One man's moral case against football

Denver Broncos player David Bruton lies on the gro
Broncos player David Bruton lies on the ground with a reported concussion during a game against the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 28, 2014, in Denver.
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images 2014

With Super Bowl XLIX only days away, questions hang in the air: What kind of bean dip to make? How will Katy Perry do at halftime? Is football a hyper-violent, dangerous sport that puts men's lives at risk for the sake of corporate greed?

Steve Almond's book "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto" gets at this last question. A diehard fan for 40 years, Almond gave up the game after researching the extent of players' injuries: Three out of every 10 players suffer brain damage. For Almond, it became a moral question: Could he sit on his couch and pay to support a sport that caused catastrophic brain damage? His answer was "no," and his book explains many of the reasons behind his decision.

'Against Football' by Steve Almond
'Against Football' by Steve Almond
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Almond discussed his book, and the NFL's rocky year of lawsuits and domestic abuse incidents, on The Daily Circuit with Kerri Miller in September.

On the perils of playing football

"Economically and financially, I'm trying to imagine another workplace in which we would find that acceptable in America, where the owners just say: 'Yeah, 3 out of 10 of you are going to end up with brain damage at a younger age than the rest of the population.' I don't think there's any institution where we would say that was OK. Maybe the military, but they're fighting in defense of the homeland. Football is a form of entertainment."

On his complicated decision to stop watching

"Let's not fool ourselves about it as fans. I was tired of fooling myself about it. The game, I think, is the most strategically dense, athletic, graceful, beautiful spectacle in the sporting world. I think that. I think it is the game that most purely connects us to the intuitive joys of running and leaping, of childhood, of the body at play.

"But it is also profoundly violent and I, as a fan, got off on that violence. That's why they have parabolic mics on the sideline, to pick up every bone-crunching decibel. That's why they replay the most violent sequences over and over and over again. It's not because we're horrified by it, it's because we get off on it. We should face that. My book isn't saying 'boycott football,' it isn't saying 'ban football,' it's saying: 'Let's try to see football for what it really is.' ...

"It's really tough for us to morally interrogate our pleasures. We love bacon, but we don't want to visit the slaughterhouse."

On the aggressive nature of football

"My question is: why do we need a beautiful, savage game to feel fully alive? Why did I need that for 40 years? ...

"We ask these guys, from a very young age, to associate their worth in the world with being able to express their aggression and suppress their empathy.

"You can't be a football player without suppressing your empathy. You can't come up against the tight end thinking: 'You know that's a human being, he's got a family, I better think about that.' That's not how it works. You have to be able to express your aggression unchecked, without empathy. You have to make sudden, impulsive decisions. That mindset, which is indoctrinated from a very young age for a football player, doesn't suddenly switch off when they step off the sidelines."

On the class-action suit by players against the NFL

"The lawsuit is alleging not just negligence, or 'We want our medical bills paid.' The 5,000 players who are suing the NFL are saying: 'You made a concerted effort, through falsifying industry research, for instance, to cover up the link between this game that we were playing, making you tremendous profits, and the fact that our lives were going to be significantly diminished by playing the game. ...

"The medical evidence has caught up with the sport itself. The sport has become more inherently dangerous because the players are bigger and faster and stronger than they've ever been. ... It's physics and physiology. Mass times acceleration equals force. If the players are bigger and strong and faster, they're hitting each other harder, and the brain is always going to be a soft organ that's very vulnerable inside a hard shell."

On the idea that football is "the only way out" for some players

"One of the most insidious myths you hear, one of the excuses I carried around as a fan was: 'It's the only way out. Football is the only way out for some of these kids.' What we're saying in our coded language is: poor kids, kids from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and usually kids of color. ... Two-thirds of the NFL are African-Americans.

"The truth of the matter is, when you say that, you're saying: 'Your chance of succeeding, young kid of color, resides in being able to play a violent game for our entertainment. That's what your path and destiny is, your path to economic salvation.'

"This is America, and we only see the winners. One of every 500 kids who plays high school football as a senior is going to make it to the NFL. He's going to be there for three and a half to four years and he'll be broke within a few years of leaving the league. We don't even think about the other 499."

Further reading

When this interview first aired in September, it sparked intense discussion about both the dangers and the rewards of playing football. Some recalled how football had taught them discipline and fortitude; others described their own injuries, or their children's.

The conversation continues to unfold across the country. Mark Edmundson's book "Why Football Matters" came out just one month after Almond's. In it, Edmundson offers a counterpoint to Almond; he reflects on his own experiences playing the game and how it shaped his character.

For those interested in reading more on the issue, we recommend:

An excerpt from "Why Football Matters" by Mark Edmundson
"Why you should stop watching football" by Steve Almond for The Boston Globe
"The hard life of an N.F.L. long shot" by Charles Siebert for The New York Times
"The people v. football" by Jeanne Marie Laskas for GQ

Join the conversation. Will you watch the Super Bowl this weekend? Why or why not? Do fans bear responsibility for players' injuries?

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