At 8:30 pm E.S.T., the NFL jumpstarts its ninety-fifth season with a donnybrook between the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and America's sweetheart hunk of cheddar, the Green Bay Packers. More than 20 million viewers will tune in tonight, and more than 100 million will catch a game over the opening weekend. Football rules the sports landscape. The NFL is king. Break out the nachos and settle in for the 2014 season, right?
Go ahead, but Steve Almond, author of the profound, searching, occasionally squirm-inducing book Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, won't be joining. After four decades of being a devoted Oakland Raiders fan, the father of three is calling it quits. The reasons, which are myriad, include:
*Billionaire owners fleecing taxpayers while lining their pockets
*Fans cheering hits that cause degenerative brain injuries
*A league culture steeped in racism, homophobia, and sexism
*Overt displays of militarism and shallow war metaphors
And the list goes on. I can't lie, Against Football hit me like a snarling linebacker. Almond's searing look at all that ails the NFL (and college football, though it's not his primary focus) is the kind of blunt, well-reasoned argument that should give any humane, intelligent fan pause. One of the many questions Almond asks that I keep turning over: "Should the final goal of player safety reform be to alleviate fan guilt?"
Yet, I know I'll be watching damn near every moment of every Philadelphia Eagles game, just like I've done since before just about every NFL quarterback was born. I'm not ready to quit, but this season will be a bit different. Let my conscience be my pigskin guide? How dare you, Steve Almond.
Patrick Sauer: Was there a game in particular from last season that made you say, "I'm done"?
Steve Almond: There wasn't a single moment, but as I write in Against Football, I think seeing my mom coming face-to-face with dementia last summer was a big part of it. I recognized that this is what football players are unnecessarily subjecting themselves to. Before that, having kids and a family actually tugged me back to football. It connected me to my childhood and my own dad, and the incredible spectacle of the game mitigated the pressures of being a breadwinner for a few hours. Football takes you away from normal life and immerses you in ways other sports don't, but it also obliterates the parts of your brain that factor in moral consideration. Ironically, it was because I was watching so much football that I started to question the sport and what was causing me to become dependent on it.
More and more stories are being written about the ugly truths beyond the sport's façade, particularly how players get so beat up, and the long-term brain damage. I started to realize I was giving time and money to something that represents a lot of things that I'm not okay with, things that plague America. That feeling built up until I had to make a call of either remaining in a state of acknowledged hypocrisy and embarrassed acquiescence, apologizing for watching games, or seriously asking myself, "Why am I still a fan?" I have forty years in with the NFL and had never asked what that means. My mom's temporary cognitive decline shook me up. I found myself questioning the league's business practices, making billions off of players while their brains deteriorate, and that led to other issues of race, sexuality, and gender. Football just got darker and darker.
PS: Your book comes out on the heels of an ugly off-season. The minimal punishment following Ray Rice's domestic violence disaster happened after the book was written and sparked a huge groundswell about what's rotten inside the NFL.
SA: Except that I could take any number of recent scandals and say the same thing. Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Denver Broncos, has to step down because he has Alzheimer's due to genetic misfortune. It's a terrible situation for anyone who has the disease, and yet, he has profitedfrom a business model that calls for brutality and causes CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]. There's always a superficial scapegoat, and then there's the underlying fact that the game is corrosive to the national soul. Against Football is not a week-by-week recounting of criminal behavior or greedy ownership. It's about the enterprise itself and the fans who feed it. If you say, "The NFL is so despicable," then why support it? That's the con here. Sports media is set up to blame somebody else and make the fan feel like the victim, but the fan, as the paying sponsor of the game, is the culprit. We want to sit in judgment while subtracting ourselves from the equation. We're the reason Ray Rice is a big deal, why women are viewed as ornamental sex objects and less human than men from within the league, and why he got a wrist-slap.
PS: I spoke with Bill Buford about the heyday of soccer hooliganism and he said that the build-up to playing once a week made those fans demand a violent release. The soccer thugs had to provide it themselves, but in football, the players take the hits for us, no?
SA: That's the thing, there is always talk – and limited action – around "cleaning up the game," but if we're honest about it, violence is central to football's appeal. Collisions are not incidental. Every play has eleven missiles launching at eleven missiles. The camera follows the ball, but players have minor car accidents inside their helmets on every down. And that's what we enjoy. If the NFL said, "This is crazy. It's too dangerous, so we're going to a flag or two-hand touch format," it wouldn't be football anymore. It would be an interesting test for all the fans who claim to love the grace and athleticism, but abhor the violence. How many people would still watch the NFL? The fabric is woven with brutality, courage, impact, and the pleasure of watching someone lay someone else out – to say "good night" or whatever euphemism you choose.
PS: This is where Against Football made me uncomfortable. I like to think that there are bloodthirsty fans screaming horrible things for "fun," but that I'm part of a more evolved or enlightened crowd focused on the nuance of the game. Am I the one being dishonest?
SA: I didn't write this book five years ago, when nobody was discussing these things, and it would have been really morally courageous if I had done so. Hell, I didn't stop watching the game when Darryl Stingley was paralyzed in front of my eyes in 1978. So, yes, we're the ones who are truly hypocritical. Fans who say life-shortening injuries are "part of the game," or "players get paid a lot," or whatever cheap wallpaper they want to put over their conscience, aren't going to change. But the reluctant fan, the person who supports the game knowing that there are plenty of aspects that don't square with their conscience? We're the ones faking it, contorting ourselves with a cognitive dissonance that's well worn in the American psyche.
PS: The question of, "Would you let your sons play football?" comes up a lot, and even Barack Obama said "No." I wonder if you think that will have an impact on the NFL in the long run, or will it remain a beloved meat market?
SA: You hear this a lot: Football's influence is lessening because fewer kids play it, but nobody knows. I have a strong hunch that we'll see an increase in the ghettoization of the sport – that it will take on an even greater role in underdeveloped communities. Places with great value on educational options, where the thought of sending kids out to play a dangerous game that rattles their brains is anathema to the culture, will have lower participation in youth football. But positions still have to be filled, so football will be amplified in communities where the sport is seen as a path to economic and social salvation. It's predominately boys of color being groomed for the sport, which is horrible. When Obama said that, I thought that he, of all people – biracial and raised by a single mother on the financial edge – should recognize football as a symptom of the much larger issue of inequality. Obama says he's a big football fan, which is part of the regular-guy-bona-fides of all politicians, but he has the moral authority to address the bigger picture. It isn't just concussions or the NFL siphoning money from municipalities to line the pockets of billionaires; it's a pathological need to ignore reality.
PS: Seems to me that as a culture, we've decided to let big business have its way. Isn't the NFL simply acting like any other corporation?
SA: Well, I don't think it's a strong moral case to say America's inherently benighted and corrupt when it comes to wealth-worship, and football is just another part of that. You're right: The prevailing wisdom put out by the league is that an NFL team is a great engine for your local community, so it should reap massive profits and get public funding for new stadiums, or they'll go somewhere else. It's a dubious assertion at best. The NFL and its teams use the devotion and loyalty of fans to get what they want. In 1995, Cleveland Browns' owner Art Modell left and took $300 million from Baltimore. That's money that didn't go to cops, teachers, social workers, or neighborhoods in need.
PS: When it comes to economic reform, I just can't see things changing. Football is way more popular than rebuilding schools.
SA: Why not? It's deeply cynical to think that change is impossible. It's that attitude that's fundamental to those who want to preserve the status quo. Moral progress is inconvenient, and it requires people to be idealistic, to be disappointed, but to keep working. To fix a crappy economic system, we need better narrators who make the issues clear. It's what I'm trying to do in Against Football. I know the sport is stirring and a huge part of American's emotional lives. I've felt it and lived it and give it full credence, but it is also a dangerous and morally corrupt game. I'm not saying, "Ban it!" I'm saying, in an examined life, fans can understand and think about what's truly driving the sport.
PS: Yes, it would be money better spent on soup kitchens or Pre-K, but I'd still rather a player get $20 million than an owner get ten cents.
SA: Sure, but don't delude yourself, the owners are collecting the vast majority of those profits. Ridiculously, the league is a nonprofit enterprise. Revoking that status should have happened forty years ago. Team revenues are private, but it's not hard to look at team valuations via the television contracts and the league profits. Do some basic math, and figure out players are a small part of the equation. And don't forget, their contracts aren't guaranteed.
PS: I used to work in the upper deck at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where I've witnessed ugly fan behavior firsthand, and yet I still think there's at least a small majority of fans who just enjoy football for what it is. What role do they play in the NFL juggernaut?
SA: Reasonable fans generally make for better company than the angry lunatics who give their lives over to football, but the NFL makes almost all of its money from passive fans. Even if you only watch the Super Bowl, you're a consumer who is helping to subsidize the league. It's to a different degree than a season-ticket holder with a dozen jerseys, but we're all part of the cult.
PS: Do you think you'll miss the excitement of the season?
SA: I already do! I didn't watch a single moment of the Oakland Raiders pre-season games, which was tough. And the Raiders suck, so that's as pathetic as it gets. It's easy to publicly renounce something, but if you're a devoted fan like I was, it's hard to quit cold turkey and ignore all those links to all those highlights. We'll see if I can resist the NFL's siren call. I'm right at the beginning of the process, and I have to retrain my brain. It isn't just watching football that I'll miss. It's hanging out with my neighbor – our relaxing ritual. Bonding over watching football, even with strangers, is a legitimate thing. I would never mock that or say it has no value. My hope is that, over time, Against Football gets fans considering football's troubling elements and what it means to prop up the NFL and be part of the moral calculus.
PS: You use the addiction metaphor throughout Against Football, but you're not a heroin junkie whose life will be destroyed if he can't stay clean. Ultimately, if you "relapse," are the stakes that big of a deal?
SA: I would be disappointed in myself. I have to stand by what I've written, or I've just done it as a form of ablution on the way to the game. That's precisely what I'm criticizing. We so-called progressive fans run down the league's flaws to cleanse our spirits, then we head off to the nearest sports bar. At some point, recognizing immorality has to be turned into action. If the Raiders, my lifelong obsession, make the playoffs, I'll be having night sweats. Tie me to the bed, honey. Don't let me near the computer.
PS: Well then, for your sake, I hope the Raiders don't win a game.
SA: I think they'll go 3-13, so my free Sundays might not be so bad after all.
Patrick Sauer is a contributor to the new online magazine NSFW Corp. and has written for publications such as ESPN, Fast Company, Deadspin, The Classical, Huffington Post, and Whim Quarterly. His personal essays have appeared in "The Moment," "Lost & Found," and the "Six-Word Memoir" series. Originally from Billings, Montana, he now stays-at-home-dads in Brooklyn. For more, check out patrickjsauer.com or follow him @pjsauer.
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