Review: 'Against Football' Is Hard to Shake, Even for a Fan

Melville House

Nearly 27 million viewers watched NBC's coverage of the Seattle Seahawks game against the Green Bay Packers on September 4th in what was the kickoff of the NFL's 2014 regular season. This signaled the beginning of five months of nirvana for most American sports fans.

Not so for Steve Almond. A lifelong Oakland Raiders fan, the journalist, essayist and best-selling author (Candyfreak) has come to see football as a way for Americans to indulge in "our lust for violence, our racial neuroses, our yearning for patriarchal dominion, our sexual hang-ups."

In his 11th book, Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, Almond launches a devastating multi-pronged attack against what he sees as the sins endemic to the sport's business: shoddy economics, poor safety, homophobia, militaristic propaganda and extreme violence.

As Almond admits early in the book that it's not an easy argument to win. America loves football and any argument against the sport, no matter how heartfelt or well-reasoned, is considered blasphemous by many. Which leads to the question: if someone writes a book against football, even a great book, but no football fans read it, does it matter?

Almond confronts this quandary in his preface with self-deprecating humor, making it clear that this is not an academic screed written by some professor with an ax to grind, but a heartfelt attempt by a lifelong football fan to confront the issues plaguing football, "the undisputed champ of our colossal Athletic Industrial Complex.

"I recognize that voicing these opinions will cause many fans to write off whatever else I might have to say on the subject as a load of horseshit, shoveled by someone who is probably wearing a French sailor's suit and whistling the Soviet National Anthem," he writes. "Before you do so, let me reiterate: I am one of you."

After establishing his bonafides, Almond sets out to demonstrate how corrupt professional football has become. There is the obvious moral conundrum that for the purpose of entertainment many NFL players incur debilitating brain damage, and not just from the big hits, "but the incremental (and therefore largely invisible) damage done by numerous sub-concussive hits." Most football fans, however, already know this (or should), so Almond walks us through the NFL's attempt "to shape public debate by flooding the market with junk science," which reframes the argument. Football-related brain injuries are not just a sad byproduct of the game, he concludes, but part of a dishonest cover-up by a league attempting to sell violence.

Then there are the more nuanced reasons Almond can no longer support his once favorite sport, such as the subjugated roles of African-Americans and women within the football ecosystem. In Almond's opinion, African American players enthusiastically participate in a system that harkens back to the power dynamics of a plantation where "a wealthy white 'owner' presides over a group of African-American laborers." And, women are treated even worse! According to Almond, "the assigned roles of the feminine in football remain safely locked in the pre-suffrage era." It's hard to argue with how little the NFL values women when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice can slug his girlfriend in the face and initially receive a mere two-game suspension. (He was cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL only after video of the punch surfaced seven months after the incident.)

If such arguments seem irrelevant to the average football fan, Almond's chapter on the economics of the NFL should hit closer to home; money is something everyone can relate to. Here are just a few facts presented by the author: the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 "essentially made the NFL a legal monopoly;" "taxpayers provide 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums;" "The NFL – unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball – is tax-exempt;" and "the league pays $60 million in executive salaries." Almond paints a compelling portrait of the NFL as a monopoly that fleeces American taxpayers to line the pockets of a few very wealthy owners.

For a football fan (myself included), Against Football is tough to digest. Here is a man tearing down the sport that we love. Why? So he can sell a few books? My first instinct is to say, We should just use him as a tackle dummy. To Almond's credit, he is well aware of the potential backlash. In fact, he is counting on it (could sell some books!). "I'm going to get hammered for asking these questions," he writes. "Fine. Hammer away. But don't pretend that's the same as answering."

Fans love to watch football but refuse to think about the sport's dark, corruptive power. We are just as complicit in propagating the destructive force of football as the owners and the players. Why? Because contemplating the truth stings. Maybe not as much as getting de-cleated by the safety on a crossing pattern. Then again, after reading Almond's rant, maybe more.


Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, by Steve Almond, Melville House