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  • Joe Dornich

from the horse's mouth: steve almond

Note: Fans of Steve Almond likely know him for his debut short story collection, My Life In Heavy Metal, or his New York Times Bestseller, Candyfreak, but few may know him as a former sports reporter, play-by-play man, and lifelong Oakland Raiders fan. It’s his admitted obsession with the Raiders, and the NFL at large, which was the catalyst for his 11th book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It’s a book that asks tough questions. Such as: How has a sport that’s been proven to cause concussions and other cognitive damage become intrinsically united with our institutions of higher education? Or, in our obsession with football, how do we turn a blind eye toward violence, racism, and homophobia? Almond writes Against Football to explore these dark realities of fandom and to attempt “to see football for what it truly is.”

IHLR: On August 23, Broncos tight-end Wes Welker received his third concussion, in spite of the pleas in your open letter to him. On Labor Day, an ESPN analyst was discussing this with Herm Edwards, and though she mentioned that this was the third time in a year Welker had suffered this kind of injury, the conversation was not about the potential impact on Welker, or the inherent violence of the game, but how Peyton Manning would fare without his slot receiver. These analysts see players as nothing more than pieces to a greater whole, or as variables to account for, and that mentality gets passed down to us fans. Isn’t that one of the major problems you’d like readers to take away from your book?

Almond: Yes, absolutely. As a fan, this made perfect sense to me. But as I stepped back from the game, or started to think of it not just as a form of entertainment but as a moral activity, it began to seem crazier and crazier. These players are not beasts of burden. They are actual human beings. In a way, the way we think about these players is the way a child thinks about cartoon violence, that it’s something exciting but ultimately harmless. In a sense, we have to think about players in this way because if we started worrying about them as human beings we couldn’t enjoy the game. Especially now that the NFL has admitted--after years of denying the link between football and brain damage--that nearly a third of its ex-players will suffer long-term cognitive damage at significantly younger ages than the rest of the population. Given that perspective, it’s kind of hard to view Peyton Manning’s lack of a slot receiver as a major concern.

IHLR: Over the years Americans have been slowly indoctrinated into the nature of football, which, as you say, “fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” I wonder, as the NFL expands its “International Series” with three games scheduled at London’s Wembley Stadium, how you see another culture responding to the game? Will they, like us, allow the fanfare and athleticism to eclipse the uncomfortable realities, or do you see the possibility for some pushback?

Almond: I imagine that the folks who show up at those games will be thrilled by the whole shebang. After all, the sport is wildly entertaining. That’s why I spent so many years watching it, even after it was clear to me that it didn’t reflect my values whatsoever. If there’s going to be pushback, I think it will have to come from fans, and perhaps some intrepid players and media members who stand up and say, “Much as we love the game, we can’t sponsor it anymore. The moral hazards are too great.”

IHLR: In the book you discuss how technological innovations, like helmets that can measure injuries received during play, will help “erode the haze of uncertainty that has long insulated the league and us fans.” I wonder about the other ways technology can bring about this kind of transparency. I’m thinking of Ray Rice’s domestic violence charge, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s two-game suspension that served as punishment. Do you think our collective outrage at this wrist-slap would have been as strong had we not been privy to the security footage of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée's body around like some Weekend At Bernie’s skit? Though we shouldn’t need this kind of moral booster rocket, do you see technology’s ability to make private actions public as a potential saving grace?

Almond: I’m not sure I’d call that a saving grace. To be sure, it’s a net positive that the NFL is having to take the issue of domestic violence more seriously. But I feel pretty queasy about the Ray Rice story, because it involves watching this sickening video over and over again. And that feels inherently exploitative to me. What Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and all these other guys need is to be held accountable for their actions and then to get some help, so they can repair their families. They don’t need a media scrum and a bunch of strangers gawking at the most painful moments of their lives on the Internet. In fact, these stories of violence off the field have really distracted the sports media from a much more significant story: the profound violence on the field.

IHLR: Finally, on August 29th Roger Goodell announced the NFL’s new policy for players accused of domestic violence, which includes a six-game ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second. Goodell cited the public’s ability to “question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on families.” Do you see this as an overdue, reactionary attempt at moral cover, or is it, in some way, the will of the people finally being heard?

Almond: I think it’s both at once. That is: the public did object and sponsors started to get nervous and the media went into frenzy mode--and the NFL realized that it had a major image problem and they took the actions necessary to keep fans coming through the turnstiles. That’s the way it works, fundamentally. The NFL is a ten-billion-dollar corporation. They have a cash register where human beings have a conscience. The big question that my book is asking is whether us fans will allow our consciences to play a role in deciding whether we watch the game. I still think football is the most exciting sport ever created. I miss watching it everyday. But I’m also more at peace with myself since I stopped watching.

So Iron Horse readers, what do you think? Agree or disagree? Still going to watch football this Sunday (and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday, and Monday)? Send your thoughts or comments to the Against Football Fan Forum, or directly to Steve on Twitter @stevealmondjoy.

--Joe Dornich, Managing Editor


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