Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto is more than a detailed dismantling of the contradictions and hypocrisies undergirding America’s national obsession with football—it’s also a deeply personal depiction of one super-fan’s inability to continue to square his passion for the game with his sense of morality. The question he asks himself and his readers is simple: how can we continue to support, with our dollars and attention, a financially corrupt sport that leaves many of its former players mentally and physically crippled?
The question resonates with me. I’m a hardcore New York Jets fan (ugh, I know) whose family has held season tickets for over two decades. I’ve watched more hours of pro football—in person and, especially, on television—than I care to admit. I find the game endlessly fascinating, a bottomless well of strategic complexity; I regard the play of its best athletes to be nothing short of transcendent. And yet…
I was in attendance at both the 1992 game in which Dennis Byrd was paralyzed and the 2008 game in which Eric Smith essentially broke Anquan Boldin’s face with a crazily violent hit, knocking them both unconscious. I’m aware of the research that links the game’s unavoidable repeated sub-concussive blows with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its symptoms of depression, dementia, and rage. And I’ve read about the suicides of Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and Andre Waters, all former players who were posthumously found to have been suffering from CTE.
All of which is to say that I now find myself in a position similar to the one Steve articulates in the book as his own: I’m a lifelong NFL obsessive forced to admit that I am watching young men destroy their bodies and minds for my entertainment. Reading this book was a deeply uncomfortable—but absolutely necessary—experience for me, as I suspect it will be for many readers who count themselves as football fans.
I asked Steve to explore some of the book’s arguments and theories further over email during the last week of August.
Brian DeLeeuw: I’ll start with what’s probably both the shortest and the most difficult question: Why did you want to write this book? And why now?
Steve Almond: I’ve been feeling increasingly troubled by football for the past few years. Some of it is the new medical data and some of it is a broader sense that the game represents America’s pathologies (of violence, race, masculinity, greed, etc.) writ large. I’d been writing about this stuff for a long time, in the form of short stories, book and television reviews, essays, even a failed novel. The reason I pulled it all together now also has to do with seeing my mom suffer an acute dementia, from which she has since recovered. That terrifying episode completely demolished all the lame excuses I was using to justify my addiction.
But I also just got sick of all the media enablers who worked so hard every day to shield fans from the truth of what football is. I wanted to face for myself what football is, where it came from, how it developed, and what it does to our hearts and minds. I didn’t want to write a book that looked down on football as barbaric and pointless. I wanted to confront what football means, its allures and moral hazards.
And the more deeply I looked at the game, the darker it got. I had no idea, for example, that the economics of football were so nihilistic. I also never stepped back to examine how much the sport normalizes violence, or how much it’s infiltrated our educational system. There are basically 50 million fans out there who agree with me to some extent. But they’re scared to admit this, because it would mean they might have to give up watching. So they invoke all the lame excuses.
My hope isn’t to abolish football or win some big argument. I’m just hoping people will start looking at football for all it is, not just the stirring pageantry part. Then maybe we can have an honest conversation.
BD: Let’s talk about one of the issues you mentioned: the new medical data on head injuries. Out of all of football’s problems, this is probably the one with the highest media profile at the moment. In the past, observers generally focused their medical concerns on concussions and severe neck and spinal injuries; now, however, we know that even repeated sub-concussive blows can cause CTE, which itself can lead to depression, early onset dementia, and many other debilitating mental and emotional problems. What are your thoughts on some of the technological solutions being put forward, such as more advanced helmets or proactive testing for CTE markers? What about any proposed rule changes, such as larger fines for especially vicious hits to the head or reduced contact in practice? Do any of these concepts seem particularly promising to you? Or is the game intrinsically violent to such a degree that it cannot be “fixed” or made safer by either technology or rule-tweaking?
SA: Yeah, here’s the thing: football is a collision sport. Every single play has dozens of collisions. If you remove those, you remove a lot of what hardcore fans consider “the game.” After all, Roger Goodell [the NFL’s commissioner] could have tried to make the game two-hand touch long ago. He hasn’t because he knows fans would revolt. So a lot of this boils down to basic physics. Mass times acceleration equals force. The players keep getting bigger and stronger and faster. The collisions are more violent. We see them over and over again on TV. Because the TV folks know that—whatever we tell ourselves as fans—we love those hits. And this season is bearing this out. There have been 61 concussions in pre-season alone, up from 40 last pre-season. And yet the brain remains a soft organ in a hard shell. The medical research now shows that the slow, invisible accretion of sub-concussive hits is as dangerous (and possibly more) than the big hits that cause concussions.
I don’t mean to sound cynical. But don’t you think if there was some special helmet that eliminated concussions, or some magic rule that could prevent catastrophic hits, that Roger Goodell and his Escalade full of executives would have found it by now? I mean, the league is preparing to pay a settlement to former players that could exceed a billion dollars.
So the idea that the game is going to be “reformed” to eliminate, or minimize risk, is nonsense. It’s magical thinking: that two giant men can hit each other at top-speed with no serious repercussions. Or maybe I should say cartoon thinking.
The only way the game is going to change is if fans sack it up and turn away from the violence. Period. It’s an industry at this point. I know fans want to see themselves as pure, but the NFL and NCAA see them as paying customers. And as long as they’re willing to consume as entertainment a game that can lead to brain damage, and to ignore their consciences, there’s no real incentive for the corporations to reform anything. Do just enough to ameliorate fan guilt and get them through the turnstile.
BD: Football absolutely is an industry at this point, and a gigantic one—according to Forbes, the NFL’s revenues in 2013 were “just north of $9 billion.” And it is also an industry that appears to play by its own economic rules. One of the most startling sections of your book is the chapter that deals with the NFL’s financial “chicanery.” (That’s your word, and I think it’s apt.) You cite the Sports Broadcasting Act, which handily circumvents antitrust rules; the fact that, on average, “taxpayers provide 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums,” while reaping basically none of the revenues; and, most gallingly, the NFL’s tax-exempt status. Can you talk a little bit more about how the NFL’s economics work? I’m also interested in the idea, endemic to think-pieces, that football will soon become the boxing of the 21st Century: a formerly dominant sport that quickly fades to irrelevance as its brutality becomes too much for the average fan to stomach. It’s an argument with a nice journalistic hook, but it also seems highly implausible given the league’s current financial health. What are your thoughts about the ongoing financial viability of the sport?
SA: My basic thought is this: we the fans are the ones in charge. There’s this tendency amongst fans—perpetually stoked by the guys on sports talk radio and on ESPN—to regard ourselves as passive victims. Poor us! Forever victimized by thuggish players/greedy owners/callous league execs. What can we do? Wah-wah-wah! It’s just fucking nonsense. We’re the ones who determine the financial viability of the sport. If enough people decide that football is too corrupt, that they’re sick of seeing a cartel of billionaires extort taxpayer money from impoverished cities and states to build more goddamn luxury boxes, then they will stop supporting the game and NFL profits will go down. It’s that simple. This is America. We vote with our attention and our wallets. And the more people find out about how the NFL really works—the fact that they have tax-exempt status, for instance, or that they operate as an unregulated cartel—the more likely they are to say: screw it. I can find forms of athletic entertainment that aren’t so obviously run like the mafia.
The truth is the NFL is just like any other huge corporation. It’s designed to maximize profit. And it uses whatever power and leverage it has to do this in all kinds of scummy, nihilistic ways. The key difference between the NFL and a corporation like Exxon/Mobil, for instance, is that the NFL doesn’t make its money off a resource essential to modern life and commerce. It makes its money off a discretionary form of violent entertainment that Americans have elevated into a kind of exalted cult of masculinity.
BD: Speaking of the NFL’s nihilism: in the book, you detail the league’s shifting position on the long-term brain damage caused by concussions, as it moved from denial to obfuscation and, now, to a particular kind of lawyer-vetted quasi-acceptance (in the form of a $765 million settlement designed primarily to avoid the “public relations disaster” of a trial). However, despite the league’s best efforts, it is now generally accepted that the repeated head trauma of playing football holds horrible risks for players’ long-term mental health. As you note in the book, the “second big rationalization in the NFL Fan Survival Kit is that players knowingly choose to incur the game’s risks and are paid for doing so.” Yet, clearly, you don’t think this is the case; or, rather, you believe that the circumstances of most potential NFL players are circumscribed to such a degree that it is not a truly free choice. Can you elaborate on these issues of informed consent and free will within the context of a player choosing to play professional or high-level college football?
SA: Yeah, this is a crucial question. Obviously, in a very basic legal way, the players choose to play. But when you shine a little light on the situation, it becomes murkier. The first thing to note is that a lot of kids who play football—especially those from economically vulnerable neighborhoods—are sent the message, over and over, that football is their ticket out. And that football is what makes them worthy and powerful in a world where they often don’t feel either. When they step onto a football field, life makes sense. They belong to a powerful brotherhood. They know the rules. They can channel their passion and rage into performance. And after ten years of feeling this way, of being defined and defining themselves as football players, it’s ridiculous to assume that a kid is going to turn away from the game just because of some future health risk. That’s not how human beings operate, especially young men whose most powerful sense of self resides in football. Because of the commitment that football requires, most of these kids—the ones with real talent—are really segregated from the rest of the population and given this powerful message about their special status, their potential. And that message comes from people with a vested interest in seeing them succeed—family, friends, coaches, teammates, and, later, fans, boosters, agents, trainers, hangers-on. Nobody says to this kid, “Hey, you could be anything!” Nobody says, “What do you want to be when you grow up? An engineer? That means you better rearrange your priorities and hit the books!” What they say is, “Take care of your other business so you can be eligible to play ball.”
So a football prospect in this country, often a young man of color from a poor neighborhood, simply doesn’t have many other options. By the time they are nineteen or twenty they’ve invested at least a decade of their lives in the hopes of making it as player. And most of them don’t. That’s the truth of it. According to the NFL Players Association, only 215 of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football will spend time in the NFL. That’s one out of 500. And we, the fans, really don’t give a shit about the other 499.
And this is where our own complicity begins. Because it’s the consumption of football by fans at all levels—from Pop Warner and high school, to college and pros—that creates this mindset. Football players are worshipped because we worship them. Because, for us, it’s simpler and easier to buy into the narrative that discipline and self-sacrifice and will help lift a kid from poverty to stardom. It’s this short-cut that we want to take, rather than addressing, oh, say, the profound crisis of inequality of opportunity in this country.
So yes, the players choose to play. But when you step back and really look at how football functions in this country, it’s just despicable. We’re basically saying to a whole subset of young men: Your value on this earth resides in your physical prowess. Period. The only way for you to prove you matter is by hitting the A-gap, knocking your man down, leaping to catch a leather ball.
BD: For a lot of this same cohort of young men, enlisting in the military is seen as another viable and attainable post-high-school option, which I’m going to guess you would argue is not a coincidence. As you point out, Don DeLillo’s End Zone explored the relationship between football and war forty-two years ago, within the context of Cold War nuclear gamesmanship—but you write that the relationship has only solidified and deepened since then. As you put it: “The terrorist attacks of 2001 saw the advent of what we might call Gridiron Agitprop.” In your description, the American military and the NFL began to consistently engage in what might most accurately be termed corporate synergy. (This particular development is dramatized very well, in my opinion, in Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.) You write: “What the NFL has done … is to help mainstream war, to make it seem like a rational arrangement that young Americans are killing and being killed overseas in perpetuity.” I understand the idea of “Gridiron Agitprop,” but I’m not sure I’m willing to take the argument quite as far as you do here. Can you expand on your position? And is this still, in your opinion, an ongoing phenomenon, thirteen years after 9/11 and a decade after the invasion of Iraq?
SA: Football is the most popular sport in America by a factor of five. The NFL is considered about as mainstream as it gets. So when the NFL collaborates with the military on a special intended to “rally the troops” for an overseas conflict I think it’s fair to say that’s “mainstreaming war.” I also think that the way we consume football normalizes violence. Because most fans, if they’re honest with themselves, are more concerned with who won than who got hurt. Football teaches us to regard violence and its consequences as a safe abstraction. And of course, this is precisely what we do with soldiers. We applaud them in airports and thank them for their service and want nothing to do with the trauma they incurred. It’s the same emotional and psychological template. We put our empathy and our conscience on layaway.
What I’m talking about here goes deeper than simply observing that football is full of military jargon, and is structured as a form of combat. What really gets me is that football teaches citizens to consume violence as a stirring form of entertainment rather than a moral experience. It’s like this grand hegemonic ritual that fills our heads with childish notions of courage and valor.
And to me the Pat Tillman story is like this horrible object lesson. [Tillman was a safety for the Arizona Cardinals who turned down a contract extension to enlist in the Army in May 2002. He was killed in April 2004 while serving in Afghanistan.] Here’s a guy who joined the military with this idealistic notion of getting the bad guys. He never wanted to be turned into a poster boy for the military, but that’s exactly how the Army tried to use him.
And he quickly realizes what a mess Iraq is, then what a mess Afghanistan is. And before he can even get himself home he gets shot by his own troops during an ill-advised mission. Then the military lies about it. To his family. For weeks.
BD: Right: back in the early ’70s, DeLillo was talking about similarities in rhetoric, aesthetics, strategy. What you’re talking about is football fandom as a kind of dry-run for the cognitive sleight-of-hand involved in sending an all-volunteer, and often very young, infantry into an overseas war. The Tillman narrative—before it completely fell apart under the weight of the truth—was easily repurposed to be representative of the NFL’s branded culture of courage and hyper-masculinity. (Not that Tillman wasn’t courageous—he absolutely was—but his courage was far more complex and nuanced than the media wings of the NFL or the Army wanted it to be.) I’d like to talk a bit more about the nature of that culture, about whether it is as conformist as you argue it to be. Outsized, unconventional personalities are often celebrated by fans and the media—at least as long as the team is winning. Think of Warren Sapp, Deion Sanders, Terrell Owens, even that ur-1980s sensation known as The Boz (Brian Bosworth). But it seems as if there are unwritten—yet still very clear—rules about how you can be unconventional. Ricky Williams, for example, broke those rules over and over again, and was duly punished for it. So did Rashard Mendenhall, by quitting at his uninjured twenty-six year-old peak because, as he said, “I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment.” Can you talk about what Mendenhall called the “very small box” of “acceptable athletic stereotypes”? What are the contours of this box? And why are players so pilloried when they step outside of it?
SA: Yeah, you know who I wish was still around? Gil Scott Heron. Because that guy was so fucking smart about the various boxes into which African-Americans get stuffed (and stuff themselves). He’d look at a guy like Deion Sanders and just call him out for what he is: a corporate caricature of prosperity, joyously strutting across the studio stage, playing to all the most insidious racial stereotypes of our bigoted culture. It’s not that Sanders isn’t allowed to “express his personality.” It’s that this personality is so pathetically insecure, so needy for acclaim. It’s the same thing with Owens, Boz, any of the NFL’s peacocks. They all get the game. They know how to play to the cameras and the sponsors.
But beneath the calculated strutting is a brutal and mostly unspoken conformity: these are guys who are almost entirely defined by their physical prowess. And they are judged by millions of people every week, along with a sports media complex ravenous to take them down. So if you think about that box, the truth is that pro athletes, and football players in particular, can almost never simply speak the truth. They can’t admit to being insecure or frightened or disappointed or jealous. Look at the way they have to speak to reporters. It’s just a bunch of clichés strung together, a script. A lot of these guys are basically overgrown children who have been segregated from the rest of society at an early age and trained to do one thing: play. Everything else is in the service of that goal. If they get good enough they are given tremendous prerogative. They get money and women and fast cars. But that’s not a voyage of self-discovery. It’s a script that’s handed to them. It’s a gilded box.
And anyone who deviates from that script—who suggests that playing football might not be the most important thing in life—is challenging not just the values of the brotherhood but of fans themselves. After all, we all consent to the absurd idea that the outcome of football games is somehow hugely important. Sports is, in that sense, the ultimate masculine iteration of conformity. It’s our lingua franca. And anyone who doesn’t speak the language is automatically excluded, if not placed on a hetero-normative watch list.
When you look at a guy like Richie Incognito—the lineman who got kicked off the Dolphins for bullying—what you’re really seeing is a guy so desperate to conform, and yet so internally conflicted, that he becomes a kind of monster of projection, a raging homophobe who harbors forbidden desires. I’m not suggesting that Incognito is gay. I frankly don’t care. What’s clear from reading his text messages is that he feels incredibly intimate with the object of his bullying, Jonathan Martin. (“Let’s get weird tonight.”) In his own way, Incognito feels trapped in a box. All these big-time players do. So much is expected of them, and so many of these expectations are insanely contradictory. Be a beast on the field, but a gentle role model everywhere else. And one way of looking at all these criminal incidents is that these are moments when the pressure becomes too much, the confines of the box too claustrophobic, and they explode into rage and violence.
And I’m going to throw in a bonus answer in response to the big breaking news [on August 28th] about Roger Goodell’s announcement of new NFL rules regarding domestic abuse. As you know, he just announced that he was wrong not to suspend Ray Rice for more than two games for knocking his fiancé senseless. And he imposed new rules: six game suspension for a first offense, whole season for a second offense. Anytime anyone takes these issues more seriously, that’s a net positive. Period.
Of course, there’s a cynical take on this, which is that Goodell is being a shrewd businessman. He had a huge PR problem and this is damage control. But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to buy that Goodell and the others at the NFL league offices recognized, in a genuine way, that they had a blind-spot when it came to issues of violence against women and domestic abuse.
But Goodell’s violence problem is more fundamental. He oversees a game that’s profoundly violent. From the time they are very young, football players are rewarded for their aggression. They are taught to channel their violence, but to express it without remorse. The rules are you tackle fair, but tackle hard. Strike fear into the heart of your foe. And you get rewarded for putting your man on the ground—or better, out of the game—by your coaches and teammates, but also by us, the fans. That’s why they have those parabolic mics on the sidelines, to capture the bone-crunching hits at maximum decibel levels. That’s why they show the most brutal hits over and over in replays. And it’s why, when there’s a particularly vicious hit, you hear the crowd go “Ouuuuuuuh!” As fans, we want players to be savage on the field. But we then expect them to be gentleman role models off the field. So really, the violence problem isn’t Goodell’s, ultimately. It’s ours. We’re the ones who are deciding to consume as a form of entertainment a game so violent it gives many of its players brain damage. That’s what we need to confront. And no well-meaning memo from Roger Goodell is going to do that work for us. In the end, it can distract us from the necessary moral self-examination we have to do, as fans.
BD: I’d like to focus on this idea of football as a “lingua franca” for its fans. You use that phrase both in the answer to my last question and in the book itself, when you write: “…football provided a lingua franca by which men of vastly different beliefs and standing could speak to on another in an increasingly fragmented culture.” You were talking about the late 1960s, but I think this is still equally true now. Here’s a thought experiment: if football were to disappear, what could (or should) replace its central and particular place in the culture? Similarly, in the last chapter you ask “why we need a beautiful savage game to feel fully alive, to feel united, and to love the people we love.” I know exactly what you mean, but I’m not sure I have an answer. Do you?
SA: Yeah, I’ve thought about this a lot. And I have no idea. Obviously, I’ll be transferring some of my crazy fan energy to other sports such as basketball and baseball. But the hope is that I’ll also transfer my time and energy to activities that involve more directly expressing my love and affection and creativity. I mean, if you think about it, there are people in this country—men, mostly—who spend thousands of hours every year watching football and thinking about it. What would happen if they didn’t have that? If Sunday wasn’t set out for passive consumption? Maybe I’m being naive, but my hope is that they might spend more time with their spouses and children and their own creative pursuits. I realize that football is a refuge for many fans, a place to go where they don’t have to struggle with the burdens of adulthood, and its duties. But I do think it would be kind of awesome if fans could find other ways to escape from those pressures. Going to church? Going for a hike? Or a bike ride? Spending time with a single child? Playing some form of sports themselves? Finding a book they find compelling? That’s what I’m going to try to do.
It’s a bit like asking an addict, What’s it gonna be like when you quit doing the junk? The most honest answer is: I have no idea. And it would probably be worse for some fans in the short-term. Withdrawal is a real thing. I’m feeling it right now. But in the long-term, people are adaptable. They adjust. They find new places to put their devotion and energy.
Steve Almond is the author of nine books including the just released Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
Brian DeLeeuw is the author of the novels In This Way I Was Saved (Simon & Schuster, 2009) and The Dismantling, which will be published by Plume in April 2015. He is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.