Football isn’t exactly on a hot streak right now. Between current NFL players beating their girlfriends and their kids, to college players sexually assaulting girls on campus, to high school players dying, to former players suing the NFL for brain damage and deception, some people are starting to question whether the sport is good for us.
One of those people is Steve Almond. In his new book, Against Football: One Man’s Reluctant Manifesto, Almond (a New York Times bestselling author and lifelong Raiders fan) writes beautifully and thought-provokingly about his decision to give up watching a game he loves because of all the bad stuff that goes along with it. As Almond explains: “This book is a personal attempt to connect the two disparate synapses that fire in my brain when I hear the word ‘football’: the one that calls out, Who’s playing? What channel?, and the one that murmurs, Shame on you.”
We got Almond on the phone recently to talk more about his book and the many prickly issues surrounding our national obsession with football. As you’ll see, he had plenty to say.
In Against Football, you write about deciding to stop watching football. So we have to ask: do you miss it?
Oh, God, yeah. Of course. I love the game. I think it’s the most dramatically satisfying, compelling, just pleasurable sport to watch. So it’s like I’m an alcoholic. You know, I can’t be around booze. I’ve been trying to not go to certain websites, not wind up in a bar where a game would be on. If you’ve got the itch for it, and you recognize how beautiful and intricate it is, and just how great these guys are, graceful and athletic and brutal for the game’s purposes, it’s tough to look away.
“The ideal reaction to the book is for people to really look at football, not just as a form of entertainment, but as a moral undertaking.”
Your family probably appreciates you giving up football, right?
Generally speaking, yeah. I would go out with my pal and spend three or four hours watching a game, and we liked it. One of the things I talk about in the book is football as a place of refuge from the disappointments and moral complexities of the adult world. And it’s powerful that way. It’s such an absorbing narrative, so dramatically satisfying. I could watch any game—two shitty college teams.
So it’s a tradeoff. I’m missing out on pleasure and relaxation, but I also don’t have to feel in bad conscience and I have more time to do things that might be a little more inconvenient, psychologically and emotionally, but are probably better use of my time.
So what would be the ideal reaction from the American public to your book?
The ideal reaction is not a mass boycott. The ideal reaction is not banning the game. I think the ideal reaction is for people to really look at football, not just as a form of entertainment, but as a moral undertaking. And to really see football for what it truly is: A beautiful, stirring, savage game that is also a huge business, has infiltrated our educational system in ways that I think are degrading to the educational mission, and has a set of values—racial values, gender values, sexual orientation values—that are wildly out of sync with how most people really, in 2014 America, feel about race, gender and sexuality.
And it’s a sport in which you have to suppress your empathy in order to enjoy it. So the desired outcome is not for anything to happen other than this: for individual fans who love the game to be in a state of moral struggle about whether the pleasure they take in the game is, for them, worth the moral outcomes and attitudes they aren’t okay with. I don’t want anybody to do anything other than see the game for what it is, then do as their own conscience recommends.
The problem is that football has not been treated as a moral undertaking, and we don’t really—at least I had never for 40 years—look at all the components of it. Every chapter in the book is trying to take on some aspect of the game, whether it’s race, or the way in which it fosters militarism, or the gender dynamics, or the way the industry that has grown up around the game damages cities by siphoning money from the public till that should be going to, you know, silly stuff like schools, infrastructure and economic development. It’s given straight to billionaire owners in the form of these shiny new stadiums and tax breaks.
Also, I want the country to start having a discussion about what it means that we need this beautiful, savage game to feel fully alive. And what it means that this is our biggest unifying narrative. This beautiful, savage game played mostly by huge African-American guys. That’s weird, don’t you think? That means something. So what does it mean? That’s what the book is trying to ask, from a number of angles.
“If you just looked at the NFL Combine and you didn’t know the context, it would have the optics of a slave auction.”
The race issue is really interesting. It seems like college and pro football is getting more and more African-American, and maybe there’s this feeling among some white Americans that it’s not us out there getting concussions and brain damage.
You think about the SEC, where it was the heart of the Confederacy. You have college teams that are worshipped which are 80 percent African-American. So you say, okay, what’s that about? Is this a way of controlling? Is this about basically turning young kids of color into performers in this violent spectacle? Yes, there are things people get out of the sport. It unifies schools and gives people a feeling of togetherness and something to root for—all that stuff is true. But it’s also very odd and not a coincidence—it means something—that two-thirds of the players are African-American and most of the spectators are white.
You look at something like the NFL Combine. That’s highly monetized, and I know it’s part of the industry and so forth. But if you just looked at it and didn’t know the context, it would have the optics of a slave auction. It’s mostly white men looking at and inspecting the physical dimensions and prowess of young muscled African-American guys.
What are your thoughts on Roger Goodell? Is he the worst sports commissioner of our lifetime, as Bill Simmons has stated? The worst NFL commissioner ever?
Well, let’s say they get rid of Roger Goodell. Is the NFL not going to be a nihilistic, greedy, $10-billion-a-year industry in which the gender values are that women are sexual ornaments and men are giant muscled guys who use force to prove their worth in the world? Is Roger Goodell responsible for the fact that coaches all the way from Pop Warner through high school and college essentially look at kids—usually from economically vulnerable communities—and judge them purely based on whether they’re a good football player or not, on their physical prowess rather than the content of their character? That has nothing to do with Roger Goodell.
You know, Roger Goodell is a great commissioner in the sense that he made the NFL a lot of money. And that’s what his job was. He was the head of a huge corporation. I know it’s really tempting to scapegoat particular people like Roger Goodell, but ultimately the book is about the fundamental morals of the game and the corporation that exists around the game.
Roger Goodell has nothing to do with the fact that football is a huge part of public high schools. He has nothing to do with the fact that somehow football has become an intricate part of our system of higher education. That has nothing to do with Roger Goodell. And those are the sort of questions that the book is trying to engage. So Roger Goodell is not the point. Once Roger Goodell is gone, there’ll be some other suit who will be running the same huge corporation.
“It’s such a decadent thing to sit on a couch and watch other people do exercise. It’s like, ‘Hey, how about getting off the couch and doing your own amazing things?’ ”
Some people like Colin Cowherd have argued that football provides young men from poor upbringings with a chance to go to college and, essentially, have a better life than they would have otherwise. What’s your response?
I just wrote a piece about this very issue for The Village Voice and in fact tried to say to Colin Cowherd, like, that it’s despicable and degrading to suggest that football is the pathway to economic opportunity for kids who don’t have other opportunities.
The whole point of the book in the chapter on race is saying, listen, one out of every 500 high school seniors who has the talent to play at that level is going to make it in the pros. They’re going to be there for three-and-a-half years, average, and they’re going to be broke several years afterwards. And if they get an education, it’s going to be incidental to the fact that they were a football player. The whole idea is to keep them eligible for game day so they can entertain us. It’s an utterly exploitative system, and it has absolutely no incentive to provide a better life for football players.
We only see the guys who are famous and who make a lot of money, and we obsess over those huge salaries. We never see the 499 kids who never make any money, although they put their lives and health at risk, and we certainly don’t see the guys—or they try to keep out of view the guys—who wind up with dementia, with bodies that can barely walk, with whatever else.
So I could not find that view more degrading and despicable. It’s a distraction from the fundamental inability of our culture to create real economic opportunity in communities that are economically vulnerable. It’s saying, “Hey, maybe the best way is to have this lottery ticket for one out of 500 kids, and by the way, you have to be a boy, and you have to be a boy who can play football. The reason you’re going to get that economic opportunity has nothing to do with the development of your intellectual or moral sense in the world. It’s purely about whether you can hit the running back hard enough to put him out of the game.”
Do you think the NFL will ever become extinct, and if so, when?
No. Football means too much to too many people to go extinct. What could happen, though, is that more casual fans could turn away from the game or cut down on their consumption. The industry would contract rather than disappear. When and how that might happen, and how quickly, is anybody’s guess.
It depends on a bunch of unknowable contingencies. Will a famous former player—a guy like Brett Favre or Steve Young—admit on TV that he has incipient dementia? Will a top-level player at the pro or college level be paralyzed or even killed during a game, or practice? Will someone sue a public high school, or district, for allowing kids to play a game as dangerous as football? To what extent will individual fans start to view the game not just as an enthralling form of entertainment, but as a moral undertaking with real moral costs? That’s the central aim of my book.
I’m under no illusions on this. Football is the biggest thing in America. But boxing was among the most popular sports in America a century ago and now it’s more of a fringe sport. Why? Because individual fans turned away from it, because it was too overtly brutal.
On a lighter note, have you taken up soccer at all?
Ha ha. Well, I did play soccer as a kid. But honestly, I think part of writing the book was also about realizing, “Hey, you know what? I’d rather be playing sports. I’d rather be engaged in something that’s more connecting me to my family, my community, whatever it is.” Like, it’s such a decadent thing to sit on a couch and watch other people do exercise. I know that there’s also this stirring drama that’s happening, but fundamentally, that’s what’s happening. People sit on couches and watch other people do these amazing things. And it’s like, “Hey, how about getting off the couch and doing your own amazing things?” Even if it’s just running a half marathon or a 5K. Or just reading a book to your kid.
Buy Against Football on Amazon here.