'Against Football' Author Steve Almond Blasts the NFL and Its Hypocritical Media Machine
ESPN bloviator Colin Cowherd has a blind spot when it comes to the violence in football.
SSG Dale Sweetnam/US Army
The dog days of summer aren't much fun in the land of sports talk radio. The only major league in play is baseball, with the pennant races still two months off. Amid these doldrums, the Ray Rice story hit the airwaves last month like a gale.
In late July, word leaked that the National Football League was going to mete out its punishment to the Baltimore Ravens' star running back, who was alleged to have assaulted his fiancée in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February. Surveillance footage, leaked online, captured Rice attempting to remove the insensate body of the woman — whom he subsequently wed — from the elevator. To this task, he brought all the empathy of a hog butcher tugging at a carcass.
Thus when reports confirmed that the NFL was suspending Rice for a mere two games, the righteous scolds of sports talk soared into a gleeful paroxysm. Here at last was an off-season scandal with legs! The NFL had demonstrated once again its disdain for women and its disregard for the violence against them perpetrated with gruesome regularity by football players. A few even called for the resignation of Roger Goodell, the league's lavishly compensated commissioner.
Most notable amid this sanctimonious din was a talented bloviator named Colin Cowherd, who regards himself (and is generally regarded) as one of sport talk's Big Thinkers. On July 29, Cowherd offered the national audience that tunes in to his weekday ESPN radio show, The Herd, a lengthy disquisition on the broader cultural implications of l'affaire Rice.
"We know that violent images now in America create violence," he began. "We know that. There is no more argument. From 1957 to 1990, 217 studies said short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person: moderate to large in strength. The weight of all studies in America and globally supports the position that exposure to media violence — movies, TV, video games — leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence, a lack of sympathy for victims, and particularly in kids.... Okay, so what can you and I do about it? Not much outside of our house or neighborhood. What can the government do about it? What can the FCC do about it? What can major corporations like this one do about it? Take a stand! 'But Colin, the artists need to express themselves.' Really? Like I can't live without Chris Brown? Reservoir Dogs? Grand Theft Auto?"
Cowherd dutifully tagged the NFL's leniency toward Rice as "disgusting, appalling, repulsive. But it's happening all over our society now. Go to a football game and watch a fight. Will anybody stop the fight? No, you idiots grab your iPhones and record it and cheer it on. Desensitized to violence! Because American corporations making so much damn money off violence don't want to stop the profits, don't want to stop the commerce."
Cowherd compared the proliferation of violent images to the flow of drugs into the country and observed that young men "of often lower IQ and socioeconomic means" inevitably see these images and commit more violent crimes.
Then he issued his summation. "We have the data," he said. "Let's do something. Cut off the profits. I don't get it. I just don't get it."
Pop music, movies, TV, video games — amid the sermonizing, one item was conspicuous by its absence from Cowherd's catalog of contraband: the game he covers.
It is Cowherd's job, his peculiar burden and gift, to generate outrage, using only recycled news items and his own slapdash sociology, every weekday morning. But the myopia of his July 29 diatribe, in particular, was monumental. Without meaning to, it crystallized the cognitive dissonance that haunts America's vast Football Industrial Complex (FIC) at this historic moment.
Which is to say: Those who pose as the industry's critics have to pretend awfully hard that they hate violence and misogyny and greed and homophobia while at the same time promoting a game that is, objectively speaking, violent, misogynistic, mercenary, and homophobic.
The top-tier talkers manage to sound utterly convincing, even as they craft arguments of dazzling fraudulence and obdurate illogic. It appears never to have occurred to Cowherd that football might be a culprit in America's cult of violence. No, that crisis can be pinned on brutes from the lower castes hopped up on sadistic fictions. It is the feral inclinations of such men — and not, say, the fact that football is vicious enough to cause brain damage among its players — that keeps Cowherd from taking his son to a game. The poor lad might be subjected to a brawl in the stands.
What marks Cowherd as a true pro is his ability to tap into the meta-narrative of grievance that undergirds all punditry. It turns out the Rice case really isn't about football at all — it's about governmental negligence and corporate greed! Fortunately, there are intrepid voices inside the FIC willing to speak truth to power.
Or, at least, sell absolution to the easily deluded.
I should confess right here that I myself have been one of the deluded for nearly four decades, not only an ardent football fan but a devotee of guys like Cowherd, who supply addicts our weekday fix — the macho Mishnah that preps us for the holy texts to be written on game day.
I won't pretend for a second that I'm happy to have quit watching football. But this distance has allowed me to see the ethical arrangement between the game and the world of punditry that envelops it.
In fact, as the tide of public opinion turns against America's most profitable sport, the prevailing commandment among its media boosters has become increasingly sad and obvious: Thou Shalt Not Address the Moral Hazards of Football Itself.
To do so — to suggest, for instance, that the Ray Rice affair is the logical outcome of a culture that worships hypermasculine athletes specifically for their savage impulses, and which regards women as ornamental and sexual possessions — would be to confirm their own role as profiteers in this vast system. Worse yet, it would force us fans, the folks who ultimately subsidize the FIC, to confront our own complicity.
So instead, when evidence of the sport's corruptions erupts into public view (as it does with alarming frequency these days), Cowherd and his cohort must resort, ever more desperately, to a stale tactic: Find the nearest scapegoat and grind him into the turf.
NBC football apologists Dan Patrick, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison yuk it up before a 2013 game in Denver.
This happens every single day on every single sports show in New York City, and beyond. Consider the two other football stories that broke the week Rice received his wrist slap. Neither was of much news value, but given the slim off-season pickings and endless hours of airtime to fill, both were fluffed into major narratives.
The first involved former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who has converted his brand of unctuous piety into a cottage industry. A reporter asked Dungy whether he would have drafted Michael Sam, a St. Louis Rams rookie, who is the NFL's first openly gay player.
"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy replied. "Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it. It's not going to be totally smooth ... things will happen."
Among the things that will happen, it turns out, is that a retired coach and devout Christian, who publicly opposes same-sex marriage, will cast vague aspersions on you, citing the "distractions" your presence might cause while conveniently creating just such a distraction. This was nothing new to Sam. He'd been dealing with the same bigoted, self-fulfilling prophecies since well before the draft.
The ensuing "story" generated by the FIC, in fact, cast Dungy as the scapegoat. Yes, his comrades in the media were shocked — positively shocked! — that Dungy would make such inflammatory comments. They wanted everyone to know how unacceptable they found his remarks.
This orgy of self-congratulatory disapproval echoed the self-congratulatory approval with which most sports pundits chose to greet Sam's selection by the Rams. Both were clumsy efforts to obscure the league's entrenched homophobia, which is obvious to anyone with a functioning frontal lobe. Think about it: What other business in 2014 would celebrate its enlightenment for tolerating a single gay employee? (I mean, besides the military, the church, and Chick-fil-A?)
Anyone interested in a more intimate portrait of how homosexuality is regarded within an NFL locker room would do well to thumb through the Wells Report, which was compiled to investigate the bullying that resulted in Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin quitting the team last year.
The villain in that story was a supersize slab of malice named Richie Incognito. Nearly all the coverage focused on the racial epithets ("half-nigger piece of shit," "stinky Pakistani") that Incognito, who is white, aimed at his frenemy Martin, who is African-American.
But the report also detailed virulent homophobia. Incognito and his bros not only trafficked in gay-bashing trash talk but also physically assaulted teammates. At one point, a veteran lineman grabbed a rookie they had nicknamed Loose Booty and told his friend to "come get some pussy." The friend simulated having anal sex with Loose Booty. Somehow this portion of the Wells Report never made it onto SportsCenter.
Though the Dolphins suspended Incognito for the duration of his contract, the NFL has done nothing to punish him or his fellow bullies. Just this week, in fact, the league cleared Incognito to return to action. This is not to suggest that every pro football player is a raging homophobe. On the other hand, please try to imagine the scenario above playing out in your workplace.
The other story of note was about Pat Bowlen, the popular owner of the Denver Broncos, who ceded control of his team, owing to Alzheimer's. John Elway, the quarterback-turned-general manager who helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls, fought back tears as he made the announcement.
The inconvenient irony lurking just beneath all the tributes was that more than 150 ex-Broncos, including two members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had sued the NFL for engaging in a "concerted effort of deception" about the risks of concussions. The specific allegations were that league officials, with the consent of Bowlen and his fellow owners, conspired to deny the link between football and brain damage, and specifically a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which has been medically documented in scores of former players.
To put it bluntly: Bowlen's dementia is likely a genetic misfortune. The dementia suffered by his former employee, Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett, is a work injury by which Bowlen himself profited.
If it seems like I'm cherry-picking here, I'm not. Nearly every story generated by the FIC arrives with its own moral evasions and redacted context. As I write this, for instance, the big football headline is that the NCAA has settled a class action suit filed by former college athletes. The deal includes a new national protocol for head injuries and a $70 million fund for the monitoring of concussions.
Stories like this are a balm to the FIC, because they create the illusion of moral closure. They reinforce the fantasy that the sport's dangers can be resolved through litigation.
What invariably goes unreported is that the NCAA's official policy toward brain injuries was even more negligent than the NFL's — until college athletes sought legal remedy.
In a wrongful death suit filed last year by the family of Derek Sheely, a Division III fullback who died from head injuries sustained in practice, the NCAA denied that it had "a legal duty to protect student-athletes" despite conceding, in the very same brief, that it was "founded to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletic practices of the time."
While you are mulling that paradox, consider one more: In 2010, the NCAA mandated that its member schools adopt concussion-management plans. The governing body then did nothing to enforce these plans, according to its own director of health and safety, David Klossner. To date, not a single school has ever been disciplined for failing to abide by safety standards. Internal emails filed in court reveal that senior NCAA staffers actually mocked Klossner's safety efforts.
When it comes to college football, of course, the most prominent legal dispute concerns whether players should be considered school employees and therefore be paid. College football players, particularly the ones recruited by major programs, devote from 40 to 60 hours per week to the team. They may also study for classes, but the primary reason they are enrolled is to play football. In exchange for their labors on the gridiron — undertaken at considerable physical risk — most Division I players receive scholarships that cover tuition, room, and board. This is pretty close to the textbook definition of indentured servitude, except that these servants happen to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for their schools, not to mention assorted corporations.
The question of whether college players should be paid is one of those fake controversies that distract fans from an even more disturbing truth. Namely, that college football has become a de facto developmental league for the NFL, and thus part and parcel of the FIC. How did our institutions of higher learning — many of them subsidized by taxpayers — get into the football business?
The short answer is money. But it goes deeper than that. College students themselves, along with alumni and devout gamblers, have become devoted to the game in a way that makes the intellectual goals of college feel esoteric and marginal. Schools such as the University of Alabama and Florida State spend tens of millions of dollars each year on football facilities, coaching, travel, equipment, and the rest.
Hardly anyone in the sports media ever ponders how this came to be or why a sport that degrades the brains of its "student-athletes" has become the dominant force in our system of higher education. Nor has anyone, other than a few outliers, such as Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, ever had the temerity to question why we allow teenagers (whose brains are still developing and thus more vulnerable to injury) to play football in high school.
Doctors in Bedford, Massachusetts, who study the effects of concussive head trauma, examine the brain of a former high school football player who died at age 20. More than 60 ex-NFLers have pledged to donate their brains to the study when they die.
The general excuse offered by fans at this point runs something like this: Hey, the guys on sports talk radio and on TV are just entertainers! You can't expect them to be moral arbiters!
The problem with this reasoning is that guys like Cowherd and Stephen A. Smith, New York's own archduke of bombastic enunciation, don't portray themselves as entertainers. Their whole shtick is predicated on their role as moral arbiters. They alone have the insight, access, and expertise to divine the truth. (That's why you're listening to them.) Every time they sound off on a football scandal, they are saying to millions of fans: This is the right way to think about this story.
Which is why they play such a vital and insidious role in maintaining the FIC. They encourage fans to regard themselves not as consumers whose time and money drives the industry but as exalted victims forever let down by wicked players, foolish coaches, and craven owners. They direct public attention toward the easy targets and away from the hard questions we should be asking of our consciences. They bark like watchdogs but lick like lapdogs.
In this sense, sports punditry might be thought of as a kind of athletic adjunct to the star-spangled realm of cable news, where the goal is not a moral consideration of governmental policy or civic duty but the excitation of primal negative emotions.
The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.
It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.
At the same time, football has become the nation's most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell's stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald's. College football has followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.
As might be expected, this popularity has been reflected in the volume of media coverage the sport attracts. In an era of dwindling resources for straight news, football has become a dependable cash cow and a driving force in the expansion of the ESPN brand and sports punditry, in general. The most popular radio programs are now broadcast live on television.
With so much money at stake and so many ethical questions dogging the game, with so much airtime to fill and so much talent, one might expect this to be a golden era for football reportage. But with a few notable exceptions, sports "journalism" still amounts to a public relations division of the FIC.
Consider this object lesson: On the day before the 2009 Super Bowl, Goodell offered hundreds of reporters his annual canned speech about the sunny state of the NFL. An hour later, a group of independent researchers staged a press conference presenting unassailable medical evidence that football can and does cause brain damage. Seven reporters showed up.
In the past few years, journalists working for the New York Times and PBS (among other venues) have managed to produce books and documentaries that expose the venality of the NFL and the NCAA. In some cases, the revelations are too large and juicy for sports pundits to ignore. Rather than react with outrage or genuine moral concern, though, they go into damage-control mode.
Cowherd, for example, welcomed investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru to his show to discuss League of Denial, their book about the NFL's galling efforts to whitewash its brain-injury crisis. But his subsequent monologue was an apologia for the league, a laundry list of half-truths that might as well have been scripted by Goodell himself.
This is how it always goes when sports pundits run up against the dark side of football. The goal is always the same: to provide moral cover to themselves and their listeners, to encourage a retreat into the childish belief that football is just a glorious diversion rather than a powerful industry whose success comes at a profound cost.
Sometimes this involves a tortured set of rationalizations. We hear a lot about how much players get paid and how plenty of jobs are dangerous, how new rules and technologies will solve the brain-injury problem, and so on.
Other times, hosts opt for a simpler approach: brute denial. Allow me to quote Scott Van Pelt, another A-list ESPN host, who offered this wisdom in reaction to the devastating Frontline documentary based on League of Denial. "I found myself asking this last night: 'In what way does what I heard impact me?' And the answer, honestly, is it doesn't."
Van Pelt is making a personal statement here, one offered from deep within the bubble of fandom. But nearly all these guys operate within a larger corporate setting, one that is dependent on football for ratings. In the case of networks such as ESPN (and Fox and CBS), the NFL and NCAA aren't subjects to be covered so much as cherished business partners.
Consider the fate of the Frontline documentary itself. ESPN's investigative-reporting unit had been working with PBS producers on those shows until a few weeks before they aired, when the World Wide Leader in Sports suddenly terminated its involvement. According to a report in the New York Times, the move came on the heels of a contentious lunch meeting during which NFL officials expressed their, shall we say, concerns to ESPN executives.
But one needn't eavesdrop on power lunches to detect the ways in which the FIC soft-pedals the savagery of the sport. Just tune in to any available football game. The men in the broadcast booth celebrate big hits and lavish praise on players who can bring the pain. Producers replay the most brutal plays over and over, in slow motion and high definition. Often we are seeing men suffering brain traumas. But the announcers who frame our perceptions of the game don't use such terms. They describe the action in a way that allows fans to experience extreme violence as sanctioned and even sanctified. If they didn't, they'd get shit-canned.
In the FIC's cozy symbiotic ecosystem, announcers and pundits help make football morally palatable for fans whose support, in turn, empowers the NFL and NCAA. This allows their executives to freeze out any reporter or news organization that asks tough questions. In the end, they don't need the press to disseminate their talking points anyway. The NFL has its own network, as do the most popular NCAA conferences.
The last time Roger Goodell agreed to sit down to an extended interview with a "reporter" — to abuse that term — was the day before the 2014 Super Bowl. Chris Wallace of Fox News spent most of his 12 minutes of face time genuflecting. He asked about the weather. He asked how the NFL was going to become even bigger. With a minute left, he tossed up a floater about brain injuries, which Goodell effortlessly ducked before autographing a football for the Wallace family archives. (I kind of wish I was making this last part up. I'm not.)
But okay, that's Fox News, friend to the patriotic and profitable. Surely there must be some independent minds amid the company men?
You would think so. You would think, for instance, that a guy such as Keith Olbermann, who purports to despise hypocrisy and corruption almost as much as he loves the sound of his own baritone, would have the courage to take on the flagrant corruptions of football. Surely he must recognize the role of fans as the game's ultimate sponsors.
Not so much. The formula of his nightly show on ESPN is not genuine moral inquiry so much as an amped-up assault on the usual suspects. His take on the Ray Rice suspension was to call for Goodell to resign, as if this would solve the problem.
He did not attempt to connect the dots between Ray Rice and, for instance, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, the most famous player in college football, whom a fellow undergraduate accused of rape in December 2012. (An examination of the alleged victim showed bruises indicative of recent trauma, blood on her shorts, and Winston's semen on her underwear. Despite the physical evidence, he was neither arrested nor disciplined.) Or between Rice and the events that transpired two years ago in Steubenville, Ohio, when much of the community rallied behind two high school football players who had sexually assaulted a drunken teen and filmed the abuse for the enjoyment of classmates. Olbermann didn't even ask his viewers to consider whether it might be ethically suspect to support a league run by Goodell.
In the past few years, the world of sports punditry has diversified and become more sophisticated. ESPN writer Bill Simmons launched Grantland, a web magazine that showcases long, intelligent pieces. Most of them are the handiwork of eloquent wonks. But the site occasionally features articles that address the ethics of football.
Simmons himself wrote a provocative column a few years ago about the so-called Bounty Scandal that arose after Gregg Williams, then–defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, was caught offering his players monetary rewards for injuring opponents.
Simmons observed that the NFL was basically relying on fan hypocrisy to stay afloat. He recounted the horrors suffered by former players now living with dementia. "You hear these things," he confessed. "You sigh, you feel remorse, you forget ... and then you go back to looking forward to the next football season. Gregg Williams crossed the line; he won't be there. I just wish someone would decide, once and for all, where that line really is."
This seems to be about as far as any sports pundit will go in terms of confronting fans about their own complicity. But notice, also, that Simmons is cleverly subtracting himself from the equation. To admit that he and his colleagues in the media shape the public perception of football would raise an uncomfortable question: Why don't they draw the line?
I would be remiss if I failed to mention Deadspin, a sports website that's part of the Gawker media empire. For better and worse, I think of Deadspin as occupying the same niche in relation to sports and media as The Daily Show does in relation to politics. The site offers some original reporting and some refreshing perspective on the hypocrisies that pervade sports and sports punditry.
But the writers at Deadspin, clever as they may be, aren't moralists. They don't often question the inherent ethical dysfunction of football (or any other sport), because ultimately they're parasites that feed upon that dysfunction.
Of all the myths that get tossed around by sports pundits, the most despicable is the idea that football represents a path to redemption. Yes, the noble values instilled by the game are enough to rescue certain boys from ruin.
Nobody ever says it out loud, but these lost boys are understood to be poor and mostly African-American. (As the risk of brain injury causes more suburban parents to yank their children out of football, you can bet this percentage will only increase.)
But the FIC really isn't about building character. It is about building football players. To this end, it essentially harvests young boys, segregates them from the general population, and trains them to run, jump, throw, catch, and tackle. Kids such as Michael Oher, the teen chronicled in Michael Lewis's best-seller The Blind Side, are deemed worthy of rescue based on their physical potential, not their souls or intellects.
And thus by the age of 16 — sometimes much earlier — their sense of worth and identity are predicated almost entirely on athletic performance. This is true of many sports, though football requires controlled violence and a willingness to risk brain injury.
Indisputably, some at-risk kids do find a form of salvation in football. A tiny fraction even makes a living in and around the game, and it is these guys who wind up as the poster children of the FIC. But the essential power structure is that African-American players are coached and paid and traded by white overseers. The values they learn to espouse are not those of the redeemed but of the ruthless.
Consider the words of Giants legend Michael Strahan, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this month. "It's the most perfect feeling in the world to know you've hit a guy just right, that you've maximized the physical pain he can feel," Strahan explained once. "You feel the life just go out of him." Strahan is not some wild-eyed outlier. He's a former CBS broadcaster who is now a member of the Good Morning America team.
If you listen to pigskin punditry long enough, the prevailing racial pattern becomes overt. It's mostly white guys passing judgment on African-American athletes, who are either lionized for their carnal prowess ("beast," "specimen," "freak") or vilified for their turpitude.
One of the most frequent lines of criticism against players is that they care more about money than team loyalty. This may be true. But what is hardly ever mentioned is the nihilistic avarice of the NFL, a league that operates as an unregulated and untaxed cartel.
One of its central functions is essentially to extort local and state politicians by threatening to move teams to a new city. These officials, knowing they'll be turned out of office if they lose a team, often agree to put up vast sums of taxpayer money to build stadiums and infrastructure, the revenues of which further enrich the cartel. Money is siphoned from the public till and poured directly into the pockets of billionaire owners. Meanwhile, loyal pundits continue to mouth the big lie that landing an NFL franchise promises an economic windfall.
The ultimate con peddled by the propagandists of the FIC is this: Football, like capitalism, is really just a benign form of populism, a game that shouldn't be taken too seriously. This attitude is what enables public figures such as President Obama to identify himself as a fan of the game, despite admitting that he would never let any son of his play. For now, despite all the troubling baggage, football remains the most popular form of entertainment in America, with no close second.
Still, if you listen to enough sports talk, you can occasionally hear hints of panic creeping in.
Consider the bizarre manner in which Colin Cowherd concluded his epic rant against Ray Rice and America's culture of violence. For no apparent reason, he played a clip of Ray Lewis, the legendary linebacker who now works as an ESPN analyst. It bears mentioning that Lewis was charged with murder early in his career, stemming from his involvement in a brawl that left two men dead. In a plea deal, the charges were dropped, and he pled guilty to obstruction of justice.
In 2011, when he was still playing, Lewis was asked what would happen if NFL players went on strike.
"Watch how much evil, which we call the crime, picks up if you take away our game," he warned.
"Why do you think that would happen?" he is asked.
"There's nothing else to do," Lewis responds.
It's impossible to know exactly what Lewis means. But the implication seems to be that football is the only thing keeping the poor from staging a violent revolt.
Cowherd's comment about this clip was equally ominous. "I don't know if he's right or not."
I don't, either. But it seems to me that a radio host would have to feel pretty nervous about the fate of a sport in order to suggest that its abolition could provoke a class war. To stoop to this kind of fearmongering strikes me as creepy and protofascist.
Maybe I'm misreading Cowherd, though, so I'll let him have the final word: "We have the data. Let's do something. Cut off the profits. I don't get it. I just do not get it."
Steve Almond's book, Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, arrives in bookstores August 26. Almond spent several years as a staff writer for the Voice's sister paper in Miami and now lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. Follow him on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.
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