On Monday my post is generally related to a sports topic prominently in the news, is focused on the business of sports or covers a sports subject at random. This week I am devoting posts to the upcoming American football season, college and pro, with a focus on new books and writings on the subject.
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This time two years ago, I drafted a post that went unpublished about why I’m never ready for football season. In the wake of the Penn State tragedy, enormous hand-wringing about concussions, suicides, bounty-hunting and the brutal nature of the game that belies the entertainment product we eagerly consume, there was this:
The NFL season began on a Wednesday.
In college football, which kicks off this Thursday with three games and another on Friday, every fall Saturday feels like New Year’s Day. For diehards, this is absolute heaven. For SEC diehards, with the arrival of an ESPN-run network devoted entirely to their conference, this is beyond heaven.
For the moment, I simply want to enjoy the summer a little longer, even with the pests and the heat and the dimming prospects of a Braves post-season run.
When I covered college football, I occasionally thought this way too, but quickly got jolted into action by the reality of games, practices, press conferences, deadlines and travel. As a fan these days, watching from afar, through the relentless filter of the tube, I fear that my admiration for the sport is getting overwhelmed by the spectacle it has become.
Not just the televised spectacle, where pro and college games regularly run past three hours, 30 minutes, featuring a deluge of commercials and mystifying remarks from commentators speaking very loudly and inventing their own blithering language as they go along.
And not just the 24/7 media spectacle, a gluttony of “breaking news” that’s merely a confirmation of another outlet’s reporting, non-stop “power rankings” and quick-hitting “takes” filed moments after the final gun explaining “what we have learned” from the game that just ended.
Who’s “we,” exactly? And why is it assumed I always want to learn something? Maybe I just want to watch a game, not prep for a pop quiz.
But while I may be moderately chastened, short story writer and essayist Steve Almond feels so aggrieved by the sport he admits to loving that he’s written a blistering broadside just in time for a new season.
“Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” is being published Tuesday (book website here). In it, Almond regurgitates the familiar litany of those who feel the need to turn against the game, and proclaim this loudly, as if that will prove persuasive. He provocatively dared anyone to watch the most recent Super Bowl, openly questioning one’s morality for doing so, including his own.
If Almond seems like a killjoy, then consider his evisceration of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for the Baffler, which specializes in harsh denunciations of things that many people like.
Two years ago, as I pondered my football indifference, Patrick Hruby heatedly stated his boycott terms on Sports on Earth. He is among a growing chorus of media commentators finding it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the sheer beauty and excitement of football — I’ve been watching the end of last year’s Iron Bowl all summer — with the crippling injuries and violence.
Almond lashes out against all that too, and in a recent book excerpt in The Boston Globe, lays on the guilt quite heavily, going far beyond concerns about brain trauma:
“Over the past year, I’ve studied the history of football and thought a lot about what the game means. I’ve come to believe that football fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, misogyny, and militarism. I believe it does economic damage to our communities and to the national soul. These are some of the reasons why I’ve stopped watching.”
There is absolutely nothing new about any of this. For more than 40 years, this definition of American football has been under attack by many social critics and even former football players like Jack Scott and Dave Meggysey.
In “Out of Their League,” his memoir of life as an NFL linebacker, Meggysey bemoaned what he called the “dehumanizing” experience of playing football. His was a sensibility rooted in the social justice movements of the 1960s and which came into limited prominence in the sports world in the following decade. It still endures with those on the hard political left.
Their critique of American football embodies what they believe to be a toxic masculinity. This is at the heart of Almond’s hackneyed argument, and it is a topic I will take up later in the week. Unlike Meggysey’s time in the spotlight, we now live in a climate of queasiness about player safety, the place of women in sports and jocks whose names are in the news for all the wrong reasons.
These worries are understandable, but as I will explore in the next few days, it’s not as simple as the claims Almond and others are making.
In a review in the Tampa Bay Times, John Capouya believes Almond is agonizing over things that don’t appear to have convinced many in Football Nation:
“Almond spends too much time making a case most football fans have already declined to prosecute or decided to ignore, which makes even this short book feel padded. And suppose a thinking captive comes to see the game for the corrupt, detrimental thing it is, what is he or she to do about it?”