever the revenue that comes with obsessing about football?

It’s easy to think of the NFL as an imperious force that does what it wants regardless of consequence. Because that removes the burden of responsibility from us. CTE didn’t just become a thing when Junior Seau killed himself. The Redskins’ name didn’t just become racist when a bunch of high-falutin’ publications refused to acknowledge it. Both of these things have been a problem for years. It’s only recently that the public at large has really started to care.

It’s the rapid change in society that’s butting heads with the culture of the NFL. Mind you, society eventually wins this fight, every time. It’s a constant reminder that the NFL is not a king, a forbidding authority lording over us. Acceptance of homosexuality in the NFL, like society at large, is not absolute, but gains more traction with each passing season. It’s difficult to stress how unthinkable this was decades ago. The NFL held out as long as it could to even tacitly admit that the sport is fundamentally harmful to its players. With time and probably more lawsuits, a full admission will come. Those who play and watch it will do so knowing exactly what they’ve signed up for. That’s the most we can ask.

We can love the NFL and we can force it to be better. Because we want it to be better, just as we want to be better ourselves. And what we want is truly what matters.