Steve Almond gave up football. Not for Lent. Not for Thanksgiving weekend. For good.
Yep. Turned off the flat-screen. Switched the radio station from sports talk. Walked away from the tailgate. It wasn’t easy. It was excruciating.
“I’m one of you,” writes Almond, author of “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.”
Or he was one of us, a member of the passionate fandom, until he plunged into a wide-eyed and open-souled examination not only of the game but of himself.
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The result is a book that’s part journalism, part memoir, part cultural harpooning. It’s the current selection of the FYI Book Club.
Here are edited excerpts of our recent conversation with Almond.
Q. Why do you, or did you, love football so much?
A. I have many, many years of watching the game under my belt. Football should be troubling to us on many levels, but I think, in its exalted moments, it is absolutely beautiful. I spend two or three chapters in the book talking about why the game is so thrilling — the strategic density, watching players create miracles with their bodies.
It’s a remarkable thing to watch a great running back in the midst of utter chaos and ruin see the exact cut to make until there’s nothing but green between him and the end zone. The book is not an attempt to indict the sport. It’s a book about how hard it is to leave behind something you love very deeply.
And that was an essential part of your life, really, and some of your personal relationships.
It’s the role sports plays in the lives of men, especially. It’s a way that men can draw close to one another and feel connected. Football has been a refuge, a place I was able to go with my friends that took me away from the complications of a responsible adult life — dad, husband, employee — to focus on an incredibly satisfying game.
A football game is about 20 minutes of actual play and about three hours and 20 minutes of commercials, replays, filler. When I went with my neighbor Sean to watch a game, that was the downtime, the space. Life is hard and frustrating and tiring, and sometimes you need an escape, and you need an escape with company. That’s what I miss most.
What do you recall as your first encounter with the violent aspects of the sport?
It has haunted me for years. I was a huge Raiders fan, which I know already puts me in the doghouse with everyone in Kansas City. I was watching a preseason game and saw Jack Tatum, one of my favorite players — he earned his nickname, The Assassin, honestly — come across the middle of the field to make a hit, and Darryl Stingley went down.
The way Stingley’s body landed was unnatural. He wasn’t moving at all. I also remember the Raiders players walking away with a certain amount of pride. We didn’t know Stingley was paralyzed. We didn’t know his vertebrae had been crushed.
As an 11-year-old, my big fear was, “Oh my God, they’re going to take football away from us. They’re going to stop playing football.”
And later there was a newspaper clipping you saved.
It was a clipping about a game in which Kevin Faulk, a running back for the New England Patriots, was knocked unconscious. He was trying to describe to reporters what happened, not remembering, not feeling “normal.”
Then last year my mother suffered acute dementia. She was, in effect, gone — her cognitive ability, her selfhood, gone. She later recovered, but seeing her in that state suddenly made brain trauma real to me. And I thought about that clipping over my desk.
My conscious motive for saving it had been, “Oh, how funny. Kevin Faulk is totally mixed up.” But suddenly I felt that Faulk was talking about me. I was taking joy in a game that caused players to suffer concussions. That’s not “normal.”
We wince at the big hits, but isn’t that an aspect of the game we enjoy, you know, as long as no one gets hurt too badly?
We fool ourselves about that. Why are there parabolic mics on the sidelines? Why do we watch replays of the biggest hits over and over? It scratches an itch, to feel alive through a feeling of physical power. But to enjoy it you have to suppress your empathy.
And the thing about football is that it allows us to not quite see it. One reason boxing has become less of a mainstream sport is because the guys are practically naked and you see that they’re bleeding and bruised and knocked unconscious.
Football manages to put that under a helmet and pads. The injured are carted off the field. The only people you really see are the people who are still healthy. It’s magical thinking.
Brain injury is one focus of the book. What did you think about the brain researcher you interviewed, Dr. Ann McKee, who knows what a damaged football brain looks like and yet is still a fan?
She’s an incredible researcher and a smart, thoughtful person. A powerful lesson I learned from her was the human capacity to compartmentalize. She and other researchers have forced us to face the dangers of the game. Medical research has caught up to football, to the fact that players are too big and strong and fast to play the game safely. We didn’t know that 25 years ago.
But on Sundays, she roots on her Packers. So she is somehow able to say what a lot of us have said: “Football causes players to suffer brain damage, but I love the game.”
How do you think we make that right in our minds?
We have a whole suitcase of excuses and rationalizations that we carry around. I did for 40 years. Like: The players know what they’re getting into.
But the moral decision to consider is not why a 22-year-old is willing to risk his health for untold money and glory. The question is, Why do we fans feel it’s morally OK to support a game in which brain damage is the byproduct?
That’s a much more difficult question to answer.
Another rationalization is that football is the only way for certain kids to get to college and to keep them motivated. Of course, there are other ways for kids to get to college. And when we say “certain” we mean kids in economically vulnerable communities and kids of color. So our meaning is, “Poor kids of color, here’s your lotto ticket. Get really good at this violent game. That’s your value to us.”
Your objections go beyond health issues. Greed, for one thing.
I didn’t know all the economics of it. I didn’t know the NFL was tax-exempt, that it was a legal monopoly or that 70 percent of the funding for stadiums is supplied by the public. I was like a lot of people: “Let’s just watch the game. I don’t want to see the spreadsheet.”
But we’re part of the spreadsheet. That’s our tax money. These are our cultural priorities.
And another concern, that football’s reach now helps define our educational system.
We say that developing young minds is the most important thing we do. And then you have the truth, which is that there’s a huge entertainment industry predicated on this beautiful and profoundly violent game that has become an intractable part of our educational system. Our sense of our institutions of higher learning are all wrapped up in how good their football teams are.
The game has become so commercialized and competitive that it has trickled down, maybe more than trickled. High school games are on ESPN. There’s an industry around recruiting and training. Now high school players are 300 pounds and more, and they’re taking a lot of hits.
You make a few recommendations to “change the incentives” in football. What are the ideas on weight limits and helmet sensors?
The NFL knows that 30 percent of its players are going to end up with brain damage. It says it has a concussion problem. That’s nonsense. It has a physics and physiology problem. The brain is always going to be a soft organ in a hard shell. And force is always going to equal mass times acceleration. You can’t slow down the players, but you can decrease their mass.
Players left to their own devices are never going to do that. But you can have a weight limit for the team. Players would have to make weight rather than pack it on. I think the game would be just as dramatically satisfying, if not more.
The technology exists for helmets that measure the overall impact a player absorbs. Players would have to sit down if they reached a certain level. That would be the incentive to find a style of play that avoids the brain getting shaken around. It’s not just the concussions. It’s all the subconcussive hits that cumulatively cause brain damage.
What’s your ultimate hope for the book?
The book is a love letter, a Dear John letter, but full of love. I don’t want to start a boycott. I don’t want people to read the book and feel like I’m judging them.
I want to start a conversation about what it means that so many of us have invested so much of our hearts and our spirit and our attention and our money to this game. It’s a book asking people to see the game for what it is — the beautiful and the ugly — then make up their own minds about how much they want football to be in their lives.
From the preface of Steve Almond’s “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” published by Melville House:
This little book is a manifesto. Its job is to be full of obnoxious opinions. For example, I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.
I recognize that voicing these opinions will cause many fans to write off whatever else I might have to say on the subject as a load of …, shoveled by someone who is probably wearing a French sailor’s suit and whistling the Soviet National Anthem.
Before you do so, let me reiterate: I am one of you. If we ever have the awkward pleasure of meeting, we can, rather than debating my obnoxious opinions about football, happily muse over any of the hundreds of NFL players, past and present, whose names and career paths and highlight reels I have, pathetically, unintentionally, and yet lovingly, filed away in my hippocampal hard drive. Chances are I know all about your favorite team, what they did last year and last decade and whom they drafted (at least in the first round) and where they’re predicted to finish in their division, a subject I would prefer to take up, given the alternative, which would be to discuss my team, the wretched and moribund Oakland Raiders, who will finish this season — mark my words — no better than 3 –13.…
Mostly, 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. My hope is to honor the ethical complexities and the allure of the game. I’m trying to see football for what it truly is.
And from later in the book:
Americans now give football more attention than any other cultural endeavor. It isn’t even close.…
How much bigger can football get? I was thinking about this, inappropriately, a few months ago in church.… (W)hat happened was that the reverend mentioned football. He told us that the last time he’d delivered this particular sermon, the Patriots had lost their playoff game that afternoon. So it wasn’t even a formal part of his talk; it was an ad-lib. And it got by far the biggest response of anything he said. The instant he made this joke, the whole congregation, maybe a hundred of us, laughed and nodded. We had something in common.
Naturally, I started thinking about the game he had mentioned, which I had watched with bitter glee, and began recapping it in my head.… Then I thought about how many people were going to watch the Patriots game that afternoon, or some other football game, and how that number might compare to the number of people who attended a church or a synagogue or a mosque. What would that ratio be? Five to one?
Then I thought about the amount of time Americans, in particular men but also women, spend thinking about football during a given week, as opposed to thinking about God and the state of our souls and whether we are leading a noble life, and I realized that I probably spent about ten minutes max on these issues, whereas the recap of the Patriots game had already run fifteen or more. I thought about the tens of millions of fans — the tailgaters, the face painters — whose sacred wishes and fears and prayers are reserved for a vicious and earthly game.
Then I thought: ... That’s me, isn’t it?
THE STEVE ALMOND FILE
Hometown: Arlington, Mass. Grew up in Palo Alto, Calif.
Family: Married with two daughters, ages 8 and 1, and a son, 5
Education: Bachelor’s in English from Wesleyan University in Connecticut
Position: Teaches nonfiction writing at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
Other works include: “Candyfreak,” a best-selling book about another obsession, and “God Bless America,” a collection of short fiction.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.
Members of FYI and the library staff chose “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” by Steve Almond.
If you would like to participate in a discussion of the book Jan. 6 at Chappell’s Restaurant and Sports Museum in North Kansas City, email firstname.lastname@example.org.