“The point of this book isn’t to shit on your happiness,” author Steve Almond insists in Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Football, after all, has given America much happiness, and Almond spends 170-plus pages detailing all that is wrong with the sport. But it is not a blind critique. Almond is a football fan himself, emotionally invested in the Oakland Raiders since childhood. And in his book, which hit shelves last week, he explores the moral quandary that football fans face as research continues to reveal the sport’s damaging long-terms effects on the brains of its players.
Almond, who will speak at the Strand on Monday, recently discussed with the Voice his thoughts on America’s relationship with football and what he hopes readers take from the book.
VV: Given that participation in Pop Warner is declining for the first time in the organization’s history, it appears that more and more parents choose to keep their kids out of football. Between this drop in participation (and, presumably, a smaller future talent pool) and the increasing guilt many fans feel about watching the game, when do you think football’s reign as America’s most popular sport ends? Will basketball (or soccer?) at some point surpass it, the way football surpassed baseball in the ’60s?
SA: That’s up to the fans. At this point, football is at least five times more popular than any other sport. And it’s played and watched more at all levels (high school, college, pro). It’s also more exciting to most fans than soccer or basketball, because it’s more violent, more suspenseful, more strategically dense — more dramatically satisfying. It’s pretty much like heroin for serious fans. And it’s not gonna be easy for them to transition to other sports. But it’s also clear that the perception of the game is shifting, and this is being registered in those neighborhoods where a protective parenting culture is coming up against the established physical risks of the game. I’m sorry to sound wishy-washy here. But nobody knows what’s going to happen with the medical research. Or whether a prominent player will be killed or paralyzed on national TV. What I can say for sure is that no one ever lost money betting on the American capacity for unwholesome consumption. (Ask McDonald’s and Coke and Philip Morris.) The NFL is also a multibillion-dollar industry, as is the NCAA. They have what they enjoy calling “a terrific product.” They also have a powerful symbiotic relationship with corporate America and with the corporate press. I don’t expect football to go quietly into that good night.
VV: How much of football’s popularity in America is because of the game’s particular appeal to our particular culture, and how much has been artificially induced by the powers of the NFL and television networks?
SA: I’m not sure “artificially induced” makes sense to me. People’s feelings about football — no matter how they are elicited — are very real. The game makes fans feel deeply. It brings them alive in ways that other aspects of their life don’t. And I say that as a hardcore fan for four decades. What the NFL and the TV networks have done, very cannily, is to turn an inherently fascinating game into a brilliantly framed spectacle. They’ve made consuming the game easy and delicious. And good on them, frankly. That’s the American way. But football itself, even without all the bells and whistles, strikes the happy gong within Americans. It’s a game that offers fans clear masculine ideals to worship (courage, strength, power, self-sacrifice). It offers us a sense of spiritual regeneration through violence. It scratches at our itch for tribal affiliation. It offers us a form of combat that feels morally coherent and even heroic. It returns us to a state of moral simplicity, before the age of reason and guilt. These are things that football does before the marketing guys even get in the room.
VV: Many who have played football, and continue to support it, cite the mental toughness it cultivates in participants: the idea of feeling fear before the snap and then having no choice but to face it, in the form of a collision with the opponent across from you. Only in football, a supporter can argue, can a young person develop this level of physical and mental resiliency. Would a society that loses football lose certain positive virtues?
SA: Yeah, I hear this argument a lot. And I’m certainly not going to argue with people who played organized football, or have coached, and found that it helped develop character. But the idea that football is the only way to overcome fear or develop discipline…is an absurd and degrading myth. After all, very few young women play football; does this mean they have no hope of developing true grit? Kids face adversity all the time — in classrooms, at home, on the playground. There’s no doubt that sports can help them develop the strength of character to “get back up.” But so can a loving parent or a dedicated teacher or an inspiring pastor or a great book. The way I’d look at it is that our society would probably be better off if we found other, less overtly destructive, ways to instill the virtues you cite.
VV: In the epilogue, you mention “practical steps” to address the sport’s moral hazards. But what is your ideal (possibly impractical) scenario for the future of football? That the game is completely banned? That it exists with certain conditions/improvements?
SA: Here’s what I want: for fans to face the totality of what football is in this country rather than making a bunch of flimsy excuses to justify watching. Then for those fans — as individual human beings — to do as their conscience recommends. Period. My book isn’t aiming at reforming the game, or banning it. I want people to be in a state of moral struggle. I know Americans hate that. They want the bottom line: “What would you do, Almond?” But not every problem can be reduced to a soundbite solution. And football is a big problem. It’s the most popular and profitable form of entertainment in America, and it’s also deeply morally troubled. But this is America. People get to decide what forms of entertainment they want to consume. I happen to believe that moral progress is inconvenient, but that it is also possible. I suspect that a lot of Americans, women especially, have gone along with football because it seemed so important to the men in their lives. And that’s changing. So the game will, I imagine, become less popular, the same way boxing did a century ago. To be clear, though, the book is about personal reckoning, not mass reform.
VV: How, if at all, do you think the process of writing this book would have been different if the Raiders had been in the midst of a run of dynastic success over the past five or so years? Would it have been possible to assess the sport with as clear a mind?
SA: No. I probably wouldn’t have written the book if the Raiders hadn’t been so bad. When your team is playing well, you don’t go searching for answers as to why you watch or what it means. You just don’t. You focus on the triumphs, the good feelings that football (or any sport) engenders when your team is hot. So I guess I should thank the Raiders for putting me through hell for the last 15 years. And yes, it’s true that I could have switched allegiances to the Patriots when I moved to Boston 15 years ago, and I would have been much happier as a fan if I’d done so. But the dirty little secret to watching sports is that it’s not just about winning. It’s about managing disappointment when your team loses. Trust me. I had a lot of practice.
VV: Forgive me if I missed this in the book, but do you watch football at all these days? If not, when did you stop? If you do still watch, do you think you will ever stop?
SA: I stopped watching college football last year, and pro ball before the Super Bowl, so I’m, like, eight months sober. And I’m trying to stay sober. It’s not easy, mostly because a lot of my friends still watch the game and love it. And I miss hanging out with them. I miss having that place of refuge where I can retreat from the moral complexities and disappointments of adult life and just gorge myself on grace and barbarism. And chicken wings.
VV: How do you predict America’s relationship with football will look 50 years from now?
SA: Again, that’s up to the fans. I don’t have a crystal ball. And the honest-to-God truth is that my ideal endgame is simply to stop caring (and thinking and talking) about the game. I’d like to find better ways to spend my brief time on earth.