American football officially began in the years following the Civil War. A crude blend of soccer and rugby, the sport was brutal, with a fast-and-loose set of rules that gave it the appearance of a gang fight. In 1905, 19 players died, and another 137 were injured; the Chicago Tribune called the season a “death harvest.” President Theodore Roosevelt finally intervened, calling a group of influential sportsmen to the White House in order to help transform the game.
Reforms followed, such as legalizing the forward pass and penalizing unsportsmanlike conduct. The sport became safer, and by midcentury it had entered a golden age of players like quarterback Johnny Unitas and fullback Jim Brown. Games were televised, and in the late sixties the Super Bowl was created.
Today pro football is the unparalleled giant of the sports world. In 2014 forty-five of the fifty top-rated television broadcasts were football games. More Americans follow football than follow Major League Baseball, NBA basketball, and NASCAR racing combined. The National Football League (NFL) earns nearly $10 billion a year in profits, with an expressed goal of $25 billion. During the season, Americans spend more time watching football than going to religious services. Pro football has become the spectacle that unites people in this country more than any other.
“But it has a dark side,” says author Steve Almond.
For four decades Almond was a consummate fan, soaking up all that football offered. Then, in 2014, he did the unthinkable: he stopped. No more games. No more listening to sports talk radio. He would become football fandom’s conscientious objector.
In Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto he writes, “Our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” A New York Times bestseller, the book is an eloquent examination of America’s most popular sport — in particular, the aspects many fans tend to ignore: its astounding injury rate, its exaggeration of gender stereotypes, and its inherent violence.
Born in 1966, Almond grew up an Oakland Raiders fan in Palo Alto, California. Like many Americans, he started watching football with his father. From an early age, however, he had misgivings about the sport, especially after seeing players suffer paralyzing injuries. Two years ago Almond’s mother experienced a terrifying delirium that landed her in an intensive-care unit. Her suffering helped him realize that he couldn’t in good conscience cheer for a sport that caused its players to endure similar symptoms.
Almond lives, writes, and teaches near Boston. In addition to novels and short stories, he has written memoirs about his love for candy (Candyfreak) and rock music (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life). He and I spoke this past winter, at the height of football season, and Almond argued convincingly that to understand this country, we have to understand its favorite game.
Cook: What role does football play in the U.S. today?
Almond: It’s the largest shared narrative in the country: emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even financially. My sense is that more Americans — male and female, gay and straight, of all races and classes — are deeply invested in football than in any other single activity. For forty years I was a member in good standing of the Church of the Gridiron. The game can be brutal, but it’s also complex and satisfying to watch.
When Ernest Hemingway wanted to understand Spanish culture, he went to see the bullfights. Football is our bullfight: an expression of our cultural values and a profound statement about our national consciousness. It’s important to understand what it does for us and to us, what its pleasures are and its moral costs. But football means so much to so many Americans that we’re terrified of interrogating it.
Cook: What part of football does our conscience want to ignore?
Almond: Every time I sat down to watch a game, I was basically agreeing that this form of entertainment was worth whatever injuries the players might suffer. That’s true of any sport, but in the case of football, which is much more violent than most other sports, the price is higher, particularly when it comes to brain damage. In the fall of 2014 the NFL admitted that 30 percent of its players — nearly one in three — will suffer “long-term cognitive ailments,” and that they are likely to develop such problems at “notably younger ages” than the average American. That means that if there are 1,700 active NFL players at any given time, about 500 will end up with permanent cognitive disabilities. And when we watch football, we’re not only OK with that: we pay good money to watch it happen.
That’s the first moral issue a football fan has to ignore, and the folks who serve up football make it easy to do. The helmets and uniforms and pads the players wear not only protect but dehumanize them. They look almost like robots. Most of the time we don’t see their faces. We never have to look at the dazed eyes of a player who’s just suffered a brain injury. For the most part any player who’s seriously injured gets swept out of sight, and we don’t see him until he’s ready to play again. In this sense football is just a reflection of a broader American mentality: when something becomes too upsetting, it’s shuttled out of view, whether it’s the body of a soldier returning from Iraq or a mentally ill homeless person who finds his or her way into a wealthy neighborhood. They are all made to disappear.
It’s the same with any product we consume. We want our fancy cellphones, but we don’t want to think about the mistreated workers who make them. We want our bacon, but we don’t want to visit the slaughterhouse. We love our football, but we don’t want to see a former player in the late stages of dementia.
The people who market football have been pretty ingenious in portraying the game as wholesome and valorous. Obviously there are aspects of football that are laudable: the grace and athleticism on display, the teamwork, the viewers’ sense of connection with family and friends. The problem is that you’re also watching human beings get physically ruined. The announcer never says, “Hey, I hope you enjoyed that reception. The receiver just sustained a grade-two concussion. If he enters the field of play again, he may be at risk for second-impact syndrome, which would cause his brain to swell until he dies. Enjoy your chicken wings!”
You might call what’s happening “assisted suppression.” With the help of those marketing geniuses, we’re suppressing our empathy and accepting violence and injury as the natural order of things. This is why, even with the clear evidence this past fall that the sport causes brain damage, the NFL didn’t come to a screeching halt. Fans felt bad for a few minutes, but the television ratings were the second highest ever.
Cook: How much is known about the relationship between football and neurodegenerative diseases?
Almond: It’s obvious that football players are at a greater risk for such diseases than the general population, but exactly how much greater isn’t known. One study, by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, examined almost 3,500 men who had played in the NFL from 1959 through 1988 and found that their risk for Alzheimer’s and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, was four times greater than average. And you have to remember that football in 2015 is substantially different from football in 1988 or 1959. The players now are bigger, faster, and stronger — and this is true at every level, from high school to college to the pros. There’s an expectation that players will become bigger, faster, and stronger each year, which means collisions of greater force, and nobody knows what the long-term results of that will be for today’s players.
Cook: Some former players with cognitive ailments have taken their own lives. Is there a link between concussions and suicide?
Almond: Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, who were huge NFL stars in their primes, both committed suicide after retirement. Duerson left a note asking that his brain be examined for trauma, and he was found to have had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the symptoms of which include mood swings, violent behaviors, depression, and suicidal ideation. Seau was also found to have had CTE. Think about how you would feel if your brain no longer worked right. In a sense, those players were driven to kill themselves by dementia.
The problem isn’t concussions so much as subconcussive events — the hits and tackles that don’t cause immediate injury but that have a cumulative effect over time. Medical researchers at Boston University, the University of North Carolina, and elsewhere are working to figure out exactly what those effects are. It’s hard to do, though, because former players are reluctant to disclose the extent of their injuries, especially ones that affect their brains. These are guys who are used to being idolized. They don’t want to be seen in a reduced state. And we don’t yet have the technology to determine the extent of brain injuries in living players. So most studies have to depend on autopsies. As of last year, those autopsies found that seventy-six out of seventy-nine former NFL players showed signs of CTE. But those are just the players whose families requested a brain exam after death. Nobody knows what the overall percentages are.
One thing is clear: the NFL and the National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA] want fans thinking as little as possible about brain damage. After all, you can’t sell football as an all-American family pastime if people are too aware of the harm it causes to players.
The NFL and NCAA are, of course, also working to make the game safer, but there are only so many rules that can be tweaked. In the end the primal spectacle of the contact — the hits — is a reason many fans love the game. Leagues can do only so much to reduce those hits before they start losing fans. So, yes, the NFL and NCAA have instituted stiff penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits and even redesigned kickoffs to reduce high-speed collisions. But, again, all of this only helps limit concussions. The problem is that the permanent brain injuries arise in part because of those subconcussive hits, the ones players receive nearly every single play, and there’s no way to engineer those out. The tackle will always be part of the game.
Cook: What did you think of Chris Borland, the promising linebacker who retired earlier this year at the age of twenty-four because he believed the risks of playing football outweighed the rewards?
Almond: I think Borland had his consciousness raised. He talked to doctors, former players, researchers, and journalists, and he realized that he stood a good chance of getting brain damage. He made a rational decision that would be completely unsurprising in almost any other profession. But because he’s a football player, sportscasters and fans were astonished.
Cook: Many Americans say that football has taught them discipline, teamwork, and perseverance. Isn’t that a good thing?
Almond: There are great arguments to be made on behalf of organized sports, such as the way they test your physical limits and help you bond with teammates. All that is real. My argument would be: You don’t need to play a game in which people’s brains are at risk. You can get those same lessons from another sport — or from a great teacher or pastor. And it’s important to draw a distinction between the game, which is harder to judge, and the industry that has grown up around it, which is pretty much capitalism on steroids.
Saying football is a learning experience is just one of many arguments that people make in its defense. Any fan has a whole suitcase full of rationalizations for why he or she watches. I know, because I carried my own around for forty years. For example, some people say that for “certain kids” — meaning poor kids, and usually kids of color — football is their only way to go to college. If that’s true, then we’ve got a problem, because it means we don’t give a damn about educating the poor unless they can knock down a middle linebacker. Then they deserve our attention because they entertain us, not because of the content of their character, mind, heart, and spirit.
I’m not trying to abolish football. I just want people to see the sport for what it is and ask themselves: Why do we need this beautifully savage game in our lives?
Cook: But football’s certainly not the only dangerous sport out there.
Almond: I’m not sure why the existence of other violent sports justifies our consumption of football. That feels like an absurd dodge. Regardless, football is by far the most dangerous of any major team sport, because frequent high-speed collisions between huge men are the norm. What other major sport ends almost every play with a tackle? How come there’s an ambulance on standby at high-school football games?
Hockey can be violent, but it’s not predicated on collisions. Those are incidental. Boxing is more violent than football, but it’s also more honest: fans are forced to see the gruesome results, to face the barbarism. This is why boxing has fallen out of favor, I think. What football has done is to mass-market sanitized and sanctioned violence. And there’s an entire ministry of propaganda — otherwise known as the sports media — whose goal is to keep fans from focusing on the violence and to downplay injuries by referring to a concussion, for instance, as “getting your bell rung.”
When Ernest Hemingway wanted to understand Spanish culture, he went to see the bullfights. Football is our bullfight: an expression of our cultural values and a profound statement about our national consciousness.
Cook: What do you say to those who argue that the players are compensated for the risk — that their pay grade at least matches the danger they are in?
Almond: I say they’re right. Pro players are well compensated. The most talented among them earn millions of dollars a season, and I can understand exactly why a young man who has spent his life dreaming of playing in the NFL would happily take the risk. My question is: Why do we, the fans, choose to consume the game, knowing that it causes permanent injury, including brain damage? After all, we are the ones who underwrite the football-industrial complex. We’re the reason the players get paid all that dough. And we’re the reason that many high-school and college kids regard football as a path to wealth and glory.
That’s another big lie. Only one out of every five hundred high-school seniors who play football will ever make the pros — and that’s according to the NFL Players Association. The vast majority of college players will never earn a dime playing the game, despite the profound risks they incur.
Most fans have no interest in pondering why they support such a violent pastime. They don’t want to feel complicit. And the sports media have a vested interest in protecting fans from feeling complicit, because they might stop watching. Instead the media vilify a few convenient scapegoats — out-of-control players, greedy owners — and we tell ourselves that they’re the problem, not us.
The Mayans played a game in which members of the losing team were sometimes executed. By modern standards that’s barbaric, right? But we are OK with players getting maimed for the sake of entertainment.
Cook: Is football, especially for males, a socially acceptable outlet for aggression?
Almond: Absolutely. Lots of cultures use athletic competition to sublimate aggression. Fandom is a relatively benign form of tribalism. We also use sports to celebrate physical strength and poise and teamwork and other virtues. But the question remains: What are the moral costs of a particular sport? The Mayans played a game in which members of the losing team were sometimes executed. By modern standards that’s barbaric, right? But we are OK with players getting maimed for the sake of entertainment. That’s a sign of a culture in serious trouble.
Football is a powerful refuge. When we watch, we get so absorbed that we forget our troubles. It’s existential relief. You are a part of some exalted event. I didn’t watch the 2014 Super Bowl, but 111 million people tuned in. We are desperate to find something that will connect us. Football is a quick and easy solution.
Yet, at a certain point, you have to step back and ask: Why is this the church I worship in? What is the nature of this religion we have created?
As a fan I did feel a connection to the people around me, especially if my team was winning, but I also felt lost inside. Watching football became a lonely experience, like feeding an addiction. It wasn’t a way for me to engage with my problems. It wasn’t enlarging my empathy or my moral imagination. It wasn’t satisfying a deeper spiritual need.
Having said that, I can’t say to other fans that the holy feeling they have when they walk into their team’s stadium isn’t real. It is. My beef is that those feelings — our devotion to athletic heroism, our sentimental loyalty to the teams we rooted for growing up, and that our dads rooted for — are being mercilessly exploited and turned into an engine of greed. Not only that, but we’re getting so sucked into the fan mind-set that we start to see everything as a competition. Think about it. We have television programs that have turned singing, dancing, cooking, traveling, and even falling in love into competitions. It’s as if the only way a person in our culture can get what he or she wants is for another person to “lose.” This mind-set is ultimately martial. It’s what novelist Cormac McCarthy is referring to when he writes, in Blood Meridian, about warfare as a natural extension of sports. What ultimately matters is whether your team — and therefore you — wins. A lot of people these days feel that way about politics and religion: it’s all about vanquishing the socialist or the heathen or whatever. Football may not be the driving force behind this cultural mind-set, but it’s the purest expression of it.
Cook: If football culture is so morally and spiritually hollow, why doesn’t it collapse?
Almond: Maybe it will. Maybe our culture will collapse, too, like ancient Rome. As the empire declined, gladiatorial combat in the Coliseum allowed citizens to dull their empathy and enjoy the bloodshed. Maybe football is a symptom of our own imperial decline.
What amazes me about sport in general, and football in particular, is how objectively trivial it is. Yet its treated like this crucial undertaking. Every year the media devote more and more channels and pundits and column inches to the business of football. But really it’s just a game. Meanwhile we have all these actual threats to our existence that we ignore. Football is one of the ways we distract ourselves from what we should be doing to ensure the planet remains habitable for our species. We have become skilled at choosing the immediate pleasure and ignoring the long-term costs. Maybe every empire falls in part because it’s unable to inspire a sense of civic responsibility in its citizens. Obviously Rome fell for complicated reasons, but part of what kept the population from recognizing corruption in its leadership was the distraction of violent spectacles. The Roman poet Juvenal talked about politicians giving the people “bread and circuses” as a way to generate approval through diversion rather than through public service or sound policy. The citizens focused on their own immediate gratification and ignored their civic duty, as well as the broader threats to their society. Does that sound familiar?
If the U.S. — and the planet — is to survive, we’re going to have to make do with less. We’re going to have to stop worshiping at the altar of convenience. California really is running out of water. Our climate really is changing. We really are seeing massive wildlife migrations and plagues. And football really is just a circus that’s helping distract us from these threats.
Football is a metaphor for the broader American experience: Because we can’t see the players’ wounds, we delude ourselves into thinking that the game isn’t dangerous. Because global warming hasn’t yet flooded us out of our homes, we delude ourselves into thinking that it won’t harm us.
Cook: Baseball used to be the “national pastime.” What happened?
Almond: Late-model capitalism. We went from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Baseball is a pastoral game. Football is more in tune with the modern American experience. The typical American worker today is trapped in an office with elaborate rules of conduct and a lot of technical jargon. You’ve got “units” of employees working on group projects and multiple levels of management. Jobs are increasingly specialized. That’s how football operates, too. There’s a giant playbook with dozens of contingencies for any given play, strategy sessions, tons of jargon, a hierarchy of coaches — all things office drones recognize from their jobs.
But here’s what makes football so alluring: When a play works, it’s not just that you got the third-quarter earnings report done. It’s Barry Sanders making a magnificent spin move to avoid a tackle and carrying the ball sixty yards to glory. That experience is ecstatic and unlike anything in our everyday lives.
Football is both a reflection of complex, brutal, and oppressive industrialization and, at the same time, a liberation from it; a return to the intuitive childhood pleasures of play.
Cook: You were a fan for most of your life. What was it like leaving football?
Almond: When people ask how I lost my faith in football, I always think of that saying from the Great Depression about how you lose a fortune: a little bit at a time, then all of a sudden.
The truth is, I had misgivings from the moment I saw Daryl Stingley, the great Patriots wide receiver, get paralyzed by Jack Tatum, who was my hero. Seeing that as an eleven-year-old, I knew that something was wrong. But football was a way to connect with my dad, and some part of me loved identifying with the Oakland Raiders, because I felt frightened and hopeless most of the time, and the Raiders seemed to be the opposite of that.
I’ve known for many years that the game was my way of coping with loneliness and boredom. To be honest, I was ashamed of it as an adult. I would sneak off alone to watch, hiding my enjoyment from the people closest to me. But I really started questioning my fandom a couple of years ago, when my mom became ill. I got a call from my brother, who said that Mom had developed symptoms of dementia after a fall. I flew from Boston to California. She didn’t recognize me at first or know where she was. She sobbed because she was so confused. At that point the whole idea of a “cognitive ailment” stopped being an abstraction to me. All those stories I had ignored for years, about ex-players with dementia, suddenly became quite real.
Thankfully my mom recovered. The doctors thought her condition might have been triggered by a medication. But the experience made me realize that I needed to reexamine my relationship to football. I understood that once your brain is compromised, your self essentially begins to vanish. It’s heartbreaking to witness. And I realized that, by watching football, I was contributing to players losing brain function. It wasn’t something I could rationalize away anymore.
Cook: You talk about football as an addiction.
Almond: Just look at my behaviors: I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I hid the depth of my fandom. And now that I don’t watch anymore, I’m like a dry drunk in a liquor store. Football is everywhere: the gym, the dentist’s waiting room, on TV, in the newspaper. To make it through the fall in the U.S. and not see a single image of football, you would have to put on a blindfold.
Cook: How was Against Football received by other fans?
Almond: A few people suggested that I be turned over to the Islamic State for beheading, but most serious fans ignored the book, which I completely understand. There were some receptive reviews, though few of them engaged with the book’s broader critique.
The most provocative responses came from fans who talked about how football connected them to their families, allowed them to reach across divides, and made them feel alive. I can’t argue with any of that. But it’s also depressing to me that families and communities can’t bond over something more personal; that it has to be this brutal, corporatized game.
I did get a lot of thoughtful notes from fans who were growing ambivalent, and even a few who felt compelled to stop watching. But, again, my goal wasn’t to lead some kind of movement against football. It was to make readers think about everything the game entails, not just the entertaining parts.
Cook: How can we make fans think more about these issues?
Almond: If the NFL really wanted to give fans a taste of the game’s violence, it would put a suburban dad in uniform, line him up against six-foot-three, 262-pound Clay Matthews, and let him feel what it’s like to absorb a hit from someone that size: Feel that dizziness and disorientation? Feel that shooting pain and numbness in your arm? It’s called a “stinger,” and it lasts a couple of days. You play through it. Can you imagine what would happen if fans really understood how damaging the game is? Most players’ biggest fear is getting injured.
Cook: Is football culture damaging to women?
Almond: The whole pageant is medieval in terms of gender. Men are knights who go to battle. Women are sexual ornaments who bounce on the sideline. Those values aren’t just pre-suffrage; they’re pre-Enlightenment. I cannot put my eight-year-old daughter in front of a football game without her receiving the wrong message about her worth.
Cook: In your book you ask whether football provides white Americans “a continued sense of dominion over African American men.” How does football reflect our attitudes on race?
Almond: Most professional sports have a disproportionate number of players of color. That’s why, if you ask people to name a hundred famous African Americans, the list will be dominated by athletes.
Cook: Yet blacks are still underrepresented as coaches and quarterbacks.
Almond: You can add owners to that list. They’re pretty much all white and male. I think it’s because football reflects a legacy of racial inequality and reinforces racial stereotypes. White players are seen as more cerebral, African American players as more athletic. Sportscasters get in trouble if they say this out loud, but you hear it in their rhetoric. When a white player like Tom Brady makes a great play, he’s displayed “great football intelligence.” When an African American running back like Marshawn Lynch makes a great play, he’s gone into “beast mode.” That language of “beast” and “stud” and “specimen” would have been right at home on the plantation. Think about the NFL Scouting Combine: a bunch of white coaches and owners judging young men — the majority of them African American — based on physical prowess, the same criteria used at slave auctions. It’s reinforcing grotesque stereotypes about African American masculinity.
Look at the Southeastern Conference in college football. These are schools located in the heart of what was once the Confederacy, a culture that brought Africans over to America and treated them as property and finally, reluctantly, freed them. Then came Reconstruction and Jim Crow and segregation. The South remains a place fraught with racial anxiety and misunderstanding. So why is college football — a game played mostly by African Americans and watched mostly by whites — so hugely popular there? What is being played out? Is it a form of restitution? Some kind of strange worship and fetishization? Some special pleasure taken in seeing African American men perform dangerous feats for our amusement?
I’m not saying there’s no grace and beauty in the game. But we should ask ourselves: Why do so many white Americans get off on watching huge, mostly African American men stage a beautiful form of murder ballet?
Cook: For many years football was all white.
Almond: The story of how it became integrated is much less dramatic than in baseball, where Jackie Robinson became an icon. In football the shift was more gradual. The Washington Redskins didn’t sign any African American players until 1962. The team’s owner, George Marshall, was an avowed racist who said he wouldn’t sign any players of color until the Harlem Globetrotters had white players.
One appealing thing about professional sports today is that they are pure meritocracies. The best players get on the field, regardless of race or ethnicity. There’s no racial bias or quota system. But I would argue that the lower percentage of African American coaches and quarterbacks reflects an unspoken but stubborn mind-set that African American players are less intelligent than their white counterparts. Can I prove this? No. Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. But the numbers speak for themselves. Institutional racism is always hard to prove but easy to see.
Cook: Other cultures gather around sports with a similar intensity. Isn’t it human nature to be drawn to displays of force and might?
Almond: Of course. We have a desire to feel dominant, not powerless and vulnerable. But to ask if other cultures have behaved in similar ways is a distraction. The real question is: Should we? We have supposedly evolved as a nation. Just two hundred years ago the U.S. government said it was acceptable to treat human beings as property and that less than half the population should have the right to vote. Only several decades ago black people were deemed not fit to eat food or drink water in the same public facilities as whites. The idea of the American experiment is not to create a guilt-free, more entertaining republic. The idea is to create a more perfect union.
As it stands, the most popular sport in our union is governed by a corrupt industry that chews up its employees and diverts our time and attention away from family, community, and civic duty. It’s corporatized combat. Only a culture so profoundly insulated from actual violence could view football as entertaining.
Cook: Is football really the problem? If our lives had more civic meaning or spiritual depth, maybe we wouldn’t care so much about the sport.
Almond: Football isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the fact that many Americans are lonely and disconnected. It’s also an expression of our obsession with the wealthy and winners. That is what so many of us aspire to be, yet most of us move through life feeling like losers, because it is capitalism’s job to make us feel like losers, then sell us some product — a beer or a pickup truck or a football game — that will make all our doubts disappear for a short while. Until the next sale.
Americans are increasingly becoming spectators. We live in front of screens — at work, at home, on buses, subways, and sidewalks. It’s not football’s fault that people don’t feel more engaged with their families or neighbors or churches or libraries or local government. But football is there to fill that vacuum. As people move around the country and become increasingly dislocated, we no longer have that strong sense of belonging to a place. Many of us are searching for some narrative that makes us feel connected, and men especially find it in sports.
At a party, if there’s a game on, that is where the men will congregate. It’s like the campfire, a source of warmth where we affirm that we’re part of a larger story. And that’s sad, because the story of football isn’t personal and involves such a narrow version of what it means to be a man or to be brave or to be virtuous.
Cook: Earlier you called football “capitalism on steroids.” Is it really more capitalist than other U.S. sports?
Almond: All the major leagues are designed to monetize our allegiance to teams. What makes football unique is the merciless manner in which the NFL and the NCAA have chosen to wring every last dollar from the sport’s popularity. The NFL, for instance, managed to lobby Congress back in 1961 to make the league, which was already a tax-exempt nonprofit, a legal monopoly, too. Because television networks can bargain only with the league as a whole, and not with individual teams, the NFL makes a lot more money on TV rights, which means sponsors pay more to advertise, and those costs get passed on invisibly to consumers. And for a nonprofit, the NFL isn’t exactly trying to minimize administrative salaries. Its commissioner, Roger Goodell, alone received $44 million in 2012. [In April 2015 the NFL gave up its tax-exempt status, a move that helps it maintain greater secrecy about how it operates. – Ed.]
The league’s owners also play a game called “franchise free agency,” which is when one owner threatens to pull his team from a particular city unless taxpayers build him a stadium with public money. Seventy percent of the funding for NFL stadiums comes from taxpayers. Microsoft cofounder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen, one of the richest men on earth, got the people of Seattle to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium. In New Orleans taxpayers spent nearly a billion dollars to build a stadium. The list goes on and on. It’s a shakedown, a form of corporate welfare that funnels public money into the pockets of billionaires.
Universities have huge football budgets. Take a look at the lavish new locker rooms built for the University of Alabama football team. It’s like something out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: large-screen TVs and a giant whirlpool. Big-time college programs spend huge sums trying to attract the best high-school players to their schools. That means less money spent on research or a new library.
The whole mind-set of football is about rewarding the top 1 percent.
Cook: You’ve referred to football as a religion. How does it relate to Christianity, our nation’s predominant religion?
Almond: I think Jesus would have been disgusted by what football is and represents. He would have overturned the tables with the Roger Goodell bobbleheads on them. The greed, the transformation of a child’s game into a corporate entity, the emphasis on retribution rather than mercy — Jesus would be against all of it. He preached compassion for the poor. He said that wealth and power corrupt, that you should turn the other cheek and disavow violence.
If the NFL really wanted to give fans a taste of the game’s violence, it would put a suburban dad in uniform, line him up against six-foot-three, 262-pound Clay Matthews, and let him feel what it’s like to absorb a hit from someone that size.
Cook: Yet many Christians love football.
Almond: Perhaps they connect to the idea of sacrifice, which is also a big part of the Gospels. There’s an idea in football that players should be willing to sacrifice their bodies for the cause of victory. Fans say with great admiration, “Look at that guy sacrifice himself!” In a Christian context there’s something spiritually charged about that. Football players suffer not on the cross, but on the turf.
Cook: What’s the connection between violence on and off the field?
Almond: Football is an expression of our American mentality, and we’re a profoundly violent country. The historian Richard Slotkin argues that our history is marked by a pattern of spiritual regeneration through violence: the American Revolution, the bloody expansion of our western frontier. Whether or not you agree with him, you can see evidence of his claim in our gun-fatality rates, our incarceration rates, our popular culture awash in pornographic violence.
Football isn’t responsible for this, but it does indoctrinate the viewer into that mind-set. The basic law of the game is that might makes right. You can’t have a coach saying to his free safety, “Look, if your man comes straight over the middle, I want you to remember that he is a human being with a family, and if you hit him the wrong way, you could permanently injure him.” And as fans we don’t want the players to be gentle. We want them to be ruthless and effective in ways we often can’t be in our own lives. Part of us feels regenerated by the violence in football.
Cook: What about domestic abuse by football players? Is it related to violence in the game?
Almond: We think we can say to men from the time they are kids that it is acceptable, even encouraged, for them to dominate on the football field, yet the moment they walk off that field, they have to become gentlemen role models. That’s not how people work.
Look at Ray Rice, who was arrested last year for assaulting his fiancée (now his wife). Every time Rice gets the football, he tries to run over and destroy whoever is in his way. He is conditioned to do that. And Rice is under unbelievable pressure. His failures aren’t just quiet failures. When he steps on the field, 50 million people are watching his every move, and all his mistakes are replayed over and over again. He also might get his neck broken. That is a lot of pressure for a twenty-eight-year-old. Now add a bit of alcohol, a late night, and an ugly argument with his girlfriend. Why are we all so shocked that he punched her? What he did is clearly abominable, but when players get concussed or knocked unconscious in a game, we don’t say to the tackler, “Oh, my God, how could you do that?” We say, “Great job!”
It might take a popular player like Tom Brady getting paralyzed on TV for fans to recognize that these athletes aren’t video-game avatars or superheroes. They’re human beings. I hope I’m wrong. I hope it doesn’t take someone getting horribly injured in front of our eyes. But, again, the NFL did just admit that nearly a third of its players will wind up with brain damage. That would be the end for any other industry, but it was barely a bump in the road for football.
Cook: The NFL has had its share of off-the-field scandals: bullying among players, sponsoring dogfights.
Almond: Nobody can say for sure why individuals act in particular ways. It has a lot to do with their upbringing, their temperament, and so on. Part of the reason for the scandals might be that players feel, with some justification, that their athletic prowess makes them bulletproof. Look at the case in Steubenville, Ohio, where two star high-school players sexually assaulted a teenage girl, filmed the abuse, and shared it on social media. Some members of the community didn’t just come to the players’ defense; they actually reviled the victim. As a culture, we grant unholy rights to athletes.
Cook: Is there anything that would make football worth watching again for you?
Almond: My dream is that our devotion to athletic heroism could be put in the service of the public good; that the football industry could benefit our communities rather than billionaire owners and sponsors. What would it be like if the teams were publicly owned and the profits were funneled into the public coffers? Don’t you think Baltimore and St. Louis and Detroit would benefit from the billions of dollars that football could generate? Wouldn’t you feel better buying a ticket or souvenir jersey? Is that such a crazy idea: that this game might help the people who need help the most?
The only way football will change is if the incentives change. The NFL is a nearly $10 billion industry. The NCAA generates billions, too. The incentive in those worlds is to make money and win. The right decision when a player is hurt is not to put him back in the game, but that is often considered the wrong decision in football.
The fans have to stand up and say to the people making money on the game: We want a different set of incentives. Fans could demand a requirement that high-school kids have a 3.0 GPA to play football. They could demand a weight limit for players, to stop them from bulking up. They could demand that monitors be placed inside helmets to measure impacts, so that when players suffered too many high-speed collisions, they’d have to come out of the game.
Cook: Would you ever propose banning football at the high-school level?
Almond: I don’t in the book, because the point of the book isn’t to suggest what steps to take but to get fans thinking about the moral costs of their allegiance to football. Personally, though, I do think it’s absurd to make football part of our educational system. I say this not because I hate football but because the stated mission of high school is to expand young people’s minds and stimulate their brains. It strikes me as counterintuitive to include, as a part of that experience, a sport that has been proven to reduce brain function. Researchers at Purdue University put monitors in the helmets of two dozen high-school players to see how football affected their brains. They studied two groups of kids: one that had previously had concussions, and one that hadn’t. Here’s where it gets terrifying. Even the kids who had never sustained concussions showed diminished brain function, to the point that some had no function in one of their frontal lobes by season’s end. Can you imagine if there were a gas leak at a school causing similar neurological damage to students? How quickly would that school be shut down? How quickly would the news media and public officials and lawyers descend on the scene? But because it’s football, we build a stadium and sell hot dogs instead.
To be clear, kids who want to play football as teenagers have every right to do so, so long as their parents approve. But it makes more sense to let them play in private leagues rather than at school. Taxpayers shouldn’t be funding a game that, in some cases, damages students’ brains; that paralyzes some unknown number of kids every year; and that even kills a few students each year.
Cook: We’ve become so inured to all this. Parents and fans have gathered on Friday nights for generations to cheer on sixteen-year-olds. If you were there in the stands with them, what would you tell them?
Almond: I wouldn’t try to shame them, because that doesn’t work. When you wag a finger, people will push it away. When neighbors and families come together to watch a game they’ve been looking forward to all week, and the community is gathered around some common focal point of hopes and dreams and connectedness, then criticizing them is like standing up in church and saying, “You’re worshiping the wrong god.” I’d simply let them know that I love this game, too. But I want to make it less harmful to players and perhaps less profitable to greedy people. And we, the fans, are in a position to demand that.