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Essays Against Football

Against Football

One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto

by Steve Almond

Steve Almond's blistering book Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto is exactly what it advertises itself to be: an exasperated, frustrated, wide-ranging argument that the time has come to abandon football — particularly but not exclusively the NFL — as a sport built on violence, racism, economic exploitation of poor kids, corrupt dealmaking with local governments over stadiums, and a willingness to find it entertaining to watch people suffer brain damage.

The most important question with any book like this is whether it's being written to persuade or to fist-pump — whether the intended audience is current football fans or current football haters who have believed for years that football was stupid who are eager to have substantive claims of harm to mix in with their personal taste in what is classy and what is not. Particularly in the early going, Almond speaks to fans as a fan: he lays out his passionate attachment to the Oakland Raiders and the agony his fandom has wrought. But he also explains how important football was to his relationship with his dad, and how much he enjoyed camaraderie with fellow fans at a sports bar, and how he loved the sport enough to be transported just by reading about it.

But he eventually turns his attention to a variety of things he says ail the sport at the professional level: those stadium deals that benefit team owners, the kids who will do anything to pursue football in part because they sense limited options, the homophobic bullying culture he sees playing out in stories like the bizarre tale of Richie Incognito, and especially — especially — evidence he cites that even ordinary, day-to-day football, played without anybody getting a concussion, can to permanent brain damage, profound suffering for current and former players, and shortened life spans.

There are times I felt like the critique became too sweeping: he offers some valuable critiques of The Blind Side (the book, not the film), but comes uncomfortably close (for me) to suggesting the family that adopted Michael Oher did so strictly to exploit him for the sake of Ole Miss football, an accusation that's been hurled at them a lot based on essentially circumstantial evidence. And, to my eye, he reads a tone of "triumph" in the book's presentation of their using correspondence courses to skirt the academic requirements of college where I read "whatever it takes, however imperfect, given this particular kid's circumstances."

Similarly, his criticism of Friday Night Lights seems built on the assumption that to present a way of life as being true for a group of characters is to endorse it as a desirable one — I'd counter that in a critical scene, Coach Eric Taylor once made it clear that pride is not worth kids being injured, no matter how much they may want to play on. And in fairness to the writers, what "injured" in football means has evolved even in the time since that show was on; his frustration that concussions weren't mentioned may be a little unfair to people who started writing a network show in 2006.

But also in fairness — to him this time — those things, both that book and that show, are things I like. This is the entire challenge of this little (under 200-page) book: you are challenging what people hold dear. If you question for a moment how personally people take their love of football, give a gander to his sampling of the hate mail he received when he started writing about his reservations about football (one of the few funny parts of the book), or check out the comments from when Here & Now talked to him last month when Against Football first came out.

While I'm certainly not a superfan of football, I will tell you that one of the first things I demanded when I got my new cable package was RedZone, the NFL cable channel that shows football all day every Sunday during the regular season, jumping from game to game without commercials. I consider it one of the few really great new ideas cable has had in a while, and I made sure I'd have it. I've been considerably cooler to the idea this year, both because of the injury issues Almond spends the most time on in this book and because of the issues the league has with both domestic violence and transparency.

One of the smart things about Almond's approach is that he doesn't claim that watching football is bad because it's lowbrow, or because it's dumb, or because it has no appeal. He's not throwing in with the people you may know who rail about the stupidity of sports as compared to high art, and he's not denying the understandable, genuine appeal of the game as a spectacle and a ritual. He's saying information has changed, our understanding of the consequences of watching as entertainment the likely shortening of people's healthy lives has evolved, and the business aspects of the NFL have taken on unsavory characteristics that may not be desirable for a variety of reasons.

I don't think the purpose of the book is entirely to persuade people to give up football, but I do think the purpose is to ask people to consider and process all of the pieces of this argument: When you consider the whole picture, is it something you want to watch and support? Even if it is, then if you've read the book, you've at least heard and processed a full-throated version of the case ... well, against it.

Is it immoral to consume violent entertainment that can result in dire, even deadly consequences for its participants? Is it immoral to cheer for a dazzling show knowing it could cause its stars to develop dementia or memory loss or depression?

That is to say, is it immoral to watch football?

In a punchy new manifesto, New York Times bestselling author Steve Almond argues that it is.

“This book is partly an attempt to say, 'Something is off here,'” Almond said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “Why is our most popular form of entertainment this unnecessarily violent, degrading spectacle that churns through the players who play it?”

Almond didn’t want to have to write this story. A diehard football fan since he was 6 years old, he spent the last few decades rationalizing his love of the game so he could keep on enjoying it. But as a growing body of research linked head injuries to cognitive issues such as dementia, Alzheimer's and depression, it became harder and harder for him to ignore his conscience.

In his latest book, Against Football, Almond explains why he is ditching the sport for good. His moral qualms with football are multifaceted. There is the toll football takes on the players’ bodies and brains. There is what Almond calls the NFL’s nihilistic greed: “Do they feel no shame in snatching taxpayer money they don’t really need from impoverished communities?” he writes. But beyond that, Almond worries that football negatively influences America’s attitudes about violence, hyper-masculinity, racism and homophobia.

Throughout the book, he appeals to fellow fans to consider football’s moral complexities before kicking back and enjoying the show.

“I think there’s a silent majority of football fans who feel increasingly queasy about watching it,” he said. “There’s a fundamental moral crisis of decision that individual fans have to make: Can I sponsor this game?”

By coming down hard on America's favorite game, Almond is wading into dangerous territory. Yes, the NFL has had a lot of bad press in the last few years, but that has not dented its popularity one bit. In a recent survey conducted by the Harris Poll, the NFL ranked as the most popular American sport for the 30th consecutive year in a row. The 2014 Super Bowl was the most watched TV show in U.S. history, with 111.5 million viewers tuning in.

But as a true devotee of the game, Almond is well-positioned to deliver the blow. In each line of the book, his genuine love of the sport shines through.

“I didn’t want to write a book that was looking down on football. I wanted to write a book about the hold, the grip that football has on people like me,” he said. “I want people to confront the darker aspects of the game that they really don’t want to face. I know that because I didn’t want to face it for 40 years.”

For Almond, it took a personal brush with brain trauma to realize he could no longer mindlessly enjoy football.

Two years ago, his mother fell in an accident and developed acute dementia. When Almond visited her in the ICU, she didn’t even know who he was.

“People talk about the soul or the spirit being in our heart. No; it’s in our brains,” he said. “The brain makes you who you are. When that’s gone, you’re gone.”

After seeing his mother in such a condition, brain trauma was no longer an abstraction.

“Once you see how devastating it is, it becomes much harder to put the genie back in the bottle and say, 'Let’s just have some chicken wings and watch the game,'” he said. “We haven’t even caught up to what the real medical risks are.”

This football season will be the first time since Almond was a child that he will not be watching the NFL. While the book doesn’t ask fans to boycott football, it implores them to take a closer look at what exactly they are supporting.

“America is good at making us feel OK with things we really shouldn’t feel OK about,” he says. “It’s what we’ve done for years with cigarettes, what is still done with our consumption of fossil fuels and meat. It’s all about giving people the pleasure and airbrushing out of the picture the moral costs.”

He says people who believe the game can’t change are simply cynical. “That is what people always say," he said. "Moral progress is inconvenient. It requires people taking stock of their own behaviors and making inconvenient decisions that are hard in the short term and beneficial in the long term. America as a rule sucks at it but can be very good at it when sufficiently roused.”

And that’s the point of his book.

“Football is a remarkably exciting game, but it also reinforces a lot of basic American pathologies around race, violence, greed, sexuality, sexual orientation, and we give a free pass,” he says. “We don’t even think of it as something that deserves moral scrutiny, when it’s the biggest thing in America. And that’s nuts.”

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