Steve Almond thinks I have a problem.
His 2014 book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, stacks everything that football fans like me accept in the backs of our minds and force-feeds it in a thought-provoking, punishing quick read. He makes it clear how the NFL operates like Big Tobacco, suppressing research on the traumatic brain injuries suffered by 30 percent of NFL players. He tackles football’s culture of homophobia, misogyny, and racism—and the one-sided economics of Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland that get bullied into accommodating every league request at the municipal level.
It’s often hilarious and deeply personal, but overall a harsh reality check to anyone who harbors an obsession for football. As Almond writes in the foreword of the paperback edition of Against Football, out this month, the NFL is unbelievable at preserving “the status quo, in which Americans could consume a lethal game without suffering the burden of complicity and guilt.”
To read Against Football and continue enjoying the NFL is to suppress objective reality and become a hypocrite. Almond and I differ in that he always felt an elitist shame by indulging in this blue-collar pastime—even as a college student. I’m more of a lifer—the kind of sports guy featured in every beer commercial, who plays in seven fantasy leagues and soothes every Tony Romo chokejob by going to the alley outside and smashing beer bottles.
I talked to Almond after finishing his book, to try and figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do now.
The book came out last summer, just prior to the 2014 season. How did you get through it? Did you make the conscious choice to stop watching your Oakland Raiders once and for all?
It sucked. I knew what was happening with football—certainly with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. But beyond that for me, what was kind of more crazy and jarring was the NFL admitting in these court documents that up to 30 percent of its players are going to get brain damage.
It’s sort of my job to be able to write and appear on radio shows, and as you know, that’s kind of the hook that people use: “Hey, we should think about its moral dimensions for five minutes.”
I did not watch—and this is amazing—a single minute of Raiders football. To the extent that it was possible, I just tried to not consume any football, and that sucked. It’s like being a dry drunk; soon as you quit, you realize that football is everywhere.
You spoke about what it was like to be a young man at a liberal arts college who wanted to dive into intellectualism. I had the opposite experience. When I went to college I was upset to not see people beating the drum for the Dallas Cowboys. Like they were abandoning them. Did you ever feel bad for leaving behind your team?
What happens when you’re a sports fan is you get excited when your team is good and when they’re not good you stay out of it. I have to say that a lot of what led me to write Against Football has to do with not being able to block out something that had been building up for a long time. That had never occurred to me in my 20s, my 30s, or when I had kids, and that’s that every form of entertainment also has a moral dimension to it. It took me until I was in my mid-40s to go, “I don’t know, man, this has some values that I don’t think represent my values.”
“You also have to recognize everything. Not just the part that feels good and is gratifying in the moment, but also the part where that player who you loved killed himself at 43.”
That feeling when you turn on football, you just click off your morality code. But I don’t think I ever felt bad about not being a fan. I felt bad for being a fan—like when I was trying to be a writer and sort of starting to be what I considered a more serious person—somehow I was still hung up on this childish game.
I would sneak off to the Good Time Emporium and nobody knew about that in my life; it was like this lonely, weird masturbation chamber that I went to for four hours every Sunday. And the Raiders always lost.
But there’s something very primal and ancient in you that goes: This is happiness.
In a sense what my book is—beyond all the, like, “Here’s all the fucked-up shit about football”—what is it like to turn your back on something that you really love, that makes you feel really alive? In a sense I had to write a whole book and find out all this stuff about football that I really didn’t want to know, in order to convince myself that I shouldn’t watch it, because that’s how much I love it.
What would you say to people who likewise have spent so much of their disposable income on traveling and jerseys and this game? What would you say to yourself as a younger man?
[It’s] hardcore fans who are hardcore ambivalent. They dont want to be in a moral struggle about feeling like they should feel bad for loving something. I hope to reach them… I wrote the book in order to say to myself as a younger person and whoever is a serious fan of the game but who also is a thoughtful person and is trying to live an examined life, to say, “Here’s what football is.”
It is insanely beautiful. It is balladic. It is the miracle of the body at play. It is Barry Sanders absolutely making a shatteringly beautiful move and breaking free in the open. It is your team rising up and winning against great odds. It’s the strategic density of the game. It’s the primal oomph of seeing a really good hit laid on the other team’s quarterback.
I wanted the book to say, “Yes, what you love and admire about football is real, it’s not bullshit, it’s not immature, it’s not crazy, it’s not fanatical. It’s real. But if you’re gonna have that, then you also have to realize it is this other thing, too—this insanely greedy, cynical industry. It is absolutely sanitizing and normalizing violence and misogyny. It’s making you see the world through a really distorted racial lens. And it’s valuing people under very limited conditions and causing you to suppress your empathy all the time.
You also have to recognize everything. Not just the part that feels good and is gratifying in the moment, but also the part where that player who you loved killed himself at 43.
If you love Junior Seau and you love his grit and determination, whatever. And, for you it’s Tony Dorsett, right Ramon? You love Tony Dorsett?
Yeah, he’s fantastic.
Your love of him and all those things that he did and everything else—he can’t remember where his kids play soccer. He’s thought about suicide. He knows his brain is not right.
Speaking of the Cowboys, I kept thinking about Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys, about just kind of how unhinged that team was. And dark. A big part of that was because of the Miami connection with Jimmy Johnson, with Michael Irvin. In your book you discussed that myth of football as this admirable, escapist thing for inner city kids. That’s something that liberal people always gravitate toward—pointing to what it means to and how it informs inner-city African-American communities. You’re saying this is a cancerous way to instruct our boys. You covered Miami pee-wee football as a reporter. What do you see as the alternative to the pee-wee kingdom that’s formed in so many of America’s inner cities?
The arrangement is monstrously cynical. It is as monstrously cynical as any other aspect of football.
It’s true of all athletics, but it is especially true of a game that involves so much damage to the body and especially the brain. What the culture of football is saying from a very young age is quite simple and pure: You have value, and you matter because of what your body can do.
“What the culture of football is saying from a very young age is quite simple and pure: You have value, and you matter because of what your body can do.”
From a very early age, they are being segregated and lauded and rewarded and paid attention to because they’re good at entertaining a bunch of fans.
What we’re saying is you have value because you’re good at entertaining us in this beautiful, savage game. That’s it. I don’t care if you go home and beat up your girlfriend, and if I have to see a video of that, I’ll pretend that I’m outraged. But if I never see that, I don’t give a shit; just show up on game day and put the pads on and hit hard. Those are our values.
In the book you make the point that football makes us less empathetic, especially to minorities. But I feel that football and especially seeing it in the younger generation and my wife’s half-siblings who are teenagers, I see a great deal of admiration and wonder. And to that end with the way that they’re engaging with social media, I see a lot more cultural integration.
But they’re not saying, “Gee, I admire African-American culture.” They’re saying, “I admire these athletes who happen to be African-American.” There is something in that, to me, that is internally skewing the way that you’re seeing race.
But I look at the previous generation who grew up in the ’90s, obsessed with Michael Jordan and rap, and it led to the suburban white guy in Texas who’s 35, who is paying attention to the Michael Brown shooting and making #BlackLivesMatter tweets under a fake name because he doesn’t want to get in trouble at his job.
The specific reason I added the afterword is because we had this crazy season where it seemed like we thought of football in a more moral way. But one of the things that’s really fascinating is that since you mentioned Michael Brown—and Eric Garner for that matter—both of those guys, I would argue (and I argue this in the introduction) that the way in which Darren Wilson talked about Michael Brown being this huge monstrous figure who was kicking him around like a rag doll, whose wrath and strength and viciousness was so overpowering that he had to use a gun to kill him. Well, I’m sitting there going, well, how big was he? He was a big guy; he was [6’ 5’’], 290 pounds. Wow, Wilson must have been tiny? No, he was [6’ 5’’] and 210 pounds.
For years, white culture, dominant white culture, has been exaggerating psychologically and emotionally the menace of African-American men in particular in order to justify their aggression against those men.
I don’t think it makes sense to pretend that something that we give so much of our attention to and so much of our regard to isn’t reinforcing these grotesque stereotypes.
Having read your book right now, the only defense that I have of watching football is that the world sucks. The planet is doomed. Florida is going to be underwater. What is wrong with just tucking the darkness in and enjoying the game?
There’s a part of me that’s like, “Why am I going to spend the last 30, 35 years of my life not giving myself this thing that makes me so happy?”
What you’re feeling is sort of the desperation of the evangelical saying, “It’s a false religion, right? It’s gotta be a false religion, because I can’t worship because I know it’s bad to worship.” But underneath that is a person who is going, “Shit, man. I just want to go to the bar, and I just want to see a game.”
“For years, white culture, dominant white culture, has been exaggerating psychologically and emotionally the menace of African-American men in particular in order to justify their aggression against those men.”
But there are these larger questions like, “Hey, is our culture going to start to be more empathetic and humane?” And I’ll say this,because I lived in El Paso a few years and I’ve thought about this a good deal: The mindset that you’re suggesting—“let me just have my pleasures and don’t make me think about morality”—is a mindset that fosters the kind of fucking crazy bigotry that prevails when it comes to Mexican-Americans with immigration.
It’s just easier to say “fuck ’em” and run this nativist bullshit line. When you give up on thinking about things in an examined and moral way, you’re in league with those fucking crazy bigots. I’m sorry, that’s who you really are because it’s a way of not thinking more realistically and with greater empathy about what real solutions are.
At this point, do you think football can be saved?
I have no idea. I don’t think the solutions [outlined in Against Football] are crazy.
When I went on that long rant about, like, why should the proceeds from games go to billionaires? Why shouldn’t they go to the city of Green Bay or Detroit or St. Louis? Why is that so crazy? It’s crazy because capitalism aggregates power and money in the hands of mostly old white guys who later run for president. That’s a craziness which we consent to, but it’s still craziness.
But we could look back 50 years from now, or 100 years from now if we’re not all underwater, and think, “Wow. Remember when football was this end-all be-all thing that was hugely important, rather than being this kind of fringe sport that is considered a symptom of when this culture had gone off the rails?”
Illustration by Max Fleishman