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Book Review: ‘Against Football’

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Book Review: ‘Against Football’


The National Football League has become a scandal machine. Powered by a recently released video, the media spotlight is now shining brightly on former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who punched his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who claimed he hadn’t seen the video before it was released to the public, has asked former FBI chief Robert Mueller to conduct an investigation of the incident. It’s no isolated case; NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence 85 times since 2000.

That kind of violence is a serious problem for the NFL, but it’s not the league’s only headache. Last year, it agreed to pay $765 million to settle 4,500 lawsuits from former players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, and other afflictions related to head injuries incurred on the field. The NFL admitted no wrongdoing, but a 2013 Frontline documentary showed that the league sponsored dubious medical studies to support its claim that no players had suffered brain damage. In 2005, the New York Jets’ team physician, who was the lead author on nine of those studies, even called for the retraction of a peer-reviewed article about the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. Before his death at age 50, the Hall of Fame center suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression. A 2002 autopsy revealed that he also had CTE.

The settlement was another black eye for the NFL, but after a full decade of mendacity and obfuscation, it was the best way to keep the cash registers ringing. The league now generates more than $9 billion in annual revenue, and $44 million of that lands in the pocket of Roger Goodell. Nobody doubted that the show would go on.

The NCAA has its football problems, too: not only routine headlines about recruiting violations, but also Taylor Branch’s broader indictment in his 2011 Atlantic cover story, “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his books on Dr. Martin Luther King, claimed there was an “unmistakable whiff of the plantation” in the way college football and basketball generated huge sums of cash for everyone but the athletes. The same year, Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation between 1994 and 2009. Penn State’s president, athletic director, and head football coach resigned amid allegations that the university enabled or covered up the crimes, for which Sandusky received a minimum sentence of 30 years. The moral of that sad story was that preserving Penn State’s football program was thought to be more important than protecting young boys, one of whom was sodomized in the team’s shower room.

What’s a football fan to do? Fiction writer and essayist Steve Almond feels your pain and wants to intensify it. For four decades, the Bay Area native carefully followed the once mighty and now woeful Oakland Raiders. But in Against Football, he maintains that football has become too toxic for him to enjoy. And you shouldn’t enjoy it, either.

Almond’s book isn’t a manifesto; rather, it’s a searching and personal essay on the game and its powerful appeal. His attitude throughout is deep ambivalence. For him, football is “a lovely and intricate form of art” that is “perfectly engineered to hit our bliss point.” Unfortunately, it’s also shrouded in a culture of violence, crony capitalism, racism, and homophobia. Furnishing examples of each social disorder, Almond also reminds us that the NFL goes out of its way to promote militarism. The Armed Forces are major sponsors, fighter jets buzz the stadiums, and remote feeds from military bases are commonplace. The NFL allowed the White House to use the 1991 Super Bowl as an infomercial for the Gulf War, which launched 11 days before that game. Addressing the massive television audience at halftime, President Bush described that conflict as his Super Bowl. When the second Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003, the league held a kickoff concert at the National Mall. “Supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL,” the league’s official website declares.

Almond understands what he’s up against, and he sorts opposing views into several buckets. The first is a kind of flat amorality that passes for realism. “Football is the most popular thing in America,” ESPN commentator Scott Van Pelt said in response to the Frontline documentary. “Not the most popular sport. The most popular thing.” As an argument, Almond writes, Van Pelt’s reaction is “creepy and frankly fascistic.” But he nowhere contradicts Van Pelt’s assessment. Indeed, football’s enormous popularity only dramatizes the moral problems Almond raises.

Another reaction mirrors Almond’s own for many years. Many fans acknowledge the NFL’s shortcomings but dissociate them from the considerable pleasures of spectatorship. Upon interviewing the Boston University brain scientist who has painstakingly documented the game’s destructive effects, Almond discovers she’s a diehard New England Patriots fan. He also recounts a friend’s plea after learning about his book’s thesis: “Please don’t take this away from me.”

The third kind of reaction says a lot about the male culture the NFL helps to create. After Almond wrote a related piece for The New York Times Magazine, he received copious hate mail, a large portion of which referred to the size of his vagina.

Certainly more fans are expressing discomfort with the game and the NFL, but much of the backlash has focused on broader social problems rather than the damage the game itself produces every day. The league could be perfect on domestic violence, for example, and still be a menace. For this reason, the backlash seems unlikely to lead to the systemic reform or outright boycott Almond recommends. Current levels of disgust with the NFL resemble those reserved for our industrial food system or besmirched financial institutions. Some of us will become vegetarians or move our money to less rapacious local banks; others will simply harbor fewer illusions about those institutions and their leadership.

Meanwhile, more parents are wondering whether their children should play football in the first place. President Obama claimed that if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play pro football. “I don’t really know where to begin here,” Almond writes. “Is the life of Obama’s hypothetical son worth more than the lives of the kids who grow into pros?” He thinks the president should “admit that it’s wrong to watch a sport so dangerous he wouldn’t let his own son play it.” Yet Obama’s comment probably reflects the views of many middle-class parents. Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin predicts that football will increasingly resemble boxing: a pathway out of poverty but a rare option for suburban children. If Zirin is right, the NFL may have trouble reaching their next financial goal: $25 billion in annual revenues, much of it expected to come from attracting more female fans. One wonders how many more American women will embrace a game that’s damaging brains, employing scores of domestic abusers, and wrapping the whole package in the American flag.

Almond has a knack for putting human faces on these issues. Toward the end of his essay, he recounts his mother’s sudden and rapid descent into dementia. In one week, she changed from a high-functioning psychoanalyst to an invalid requiring ’round-the-clock care. Almond describes her response to that decline. “One night, as I tried to explain to her for perhaps the 10th time that she could not go home yet, she looked at me in a panic. ‘Something terrible is happening to me,’ she said, and began to weep inconsolably.” Her dementia turned out to be a reaction to her medication; once home, she recovered quickly. “But no one,” Almond writes, “can come face to face with dementia and look at football in the same way. At least, I couldn’t.”

Almond doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but sometimes it’s enough to raise the right questions at the right time. Against Football does that with disarming humor and humanity.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

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Peter Richardson

The book review editor at The National Memo, Peter also teaches humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University. His publications include No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America (2009); and American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams (2005). In 2013, he won the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism.

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  1. Stuart September 19, 2014

    Unbelievably blinkered.

    Murderous cops don’t get prosecuted. No gun control laws passed after Newtown. Religious fundamentalism, east and west, shows superstition is still preferable to verifiable fact.

    And you’re whining about the NFL?

    1. adler56 September 19, 2014

      Problems you pointed out do need some attention but it doesn’t lessen the need to send the NFL back to leather helmets or better yet- no helmets. Even with all the injuries the moron college dropouts
      continue to use their helmets as a battering ram. That’s not how players tackled before it became the money machine it is today.

    2. 2ThinkN_Do2 September 19, 2014

      What gun control laws that anyone considered would prevent Newtown; all the right laws exist. It’s enforcement of laws that is lacking. It’s responsibility of owners and or parents that is lacking. It’s facing up to the fact that someone you love needs professional help.

    3. Sand_Cat September 21, 2014

      Well, there is that.
      But this article is about the NFL.

  2. adler56 September 19, 2014

    I agree that the NFL sucks and should be shut down but to drag Penn State into this without mentioning that Republicans were behind the decisions not to prosecute Sandusky in the 80’s or 90’s is really low. Also Joe Paterno DID NOT resign. He was fired after 60 years- with a phone call- so there’s more proof Republicans were running this game. Who would fire someone with the
    reputation he had -over the phone? Right- republicans would. As for the claim that a kid was sodomized in the locker room – that’s not a fact but it’s been said so often that many people think it is. Joe Paterno made less than $1 million up until his last year or two- his replacement was hired at a higher salary with no experience as a head coach so money was not the motivator as it obviously was for Goodell who takes home $44 million a year for turning his head to the abuses of players and by players.

    1. Josiah Longknife September 19, 2014

      Huh? The abuse is a fact, a fact proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As far as Paterno, it is also a fact that he knew of the accusations. As a member of the faculty, he had a duty according to PA law to report the allegations. He did not do this; but, tried to keep it “in house”. How is what happened at Penn State either Republican or Democrat?

  3. joe schmo September 19, 2014

    Why is it that most liberals have to emasculate everything. Nothing is sacred anymore or free from the emotions of the PC police. I honestly look forward to the sports seasons, specifically the World Series and the Super Bowl, but nothing is more revolting than the notion that Sports should become demonized by influencing that stigma with words such as ‘crony capitalism,’ ‘racism,’ and ‘homophobia.’

    Aren’t most sports supposed to be a positive thing in a world gone array. Apparently no longer.

    Simple solution – suspend permanently any player caught in any wrongdoing. That will send a clear message across the bow that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. if you want to keep your ‘multi-million dollar contract’ you better get your shit together or else.

    1. nana4gj September 19, 2014

      Football is not and has never been, will never be, “sacred”. There is nothing so special about football that society should accept from football players what is not accepted in decent, organized society. There is nothing a pro football player contributes to society that makes them so special that they are above the law, that they can remain playing in games after they are charged with a crime and awaiting the “full process of the law”.

      For all of the big money, hype, and obsession with the game, the NHL is a very dumb, underdeveloped, shallow organization. It’s a syndicate, making money for someone and throwing millions at the even dumber players just to keep them playing so the NFL can make money, be exempted from taxes, and do absolutely nothing for society but “entertain”. claiming to be a “non profit” organization.

      The only thing “non profit” about the NFL is that it profits society nothing. There are no schools built, no hospitals, no medical research funded programs. The NFL and pro football is a liability and it is costing society too much to maintain it. The NFL doesn’t even take care of it’s own, much less the rest of society.

      1. joe schmo September 19, 2014

        Wrong! Americans are avid sports goers. It goes right along with that competitive spirit that we have. Being competitive is a human trait that every human possesses.

        Besides, our children are brought up with sports. It’s right up there with good old fashioned Mom, Pop and Apple pie. Many young boys aspire to be great ball players. The influence is immense. It’s sort of a coming out and group team spirit kind of thing between boys and men. These players should set perfect examples for young people.

        Yes, ballplayers do make too much money, but I don’t agree with you in regards to not contributing anything valid to society. Where the news is literally depressing, sports are a positive in our lives. I used to think art did not give much back to society until I studied it. It not only portrays history for future generations, it also taps the emotions by making people happy or sad:)

        I’m not sure what you are referring to by costing society too much. Everything is made through ticket sales. What does that have to do with wasted money. It is our choice to watch sports and the advertisers for paying for the time slot.

        1. nana4gj September 19, 2014

          I can agree with you in theory. But, I cannot agree with you that what is produced by NFL pro football today is anything for our children to aspire to.

          NFL is contributing to depressing news, in the increasing incidence of mal-adaptive behaviors of the athletes and in the shocking lack of moral compass and responsibility of management, which is the simple and most direct answer to why they have not “gotten it right”.

          Somewhere along the way, pro football has lost all of the nobility of which you speak. Somewhere along the way, pro football chose to value the ability to make money, and lots of it, above all else, even above the safety and well-being of their athletes, and, obviously, the safety and well-being of children. The inherent lack of respect for women is clear, but, some women have invited that, unfortunately. More unfortunately, that disrespect of women has extended into the seemingly lack of concern when their athletes inflict violence upon women and the NFL is unmoved until and unless public outcry has potential impact on their ability to make money.

          At today’s press conference, Godell seemed to be mouthing concepts, notions, plans, that heretofore must have been foreign to him. Where two weeks ago he had no idea that domestic abuse or child abuse was illegal and offensive, and was strictly a private matter, today, he has been informed that it is illegal, crippling, and a very public issue. He also has been informed on the many resources struggling to meet the needs of the victims.

          Ignorance is why the value system in the NFL is screwed up. Cave man ignorance in the year 2014.

          The costs to society from idolizing pro football, from turning it from competitive sports to garish entertainment with frenzied hysteria and obsession of tin gods who should be excused for behaving as untamed animals, are great.

        2. Sand_Cat September 21, 2014

          While I have lost my enthusiasm for sports, bravo to your other comments.
          The players make too much because fans are willing to pay too much and our culture is too crazed about sports and competition, in my opinion. The fans aren’t paying to see the “owners,” and few if any of the owners even contribute to the stadiums, so – given that what I consider to be obscene amounts of money are coming in – shouldn’t the guys who do the work and take the physical risks get most of the money?

    2. dougom September 19, 2014

      Well, at least he didn’t say “libtards”.

    3. Paul Bass September 19, 2014

      Though I rarely agree with you, (being a lifelong yellow dawg), I say two thumbs up!
      Exactly, I mean, the NFL has a convicted murderer on the payroll! And this is a good example for our children?

    4. Sand_Cat September 21, 2014

      I like your solution, but I think the money says otherwise.
      Even “permanent” suspensions seem to fade away when there’s money to be made.

  4. howa4x September 19, 2014

    People like the NFL because it is organized violence and it’s a place to put those fantasies in a game. I played football in HS as a right of masculine passage has most men in America. I was encouraged to inflict pain on others through a violent hit on an opposing player. The NFL is us really. The spousal abuse and child abuse are epidemic in our culture as well as the rest of the world. ISIS captures young Yazdi’ women as a sexual reward for their commanders. Boko Harem does the same thing with young Christian women, selling them into sexual slavery. Child sex trafficking is rampant. Football is the culmination of all that violence and the players who play at higher levels get away with sexual assault from HS through college so why should we have a different expectation of them in the pros? It is a game that is symptomatic of the entire world.

  5. nana4gj September 19, 2014

    The public outrage re NFL football is not about being “politically correct”. This should have nothing to do with “politics” or political ideology.

    It has nothing to do with how a pro footballer was “disciplilned” as a child. Domestic and child abuse certainly has nothing to do with “love”. That’s why there are laws against domestic and child abuse.

    It has to do with criminal behavior, that of treating football players as above the law, enabling learned bad behaviors, and a slew of distorted values within the system that is all for the purpose of making huge money. It really has nothing to do with the sport anymore.

    The sport should be enough because there are enough people who actually enjoy the sport. It does not have to be so violent a sport, however. It does not need the circus atmosphere, the hysteria, hype, obsession, the big Broadway slate of entertainers at half time. It doesn’t need to use sexy women to draw buy tickets, watch on TV, or stay past half time to watch.

    It’s football. It’s not world peace; cancer cures, space exploration, life saving surgery, nor does it address any of society’s ill, in fact, it appears it contributes to society’s ills.. It’s just football, for which some of those players are paid, reportedly, outrageous money. It isn’t just clean fun, anymore, either.

    Personally, I have never liked the game. I don’t like the crunching and cracking of bodies and, try as I might when my sons played one season each in Jr High, I never could understand the game. But, that’s just me. I don’t like the circus atmosphere of the game and none of the players, ever, have peaked an interest sufficient to learn the game. I love basketball and baseball. One season for my sons, just to indulge their desire, was enough, with one of them suffering a life long eye injury.

    Now, I abhor it and find it to be nothing but a zoo of wild animals with no control over their raw instincts, and a system that does absolutely nothing to help the college graduate who moves into pro football develop and grow his character into a responsible adult. They throw big money at them to live the good life, full of bling and arm candy, shelter them from responsibility for their behavior off the field, and, by the time they retire, they have arrested developed characters as well as organic brain injuries.

    It’s all just money and that’s because of the fanatical fans.

    There is nothing to debate about domestic and child abuse. It’s not a matter of public opinion. It’s against the law. Players should not be playing football if charged with, suspected of, reported for domestic or child abuse, threats of violence to others, rape, murder, etc.

    Why is that so hard? Because the top tier of the NFL, including managers, sound no more developed in intelligence or character than their players. They sound like cave men. They haven’t a clue.

    Football used to be known as a “dumb sport” and football players as being big, dumb oafs. That may still be true, covered up by all the hype, bling, circus trappings, and big money involved for everyone.

    If they are all too dumb to see the problem, to do anything about it, then it’s up to society to “train” the animals. Stop the big money that feeds the beast. Nothing is more important than the well-being of a child. And, until women learn that it is not healthy to become involved with pro football players, I guess they will still allow themselves to be exploited, seek it out, in fact, until they get beaten up and receive enough professional help to release them from the Battered Woman Syndrome that then keeps them in the cage with their animal.

    As for the sponsors and advertisers, the only one I knew of before they weighed in on this, was Anheiser-Busch, because everyone knows beer is football and football is beer. The rest of them offer nothing that cannot be had from another source.

    All of us should stop feeding these animals in the zoo.

  6. nana4gj September 19, 2014

    The NFL should have its season suspended. They need a “time out” to clean themselves up, top to bottom. They should stop their plans for big-name half time entertainers and focus on the jail time of their players. But, they would need leadership and management several cuts above that demonstrated and exposed of late. The only other situation wherein I witnessed such inept, clumsy management due to obvious ignorance, was with the Ferguson, St. Louis, police depts. You cannot “seem to be” something you are not when the stuff all hits the fan.

  7. 2ThinkN_Do2 September 19, 2014

    What’s the difference between a Teacher, Priest, Doctor or Professional Athlete (to name a few) . . mostly Wages and Social Exposure. It’s not an NFL only issue, these actions are an International Human Issue that has been going on for 1000’s of years. Near instant, national and even worldwide media exposure of these psychological issues has opened the gates of . . . . well you know and now everyone is seeing reality for what it truly is, instead of the cover that used to be all we saw, most of the time.

  8. dougom September 19, 2014

    This is the key quote: “One wonders how many more American women will embrace a game that’s damaging brains, employing scores of domestic abusers, and wrapping the whole package in the American flag.” One wonders how *anyone* can embrace it. I certainly can’t.

    1. Ken Netzel September 21, 2014

      So the only people who commit domestic violence are NFL players? How stupid can you possibly be? This is not an NFL problem, it is a societal problem. These just happen to be athletes who are in the public eye. The argument that the NFL, or any other employer, needs to police the personal behavior of its employees is asinine. Would you tolerate that at your place of employment?

      1. Sand_Cat September 21, 2014

        The violence of the sport and its popularity reflect the violence of the culture. Does it channel the violence into acceptable outlet, or just help increase the overall level?
        Don’t think dougom was saying only the NFL has these problems. No need to be so defensive (or offensive).

      2. dougom September 21, 2014

        As Sand_Cat notes, I wasn’t saying “the only people who commit domestic violence are NFL players”. And the issue is that NFL is knowingly covering up the issue, denying it is a problem and, when its employees are found to be guilty of it, trying to either close their eyes and wish it away, or offer minimum consequences and hoping that’s enough.

        And to compare a tech writer toiling in an essentially anonymous role in a giant tech firm with a high-profile professional athlete, many of whom hold themselves up–or are held up by their teams or the league as a whole–as role models, that’s asinine. I don’t do my work on national TV and in front of an audience of millions of people; no one buys my company’s jerseys with “Moran” stitched on the back; no one asks me to speak in front of youth groups; etc. It’s not even apples to oranges; it’s apples to surfboards.

  9. mikes2653 January 25, 2015

    Let’s begin with the observation that NFL football players are disproportionately black.

    We know that there are high levels of violence in the black community; though blacks comprise only 13% of the population, more than 50% of homicides in the U.S. are committed by black offenders, the great majority of whom are young males (ages 16-30). Thus, an extraordinary amount of violent behavior in our society takes place within this relatively small segment of the population.

    When that same segment is the one that is disproportionately recruited to play professional football, is it not logical to expect that those who are recruited will display social pathologies at a comparable level as do others of their background? The spousal abuse, child abuse, and animal abuse cases that we’ve seen widely reported in the past few years all have involved black players. Is it “racist” to notice that?

    It’s not the sport that’s at fault. Rather, it’s that you can take the kid out of the ghetto – and perhaps pay him millions of dollars – but you can’t take the ghetto out of the kid.


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