Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
(Melville House, 2014)
The National Football League has been intensely scrutinized in its opening weeks this season, mostly due to grossly mishandling the domestic violence case of Ray Rice. It is rare for America’s most popular sport to be so openly and passionately attacked. It is also the ideal intellectual and philosophical climate for Steve Almond’s new book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Though he has been a lifelong fan of the game, Almond, a journalist and former sports reporter, sees football as a poisonous and destructive force in American life, both figuratively and literally.
From the outset, Almond acknowledges that many readers are going to dislike what he says. He speculates that football fans will “write off whatever else [he] might have to say on the subject as a load of horseshit, shoveled by someone who is probably wearing a French sailor’s suit and whistling the Soviet National Anthem.” His book’s function, though, “is to be full of obnoxious opinions.” By way of example, Almond states, “I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” But he also makes clear that, incongruously, he still loves football. To Almond, “football, in its exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form of art.” Against Football, according to Almond, is an attempt to balance this love/hate relationship. “My hope,” Almond writes, “is to honor the ethical complexities and the allure of the game.” Almond’s position as an ardent fan of football significantly strengthens his case against it. When combined with his terse and irreverent style, the result is a provocative and profoundly successful critique of the game.
Football is undeniably a physically violent sport and, Almond argues, that violence is a major component of football’s appeal: “It’s become the national pastime not just because it suits this age (frantic, competitive, date-saturated) but because it reflects the bloodthirsty id that’s always defined American identity.” Football is not popular in spite of the violence—it is popular because of it. And this physical violence has dire consequences off the field, starting with concussions. These traumatic brain injuries have gotten a considerable amount of media attention in the past few years, particularly for the long-term damage that they cause. However, Almond cites doctors and medical studies that are now increasingly concerned about smaller, but potentially equally dangerous, “sub-concussive” injuries. The collisions that cause these injuries happen hundreds of times in a single game. In other words, the impacts that lead to brain damage are part of the game and, therefore, unavoidable for the players.
And it isn’t just professional players who are at risk—these injuries threaten children, as well. Though much of the book attacks the NFL, amateur football, specifically at the high school and collegiate level, is also a target for Almond. His cynical description of the college game is particularly succinct:
"College football is the arranged marriage of two entities: an institution of higher learning and an athletic industry. It is corrupt and illogical and wildly entertaining and lucrative, which means a legion of lawyers and ad men and sports journalists are handsomely paid to defend and promote its corruption and illogic while the rest of us watch. The beauty of the scheme, from the standpoint of a business student or a sociopath, is that the players themselves get paid nothing."
The fact that we have made a sport as damaging to the brain as football an integral part of our system of higher education is, as Almond calls it, “pathological.” While examining high school football, Almond bolsters this contention with an appalling comparison:
"What would happen if some invisible gas leak in the school cafeteria caused diminished brain activity in students? Can we safely assume district officials would evacuate the school until further notice? That parents would be up in arms? That media and lawyers would descend in droves to collect statements from the innocent victims? Can we assume that the community would not gather together en masse on Friday nights to eat hot dogs and watch the gas leak?"
Almond’s illustration may be hyperbolic, but his point is clear—our children should be protected, even from football. Though this argument refers specifically to high school football, Almond’s analogy can be applied to the sport as a whole. Why is it that we, as a culture, not only tolerate but celebrate such a violent and inherently harmful pastime? Why do we allow this to continue?
For starters, football is an economic juggernaut. Between tickets, television, corporate sponsorship, and merchandise, the NFL generates billions of dollars every year. But as Almond points out, most of this money stays in the NFL, in the hands of the ultra-rich team owners. The cities that are home to NFL teams usually end up footing the bill for stadiums they cannot afford. If the cities can’t pay, the owners can simply move the teams. “Think about how insane our cultural priorities are that we’re allowing so much money to be siphoned from the public till and funneled directly into the private koi ponds of the nation’s wealthiest families,” he writes. “That arrangement isn’t even capitalist. It’s feudal.” Almond's breakdown of the NFL's finances is infuriating.
Against Football explicitly does not absolve fans of any guilt they may (or may not) feel. As Almond points out, “it’s easy to blame ruthless coaches and venal owners and foolhardy players, and much harder for us to see our own role in all of this.” Because of television, super slow motion, high-definition, and tiny microphones mounted on players, Almond asserts, “it’s gotten harder and harder for even casual fans to deny the cruelty of the game.” We hear the bone-crunching collisions and we see bodies thrown around the field in amazing detail. Should anxieties arise, we turn to the sportscasters and pundits who announce the games to allay them. Fans perceive these figures to be “strategic authorities.” But what they really do, Almond believes, is “stage-manage our experience of watching football.” They are the sport’s apologists and promoters. They make sure we know this is all perfectly acceptable. “Hits that viewers might regard, objectively, as aggravated assaults,” Almond contends, “are safely reinterpreted as ‘sanctioned violence’ in the context of the game.” They protect us, the viewers, from the brutality by distancing us from it via endless analysis, interpretation, and spin. But we let ourselves be blinded because acknowledging the reality is discomfiting.
Some may argue that football doesn’t need to change, based solely on its overwhelming popularity. How can something so widespread and universally accepted be bad? To that Almond says, “To justify belief and behavior based on mass appeal, in the absence of moral consideration, is not democracy. It’s mob rule.” Against Football is essentially a scathing call to action, an impassioned plea for change. Almond asks us, “Are we really so spoiled as a nation, in 2014, that we can’t curb our appetite for an unnecessarily violent game that degrades our educational system, injured its practitioners, and fattens a pack of gluttonous corporations?” In the final pages of the book, he suggests a handful of innovative measures to begin changing football for the better. But beyond prescribed solutions, his goal is to make readers and football fans uncomfortable with what they see on the field and on television. Almond makes it impossible for us to ignore our willing participation in this corrupt and destructive pastime. I grew up watching and playing football and if there is a game on now, chances are I am watching it. After reading this book, though, I was left deeply troubled. We may love the game, but at what cost? Against Football is one fan’s inflammatory, yet indispensable, voice in the current conversation about the state of football in America.