Steve Almond talks Against Football with Stephen Elliott

By on Tuesday, September 16th, 2014 at 10:29 am

Steve Almond reading from Against Football, his memoir / manifesto / examination of the sport he loved but can't watch. He read at The Strand in Manhattan alongside Stephen Elliott of the Rumpus

As concerns over the football industry’s head traumas continue to rise, author Steve Almond has released a personal, moral examination of the sport implications for himself as a fan. Spoiler: he gave up watching. Against Football, described as a manifesto, explores Almond’s evolving views on the sport from the way players are treated to the message the game sends to viewers. He was joined at The Strand by Stephen Elliott, founder of The Rumpus, to discuss the book and the sport.

Like many people, Almond first watched football as a child with his parents. He describes it as a moment shared with his father in a household that could be sometimes chaotic and overrun by sons. He describes, for instance, an incident between his twin and his older brother. Almond walked in on his twin waving a carving knife at his older brother because the older brother had stabbed the twin with a fork in a series of escalating silverware battles. Chaos was pervasive in his house, but watching football offered a reprieve.

Eventually though, he began to see the sport as “unwholesome.” He was reviewing Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side, about a white couple who adopts a black boy, helping him navigate his way from high school to college football. In the story, the adopted boy asks whether the white couple would have gone through the trouble of taking care of him if he couldn’t play football. Almond describes the book as the “story of racial exploitation,” saying that the boy is being harvested to be turned into entertainment. This moral ambiguity is absent from the movie, he notes.

The television show Friday Night Lights offers another example, he says. In that show, the high school is merely a set to stage the football game. There is not attempt to convey the actual high school experience, or what is supposed to happen in high school–learning.

He was writing these reviews around the same time his mother fell, injuring her head, and suffering from acute dementia. Her entire personality had changed. Seeing her after the accident was enough for Almond to understand the impact of traumatic brain injuries on personalities, and what that meant for football players enduring an regular onslaught.

Steve Almond and Stephen Elliott discuss Against Football at the Strand

Head injuries and player treatment is not the only objectionable issue Almond has with the NFL or the modern sport. Almond says that football values are wildly out of synch with the modern era. Equally pernicious is the idea of football as an escape route for the underprivileged, particularly people of color. He describes the concept that poor, often black children expect the best case scenario being a successful career in the NFL. “Its essentially the mentality of a lotto ticket,” he says. It demonstrates a greater problem with societal structure that people expect football to save them, especially when so few people succeed.

“It’s not a real solution, he says, adding, “it’s a great distraction.”

Race plays a major issue too. Football is often controlled by older, wealthier white men. Drafting players, he explains, “feels like the optics of a slave auction.”

Almond states that people have been playing violent and bloody sports for centuries. He says though that he sees the escalating violence as a symbol that society is moving toward the end of an imperial cycle–the gladiatorial combats preceded the fall of Rome. Violent sport is a distraction from the greater structural problems facing society–inequality, racism, injustice.

Nevertheless, he sees football as a beautiful and complex game. “I will never stop loving watching the game,” he says, even if he won’t watch it anymore. Boycotting viewing is different than no appreciating it. He has a great deal of respect for the sport and the performances of the players. “We love to watch greatness.” But at a certain point, he says, everyone must interrogate their pleasures.

Football has become a moral question for him. He says he doesn’t believe in the values that the sport projects: men, wearing uniforms, are expected to violently attack each other while women are sexual ornaments. The values, he says, are those more appropriate to the 1550s, and more to the point, values he doesn’t want to impute on his eight-year-old daughter.

“Universities should spend their resources on the business of universities,” he says, describing the merging of the university system and professional sports as a problem. He is a disappointed too in his own alma mater, Wesleyan, for building up their football team. He has some choice words to describe the college president who has insisted on investing in the team. Ultimately, he describes college football as “capitalism on steroids.”

The biographies of football players are filled with the descriptions of their bodies being abused and battered. Fans have no comprehension of the physical abuse players endure just to play an ordinary game. They take pain pills and anti-inflammatories as part of their ordinary routine. The players often leave the NFL addicted to pills of some kind. The careers of most players are short too, and despite these problems are left with little money. Even the lottery winners may not end up with very much in the end.

Ultimately for Almond, the choice to watch or not watch the sport must be a moral one. He knows its probably an unpopular opinion to reject football as he has done, but so far he has received only one death threat. It came through Twitter, but he adds, he can’t take seriously a threat that the writer was only willing to commit 140 characters to.

Steve Almond and Stephen Elliott
Monday, September 15, 2014
The Strand

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