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against football

13 october 2014

Steve Almond devotes a lot of attention to ethos in Against Football. I mean that in the rhetorical sense: he tells us who he is, what his history as a fan has meant to him, why we should listen to him on the subject. He's a Raiders fan, beyond die-hard, and he admits to spending way more time thinking about football than might be good for him. He's open, and intensely personal – as far as any rhetoric can be or seem, and in rhetoric, seeming is being. He charts an evolving dynamic between fascination and repulsion, beauty and horror, that continues to inform his views on American football. And he's written a brisk, thought-provoking book that is also literate: quoting Don DeLillo, Frederick Exley, and James Wright as often as any other authorities.

As with any ethos-driven book, when you read Against Football, you find yourself measuring your own ethos against the author's. I have never been as avid or devoted a fan as Steve Almond. I never really strongly followed a pro team till I moved to Dallas in 1988; and though I've been a Cowboys fan for a quarter-century now, through great times and bafflingly mediocre ones, I've never been torn up inside about Cowboys results the way I can be about the Texas Rangers.

Yet I grew up with football. Every Sunday of my childhood, and a lot of Saturdays, and then on Monday nights when that became a thing, and on Thanksgiving and for whole stretches of the winter holidays, I sat in front of TV sets and watched little elevens of helmeted men in black and white try to move a barely-visible ball up and down chilly-looking fields. I read football books (Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay was my favorite). I played dice-football games and collected cards and got annuals with the depth charts of NFL offenses and defenses printed on pages you could cut in half and thus turn to match Detroit against Minnesota on either side of the ball. My mother followed the Packers and Notre Dame. My father liked whoever was good, from Joe Namath to Tom Brady. The NFL, and to some extent the NCAA (I was a Michigan State contemporary of Kirk Gibson), are woven into the texture of my life, into the ways I relate to sport, television, and American culture.

It's not like baseball, where I've been to games in fifty consecutive seasons now, sometimes dozens per year, and I've read box scores every summer morning since I learned how to read. I have never had a negative feeling about baseball, though I've had some about certain relief pitchers who shall remain nameless. Football, however, I've gone back and forth. Some years I've been very keen come fall, and others, I've been so indifferent that I don't have much of a sense of the clubs' records till the World Series is over. I've been down on pro football because it's so mercenary, and I've been down on college football because it's even more mercenary. I foolishly stopped watching Super Bowls for few years in the 1980s, or I could now claim to have seen them all; but I compensated for this lapse by playing a game where I tried not to learn the result (I once made it to Wednesday or Thursday before some stray headline informed me). I first attended an NFL game in person three years ago. Now I go to several each year in Jerry Jones's big building in Arlington. I love it. I love Tony Romo bravely getting back out there after throwing an interception, and then throwing another interception. I even love the Cheerleaders. Those are some talented young women.

In other words, it would devastate me to see baseball collapse as an institution, as it would devastate Steve Almond to see football collapse – but not vice versa. I'll probably go through another few cycles of attraction and straying from football in my lifetime. It's engrained in me, but not to quite the same extent as crime novels or jazz standards. Right now, I'm well into the Cowboys, and it hasn't hurt that Michigan State has come into a palmy period recently, either. But while my interest in football has been on an uptick since 2010 or so, I've had to deal with a cultural turn that has eaten severely into the sport's prestige and glamor. So I do relate to Steve Almond's "reluctant manifesto." I'm a football fan, but I know that football damages people. Is it right for me to gain pleasure each weekend from people's pain – not just their pain, but their debilitating trauma?

To me, the damage done by concussions, and consequent chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the primary, perhaps the only reason to turn "against football." But it's not the only reason that Almond adduces. He's also bothered by the NFL's colossal greed, football's sexism and homophobia, its racist overtones, its glorification of militarism, the ludicrous mockery it makes of higher education, and its promotion of violence in general.

So why am I less bothered about these things?

Greed: The great symbol of the NFL's avarice is a couple of miles northeast of my home: Jerry Jones's Cowboys Stadium, which we're now supposed to call "AT&T." It sits on the prairie like a big white sponge, sucking up all the money in the vicinity. I voted against funding Cowboys Stadium. Jones himself spent a great deal of money on the place, but the taxpayers of Arlington did too. Almond points out that Arlington receives no dividend on Jones's profits: heck, we don't even levy property taxes on his stadium, because it technically belongs to us. All the benefit we derive from the building, however, is indirect and trickly-down.

On the other hand, if we must have circuses, I'm glad that they're within walking distance. (Not least because parking costs more than game tickets.) No, seriously, Almond makes a great point that professional sports, in the US, is massively subsidized by the public sector while making obscene profits in the marketplace. That's an argument for requiring referenda for stadium construction (as Arlington does). But it seems that people enjoy sports, enough to pay twice for their pleasure. To me it's not hugely different from making a tax-deductible contribution to the symphony and then paying through the nose for your symphony ticket. Money flows into entertainment in this country from several directions. The flow is often muddied and corrupt. But we like our entertainments.

Despite my Ivy League doctorate and my taste for Proust, I live on a decidedly working-class income, and have less wealth than a lot of blue-collar workers. I work long hours and deal with stressful people, and (not that Almond would disagree here) I like to spend weekends watching athletes in bright colors play vivid and purposeful games. So Jerry Jones is extracting money from me. If it wasn't him, it would be the Dallas Opera. As a matter of fact, it's him and the Dallas Opera. And as a matter of further fact, Jerry let us into the Stadium free last summer to see a simulcast from the Dallas Opera on his football-field-size TV set. This is a complicated nexus of art and sport and pleasure. On balance, with some reservations, I approve of it, so far.

Sexism and homophobia: Appalling. Getting better, though, wouldn't you say? Thanks to gadflies like Almond and Dick Crepeau, the culture of the NFL is having to come to terms with its links to domestic violence, kicking and screaming the whole way, but no longer silent. The conduct of Jameis Winston, and attempts to cover it up, are reprehensible, as Almond notes – and we're hearing about them. Decades ago, we probably wouldn't have. As to homophobia, we're hearing about Richie Incognito. We never used to hear such things. Sometimes revelations of awful stuff mean that the awful stuff is coming into the light of day to be cleansed. At least there's hope in publicity, and none in silence.

And we have a young gay man in Dallas now, Michael Sam, working for the Cowboys as a practice-squad lineman. He's gotten a certain amount of publicity :)

Racist overtones: Almond makes a forceful argument that the spectacle of the NFL maps disturbingly onto America's racist past (and present):

What does it mean that football fever tends to run so hot in those states where slavery was legal and Jim Crow died hardest? … The power dynamics remain eerily familiar: a wealthy white "owner" presides over a group of African-American laborers. … Does football provide white Americans a continued sense of dominion over African-American men? … Do we secretly believe they belong to us? (111-12)
Well, if you put it that way … again, Almond makes strong points about the game's realities and optics, and it would be foolish to duck them. I'd merely argue for a longer perspective. Well within living memory, the football-fevered South featured college and highschool football teams that were as segregated as any of its housing and public facilities. Not so long ago, unless you were watching Grambling play Alcorn, you might never see a black quarterback, let alone a black coach. Are NFL and college football teams racial utopias? I doubt it. Are they less segregated, and do they offer more opportunity for advancement, than a bunch of supposedly more enlightened occupations? Probably. Football is relentlessly meritocratic. I've argued that meritocracy is not a great way to run a country. But it has the virtue of exploding racism. Sure, white folks sit around watching black folks chase footballs every weekend, and that may lead to the conclusion that that's all black folks are good for. But we're also seeing more and more black coaches mastermind the action. And the whole package is a distinct sight better than watching solely white guys play the same sport and smugly concluding that black folks couldn't cut it on the same playing field, and wouldn't even want to try.

Militarism: The Cowboys are fond of "military moments" or "Gridiron Agitprop" as Almond calls them (145): for that matter, since 9/11/01, so are baseball teams and a lot of other entertainment promoters. You don't know whether to laugh, cry, or write a satirical novel. I was particularly struck, at the Cowboys' opening game this season, to hear so many thanks to service members and military families, at a juncture when I knew that many National Guard units around the country were going without training and pay because a conservative Congress refused to fund them. We are so concerned about thanking the troops, nowadays, that we've come to believe they can be paid in thanks alone.

And yes, George Carlin and others have reminded us that football serves as a martial metaphor (and vice versa). And there have been times in my fluctuating attitude toward football when this bothered me, or when I touted baseball's comparative (and supposed) pastoralism and pacifism. It just doesn't bother me anymore. There's a huge amount of BS at all kinds of public gatherings. Just stand politely and yell "play ball" when they finish the BS.

Ludicrous mockery of higher education: this is news? Any y'all ever seen Horse Feathers? College football players are often fine students; but no coach or president has demanded that a college football player pay any attention to studies since well before the days of Pudge Heffelfinger. Way back in 1974, I attended a recruiting session for Michigan State's brilliant Honors College. Academics were tangentially mentioned, but the focus of the hour was that the Spartans had just beaten Ohio State. I was only 15, but I remember thinking, "Dude, you play Ohio State every year. Of course you'll occasionally beat them." OK, so I probably didn't think "dude." But my point is, colleges have conducted academic recruiting with end runs and sideline passes for as long as anybody can remember. Football has been wagging the dog of the American university so long that there's been a complete role reversal. Football is the dog now; education is the vestigial tail.

Almond's issue is still valid, of course. Unlike the emerging openness about race, sex, and violence in the sport, the engrossment of universities by their football teams is an area where higher ed is becoming more corrupt as the years go by. I can make no real "defense" of college football here. I hope (as Almond advocates, citing Gregg Easterbrook) that major colleges will eventually outsource football under license, as they've done with so many other functions. Make age-group football an honestly for-profit affiliate of university conferences; end the requirement that athletes be forced to carry on a distracted attempt at being college students while they play. That way, I can still root for Michigan State, and buy Spartan junk, and not have to draw increasingly strained and apologetic connections between Saturday football and weekday classes.

Violence: Once again, I'm tempted to ask "this is news?" Football was violent in conception, 150 years ago, and has gone through several rounds of adjustment and reform to make it softer and safer. Yet, as Almond argues, our thrill in the game is still based on hard tackles that leave ballcarriers groggy. He asserts that men like football because it sanctions them to cause pain. I'm not sure about that (not that I ever played; as noted, I was 15 as a highschool senior, and a skinny 15 at that). I don't think that even football players like to hurt people; I think they like to physically master people while completely foiling their best-laid plans. Several of my academic mentors played college football, and are among the wisest, gentlest, and most progressive men I've ever met. Yet they talk about the sanctioned joy of knocking people down. At its best, football should be exactly that: an arena where you can knock people down safely enough, and then cross the sideline into arenas where you don't have to.

Pain is sometimes a consequence, though, and it seems inextricable from the sport. And pain, though not new, is the best reason to be getting queasier about American football: from its tendency to concuss and degrade the brains of its participants, to the lesser but still debilitating pain of chronic knee trouble, spinal damage, and diseases related to carrying too much weight on overstressed frames.

As if bent on eroding the approval I gave him earlier in this review, Jerry Jones opened his mouth while I was reading Against Football. Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain has a groin injury, but Jones dismissed the player's pain in a cloud of patronizing machismo and vicarious belligerence.

"He's going to play," Jones said … "He's a leader. I know last week at practice, he undressed one of our young receivers out there and just kind of blew the smoke off the end, stuck his gun back in the holster. Just walked on back up to the line of scrimmage, 'Let's go!' Everybody's eyes got big. He said, 'Now, bring Houston on! Let's go!'."
Every element that Steve Almond decries about the game's attitude toward pain and injury, and the plantation mentality of its owners, and its glorification of violence, is in those few incoherent sentences.

The sport absolutely needs a round of reforms. If it then starts looking more like flag football than demolition derby, so much the better. That will preserve the "football" part, the part I love.

Almond, Steve. Against Football: One fan's reluctant manifesto. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014.