Confronting the Dark Side of Football: A Q&A with Steve Almond

Can football fans help save the sport from itself?

We’ve heard the suicide stories of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. We’ve watched Tony Dorsett, Brett Favre, and other NFL legends admit to memory loss and depression, both symptoms of CTE, an impact-induced brain trauma (that cannot be officially diagnosed until after death). We’ve seen Frontline’s League of Denial documentary and read the growing list of articles and books from journalists and former players that detail the awful afterlives of many professional football players.

Meanwhile, the NFL has been growing its business every year.

Fans may have heard reports about the dark side of football — which is not limited to head trauma — but many have not taken the next step: looking at their own dark side, the complex moral problem of loving and supporting this beautiful and brutal game.

steve-almond-against-footballSteve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto is an invitation to take that step. Witty, informed, engrossing, and entertaining, Against Football is the book that’s been missing from our national conversation about the sport and the way we watch it. It’s a true fan’s perspective, and it’s a persuasive call to action for anyone who loves football and hopes we can save it from itself.

I asked Almond a few questions about his book.

In what way is the popularity of football in America a spiritual crisis?

In the same way, for instance, that the gladiatorial games were to the Romans. The game poses a basic moral question: is it right to consume as a form of entertainment a game so violent that some of its players wind up brain damaged? Is it right for such a game to have infiltrated our educational system? Is it right that the NFL and NCAA have converted our athletic devotion into engines of nihilistic greed? That millions of tax dollars wind up being spent to build stadiums, while our public schools and roads crumble?

More fundamentally: what would Jesus have thought of the modern game of football? Does the modern game comport with the lessons he offered on the Sermon on the Mount? And if not, why do we still watch?

These are all questions that people of faith, in particular Christians, should be thinking about. There’s a connection between the Christian fixation on the wounded body as signifier of devotion and the way we think about football players and exalt them for sacrificing their bodies on the altar of their athletic talents.

Football is the single most popular cultural activity in America. Tens of millions of our citizens worship on Sunday (and on Saturday and Friday and . . .). And as a long-time fan, I know how pleasurable the game can be. But this is the nature of temptation. To me, the popularity of the game isn’t a spiritual crisis. It’s a moral evasion. The whole point of my book is to plead with fans to confront the dark side of the game, to apply the same Christian morality to football that they do to other areas of their lives.

Like many fans, you’ve been hearing bad news about football for years, but for a long time you kept watching and cheering. What happened to make you call it quits?

Much of it had to do with seeing my mother — a fiercely intelligent woman — suddenly descend into a delirium. This happened last summer, just after the birth of my third child, and it was deeply terrifying. Seeing her so disoriented, so unaware of where she was and even who she was, cut through all my excuses and rationalizations. I could no longer hide from myself what happens to some players after they leave the game. And this started me down the path of viewing football not just as a form of entertainment but as a moral activity.

Once I started to do that, it became more and more clear that the game fosters within us attitudes that are anything but Christian. It suppresses our empathy. It fosters antiquated views of both men and women. Men are supposed to be tough and savage and without remorse. Woman are supposed to be sexual and ornamental objects. The game profers the degrading notion that kids from our most economically vulnerable neighborhoods should learn to excel at a violent game if they want a ticket out. We fans have no interest in the content of their character, or the quality of their intellect. We just want them to dress up in pads and entertain us.

Is boycotting football the only solution for the conscience-stricken football fan?

For me, anyway, it was the only solution. You can’t simultaneously condemn a game and continue to sponsor it. We vote with our wallets in America. The NFL is a corporation that generates ten billions dollars per annum. They have a cash register where their conscience should be. They’re not going to do anything to reform the game until fans turn away in sufficient numbers. That’s just capitalism: if it makes money, don’t fix it.

You argue that watching football makes us “less willing and able to engage with the struggles” facing America. The same thing might be said of other big-time entertainments like movies, TV, and video games, but is there something unique about football that both perpetuates and blinds us to national problems?

Football is hugely popular because it combines so many American passions: the hunger for spiritual regeneration through violence, the illusion of a binary moral system (my team versus the enemy), the desire to connect to the intuitive pleasures of play, the yearning we have to see excellence in motion. It goes on and on.

The game is also brilliantly engineered to combine dense strategy with primal aggression. It’s the game that comes closest to selling us the myth that combat can be beautiful and risk-free, something we can watch without feeling our conscience pricked. At the same time — and this is central to its allure — the game is “real” in a way that other forms of popular culture aren’t. The men playing really do put their lives at risk. They are insanely and gravely focused. And that’s deeply compelling to citizens living in an age of distraction.

What do you hope happens in the 2014 football season to move this conversation forward?

Honestly, my hope in writing Against Football wasn’t to abolish the game or suggest that it’s mindless cruelty. Just the opposite. I wanted to honor to beauty of the game and to confront its moral hazards. I wanted to start a larger conversation about why we need a brutal game to feel sanctified.

So my hope is that people will read the book and, whether they like it or not, will join the conversation. We the fans built the game. We own it. We should have the courage and conviction to face the darkness within the game — and ourselves.

Visit the Against Football website for more information, and follow Steve Almond on Twitter.

Patton Dodd
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