Like many red-blooded American men my age, I’ve experienced the game of football on many different levels and from many different angles.
I’ve played it, practiced it, taught it, wagered on it, photographed it, paid admission to see it, gotten paid to write about it, been ecstatic when my favorite team prevailed and mortified when they went down in defeat.
But I’ve never felt guilty about it.
Apparently, that’s how author Steve Almond wants football followers to feel. Almond, a self-described lifelong gridiron fan with allegiance to the Oakland Raiders – which may be part of his problem – had a moral awakening one day.
He realized that, you know, when speedy, muscle-bound men collide with great force, someone could actually get hurt real bad, and he doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt. It also occurred to him that the cheerleaders are inappropriately dressed and their vigorous hip swiveling is far too titillating, that NFL owners are exploiting players and colleges are taking advantage of their student-athletes.
So, feeling a bit unclean and morally stained, Almond decided to sell his season tickets, dump his popcorn in the garbage, pour his beer down the toilet and stop watching a game that “reinforces a lot of basic American pathologies around race, violence, greed, sexuality, sexual orientation…and that’s nuts.”
Then he sat down at his computer and cranked out a book called, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.”
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have not read all of Almond’s book, mostly because I’ve been too busy watching football. But I’ve heard him explain his theme and his premise as he’s made the media rounds just when – as fate or a clever marketing strategy would have it – the current football season was getting into full swing.
I’d say Almond really needs to wake up and smell the artificial turf. Not because what he says isn’t true. It’s because if he thinks his fellow Americans are about to ditch football – especially on moral grounds – he’s probably also waiting for O.J. to find the real killer.
I’ve known plenty of people who switched off the TV and stopped watching football, or stomped out of a stadium, but it was only because their team was 40 points behind in the third quarter.
And of the millions who have played the game, I’m inclined to believe none of them eventually hung up their cleats because they felt a pang of moral impurity. It’s because they came to the realization that the fame of college stardom and/or the fortune of the NFL weren’t within their reach. Usually, it’s not even a decision they make for themselves: it’s made by burly players on the field who are larger and faster than they are chasing them down with malicious intent.
What prompted Almond to start wringing his hands over football wasn’t the fact that of the 1.2 million individuals who participated in tackle football last year, eight of them died. Percentage-wise that’s a decimal, a bunch of zeroes and an eight, and certainly a paltry number compared to the number of teenagers who died on U.S. highways.
No, it was the recent study that indicated a third of retired NFL players will experience some kind of brain disease such as dementia, Alzheimer’s or ALS in their lifetimes. Twenty years of high-speed head-butting causing brain damage – who knew?
Frankly, I’m surprised OSHA hasn’t seen the need to step in. If NFL players are employers working for their respective organizations, and if concussions are a problem stemming from their workplace environment, where’s OSHA when you need them? Maybe the federal agency should take a serious look at workplace hazards in the Superdome.
They could take a cue from NASCAR’s restrictor plate rule and limit the speed the players run, tracking each player’s pace with a satellite transmitter attached to their butts and penalize halfbacks for “excessive forward acceleration.” Then they could require full-body titanium-coated chain mail. Of course, the fancy transmitters and titanium duds would cost more and cause ticket prices to increase, but at least no one would have to risk getting hurt.
I suppose Almond and his sympathizers – if he can find any – can wring their hands until their fingernails flake off, but football isn’t going away anytime soon.
While tackle football participation at the youth level is steadily declining, at the spectator level football is more popular than ever. The NFL is a $10 billion business, the college game generates billions more. People pack high school and college stadiums every week; more than 100 million people watched the Super Bowl and more than 20 million people tuned in to a recent Monday Night Football game. Advertising, merchandising and sponsorship revenue is steady.
And everybody is making a free-will choice to participate in the spectacle. On Saturday nights in Tiger Stadium, the players are getting compensated with tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship money, the coaches are getting paid, the institution is getting paid, the concession workers are getting paid, the cheerleaders are happily and gleefully getting their groove on in front of 100,000 oglers, and the advertisers and sponsors and ticket buyers and TV viewers are all getting exactly what they’ve paid for.
I have a suggestion for Almond’s next book. Maybe he can redirect his moral crusade and go after another blight on American culture, a truly cringe-worthy, noxious, shameful phenomenon that sullies U.S. integrity across the globe and makes decent people shake their heads in disgust: “Against Miley Cyrus: One Man’s Manifesto on the Scourge of Twerking.”