Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto By Steve Almond, $23.
As a child, my favorite book was They Call Me Assassin by Jack Tatum, the hard-hitting safety of the Oakland Raiders. I read it over and over again, reveling in the life of the Raiders’ most notorious player, the man who was so tough, he paralyzed New England Patriot Darryl Stingley with a single blow. Then I read Stingley’s book, Happy to Be Alive. Before reading his book, Stingley had existed to me as an abstract, and then suddenly he was a real human being, one who’d been maimed. I surely didn’t know the term at age 12, but what I recall feeling was the onset of moral relativism, a sense that has lasted for all of my rabid-football watching life.
That same dawning realization that you’re cheering for someone’s long-term infirmary is the centerpiece of Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It’s hardwired into us from a young age: We watch games and then go out and mimic the big plays and hits in our yards, because, “That’s what kids do. We’re a mimetic species. We see greatness, and we try to locate a version of it in our own bodies.”
But what Almond’s book argues—and what’s so pervasively dissected in one of Almond’s main sources, League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru—is that this very mimesis feeds into a corrupt system, particularly as it relates to the health of its players. Almond doesn’t do the intensive legwork that exists in League of Denial (if you want the shorthand version, the excellent Frontline documentary of the same title will chill you); rather he explicates it from the barstool and his own life, working through the arguments we have about the most popular sport in America in a systematic fashion, with his noted wit and self-deprecation, the result of which lands harder when you turn on the news.
Junior Seau kills himself. Ray Rice punches his fiancée. Adrian Peterson is indicted for child abuse. Three in 10 football players will end up with dementia. And when the NFL knows about these issues and does nothing but attempt to “protect the shield,” you get the sense that you’re endorsing a criminal enterprise. At least in the Mob they shoot you in the back of the head before you become useless. So why do we still love the game? Almond posits that, “it’s the one huge cultural space where we can safely indulge … our lust for violence, our racial neuroses, our yearning for patriarchal domination, our sexual hang-ups. It’s the place where men get to be boys—before the age of reason, before the age of guilt.”
There are no easy answers found in Almond’s book—and it’s an intentionally provocative argument being made, obviously—but what it surely does is get you to think about what you’re doing on Sundays, what you’re paying to watch and how we could possibly let children play the game.