Stop Their World Spinning
By Steve Almond
Melville House, 2014
Now that’s a book title. It snaps to attention the millions of Americans who enjoy, or obsess over, the beloved seasonal pastime. It also cries out to those who, for whatever reason, hold the macho, violent game in low regard. Against Football even intrigues fully-disinterested me, who’s only ever stared at televised games momentarily before asking, “What is happening?”
Which of these people is CandyFreak (2004) author Steve Almond? It may strike the reader like a head-first tackle to know that he loves the game, and spends the first quarter of the slim Against Football (only 178 pages) proving it with charm, insight and eloquence. If that’s true, however, why should this accessible and utterly damning book exist?
The answer has been staring back at us from newspapers, magazines, web headlines, gossip programs, and of course, sports shows, at least since the 2007 Michael Vick super-scandal, in which the quarterback pleaded guilty to running a dog-fighting ring. Ever since, the NFL and high-profile criminality have forged an increasingly close bond. That twenty-seven league players have been arrested between the 2013 Super Bowl and the current season—for everything from DUI to murder— speaks loudly to this.
But overpaid bruisers trampling the law isn’t football’s only dire problem right now. There’s also the irrefutable body of science that’s begun to prove that the basics of the game—the hits during each play sustained by most of the players—result in concussions and sub-concussions. Cumulatively, these cracks to the helmet result in Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that ravages the brain with aggression, dementia, memory loss, and depression. For some of this research, we can thank former players who’ve lived in misery—like suicide Dave Duerson—and who asked that their brains be studied after death for evidence of CTE.
“Well,” it’s tempting to say, “professional players are more than adequately compensated (averaging 1.9 million a year) for this abuse.” And the best of them receive fan adoration and product endorsement deals. Entwined with these kingly perks, though, is the fact that we Americans, always starving for entertainment and the vicarious thrill of bloody victory, have made football a hub around which life revolves. Plenty of women love the game—my grandmother was a diehard Washington Redskins fan. More pointedly, football bonds older men to their youthful glory as players and winners, and fathers to sons who are tasting the game’s euphoria for the first time. The triumphs trickle down, but so does the pressure.
Tom Cutinella, Isaiah Langston, and Demarrio Harris Jr. are the three most recent high school students (there are five others) to suffer football-related deaths in 2014. They all died during the first week of October, from head trauma, heatstroke, and aneurysm, respectively. They died for a game that, at it’s best, values not just manliness and brutality, but finesse and quick-thinking. This is the tragic dichotomy that made Almond question his loyalty to football as it is currently played—that is, in a shroud of sanctioned bullying that brooks no dissent from players who may prize their health over the game’s demands.
Almond prefaces Against Football by reminding readers that it’s a manifesto, full of snark and wild opinion. He also makes it impossible to put down when the first of these opinions, thrown down like a spiked glove, is: “football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” Or, maybe this is enough for some to punt the book into traffic. Me? I love to argue with authors as I read. Why live in a mere bubble of belief when you can take on challengers, adjust intellectually and emotionally to new information, and live in a castle?
Almond begins with a capsule history, explaining that in the 1820s football was a series of “controlled riots” enjoyed by Ivy League students, to give freshmen a black-eyed welcome; Harvard and Yale banned the nasty events by 1860. Nevertheless, football’s popularity grew, despite notable years like 1904, in which eighteen prep school boys died playing. Then came elements that we recognize in today’s game, like the forward pass and the end zone. Scoring became emphasized over damage to an opponent’s body. “But,” Almond says,
something more fundamental was going on as well: the creation of beauty and meaning from controlled violence. The anarchy of a folk game had been shaped into an organized sport, carefully refined, made more coherent and complex. The excessive savagery of football’s origins became the engine of its transformation and thus its saving grace.
Almond goes on to explain that football surpasses baseball as that uniquely American game by connecting the NFL’s rise with the nation’s industrialization. While baseball is restrained and almost genteel,
It was football that managed to pluck at the American tension between violence and self- control, brains and brawn, ferocity and grace, individual stardom and communal achievement, between painstaking preparation and the instant of primal release. The action was simple enough to appeal to a child, the strategy dense enough to engage men of learning.
Such vivid, focused prose can’t help but move me to consider a topic at which I’d normally shrug. More impressive is how readily Almond’s snickering voice rises to the occasion of moral contemplation without losing its pop-culture bite; about NFL Films, created in 1965 as a “ministry of propaganda,” he explains that,
The highlight reels produced by this outfit were wildly ambitious cinematic productions that featured bloody linemen, frozen breath, and floating spirals, all set to a rousing score, and narrated by a voice actor whose flair for gravitas fell somewhere between Captain Kirk and Darth Vader. It is virtually impossible to watch one of these films without feeling engorged by delirious notions of valor. They are football porn.
Almond ends his rose-tinted analysis of how fantastic football can be with memories of selling hotdogs outside of California’s Stanford Stadium in the early 1980s. At the time, demi-god quarterback John Elway routinely hushed crowds with mesmeric hurls that, even in practice, would leave little x-shaped bruises on his receivers’ chests. The specific play Almond recalls was nothing more than Elway readying to throw the ball with his own savage tackling imminent. In full swoon, Almond says,
He might have been any kid on any playground. Elway ran around like crazy until he spotted something nobody else did, a path to redemption where others saw only ruin. In the moment of greatest peril, he summoned poise. In the midst of entropy, he found order. We all want to find that magic within ourselves. And failing that, we want to watch as someone else does.
That is the heart of one fan singing to legions of others. Next, however, come Almond’s devastating low notes. He recalls seeing New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley rendered quadriplegic during a televised game in 1978. At the time, nobody hesitated in calling it a horrific accident. Today, retired stars like Terry Bradshaw and Brett Favre have spoken about memory lapses and depression that point to mental and emotional crippling.
NFL Commissioner Goodell, instead of taking seriously neuroscientists’ warnings about concussions and sub-concussive hits, would rather silence the most dangerous voices in the argument—ex-players—with more money. Last year ex-players received $765 million in a mass settlement, a monetary crumb from the NFL’s multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Almond correctly compares the NFL to Big Meat and Big Coal, corporate plutocracies that earned astronomical profits at the expense of their workers lives. The league also earns—or rather saves—money by having the taxpayers of a given city absorb the bill for new stadiums; malicious team owners can then continue extorting a city for stadium upgrades or additional training facilities by threatening to move to another city (see Art Modell and the more than one hundred lawsuits filed against him by the citizens of Cleveland after he took the Browns to Baltimore). Outrageous, considering the NFL itself pays no taxes. Thanks to a deal made with Congress in 1966, the NFL became a not-for-profit organization by simply not playing on Friday nights or Saturdays, which would compete with high school and college games.
Like a lot of dudes who traffic in…casual misogyny, Incognito and his pals also spout a lot of homophobic trash talk. In addition to hurling racist slurs at a Japanese assistant trainer, Incognito makes it a point to ask him for “rubby rubby sucky sucky.” He nicknames another submissive teammate “Loose Booty,” and routinely grabs him and asks him for a hug. The homophobia has an anxious, compensatory feel to it. At one point, Pouncey restrains “Loose Booty” and tells Jerry to “come get some pussy.” Jerry then touches the victim’s ass in a way that stimulates anal penetration. Because, you know, that’s how you prove you’re definitely not gay.
If there’s a flaw in Against Football, it’s that the presentation of a few maladjusted goons shouldn’t warrant the smearing of an entire organization. Then again, Michael Sam has been cut from the St. Louis roster, despite having racked up accolades as a great college player (including the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of Year). The Dallas Cowboys briefly took him on in their practice squad this October, but then they too cut him. No other NFL team has stepped up to let Sam play actual football.
The NFL’s racism is harder to sell, since it requires us to admit that American society still hasn’t healed from the wounds of the Civil War, but merely bandaged them in tight pants and animal logos. In the book’s latter half, rather than fire off accusations directly, Almond asks a series of unflinching questions, including:
What does it mean that football fever tends to run so hot in those states where slavery was legal and Jim Crow died the hardest? What does it mean that millions of white fans cheer wildly for African-American men in the context of a football game when, if they encountered these same men on a darkened street, they might very well reach nervously for their cell phone? Is football a way of containing African-American rage?… Does it relieve the racial guilt of white Americans to lavish so much money and adulation of a few African-American men? Is it an oblique form of financial restitution?
These are questions that, surely more often than not, go unasked in stadiums, sports bars, living rooms, and high schools, where people gather to imbue their lives with heroic meaning—not hash out a national existential crisis. When Almond first challenged football’s morality in a piece for The New York Times Magazine, he received e-mails from dudes mocking his vagina. Pretty funny stuff, in the sports bar, in the locker room, or until you can say you know someone who’s died playing the game.
The problem is that so many fans have found in football’s brutality and grace a complete metaphor for life. Aside from work and marriage, it is life. Making the game safer will probably make it less entertaining. The players will have to be brought down to earth, no longer earning three-hundred-times what middle school teachers do. The league’s murderers and wife-beaters will need to punished harshly and immediately, without cartel-style shields sprouting around them. For fans, the world will stop spinning.
What a perfect chance to take a breath, look around, and push the endeavor in a better direction.
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer, and editor here at Open Letters Monthly.