Steve Almond (Facebook) (Twitter)
Melville House (August 26, 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 161219415X / 9781612194158)
Nonfiction (journalism/sports), 192 pages
A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (August 29, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
Those who don’t care much for America’s favorite autumn-weekend pastime might be inclined to pick up Steve Almond’s collection of essays, reflections, and arguments, Against Football, looking for validation of their position. Those who love the sport may be drawn in by its subtitle, One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, for similar reasons. The power of this book lies in its ability to speak to both, and Almond’s ambition for it is to fuel a candid discussion of America’s complicated, dysfunctional relationship with its favorite sport.
Almond states up front that he’s loved football all his life–playing the game, following it, bonding with father and brothers and friends over it–but he can no longer watch it in good conscience. Against Football is his attempt to reconcile the sport’s appeal and allure–“in its exalted moments, (it) is not just a sport, but a lovely and intricate work of art”–with its undeniably problematic aspects. The brutality and violence of the game play are the most obvious of these, but Almond also addresses the culture surrounding football, reflecting on its tolerance, if not outright cultivation, of homophobia, racism, and greed.
In Against Football, Almond is examining the ethical quandaries that football has created for him as a fan. Is it right that an activity that has been proven to cause long-term, irreversible physical and mental damage is promoted to boys and young men as a viable career path? How do “student athletes” and athletic scholarships support the educational mission of universities? Why does reverence for football players’ skills seem to give them a pass for antisocial–sometimes even criminal–behavior off the field?
None of these questions are easily answered. That makes them readily debatable, and debate is what Almond is after here. Opinionated and provocative, Against Football may be a “reluctant manifesto,” but it’s passionately interested in a conversation about the issues it raises.
Book description, from the publisher’s website
On any given Sunday, football functions more like a national religion than a sport.
But simply put: the game isn’t good for us. Medical research confirms what the grim headlines keep reporting: football causes brain damage. Beloved Hall of Famers are now suffering from dementia, and taking their own lives. Children and teenagers are susceptible to the same sorts of injuries with the same long-term results.
But football’s psychological and economic hazards—though more subtle—are just as profound.• What does it mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood—run, leap, throw, tackle—into a billion-dollar industry? • How did a sport that causes brain damage become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning? • Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia?
In Against Football, Steve Almond details why, after forty years as a fan, he can no longer watch the game he still loves. Using a synthesis of memoir, reportage, and cultural critique, Almond asks a series of provocative questions:
There has never been a book that exposes the dark underside of America’s favorite game with such searing candor.From the Prologue:
"Among the motley artifacts taped to the walls of my office—tucked below the photo of the Bay City Rollers in snug tartan jumpsuits and the student evaluation that reads, “If writing were a part of my body, I would cut it off with an Exacto blade”—is a tiny yellowed clipping.
"It’s a grand total of two paragraphs, snipped from a Boston Globe recap of the New England Patriots’ 12–0 win over the Miami Dolphins on December 7, 2003. I’m almost certain I didn’t watch this contest, because I hate the Patriots, though oddly, if I’m honest (which I don’t like being in the context of my sports-viewing habits) I have watched a lot of Pats games over the years, so there’s a decent chance I caught a portion of this one, maybe just the third quarter at a friend’s house.
"The passage reads:
"With 13 minutes 50 seconds left in the game, running back Kevin Faulk hauled in a 15-yard pass from quarterback Tom Brady, then got leveled by Miami safety Brock Marion, who forced a fumble and left Faulk motionless on the ground.
“’I wasn’t out cold, but I was out,’ said Faulk. Asked if he remembered lying on the ground, he said, ‘No, I don’t, so I must have been out. I knew that something was wrong with me. I knew that, like, it wasn’t normal. I didn’t have that same, normal feeling when I got up.’“I have no idea how I came across this dispatch. I don’t subscribe to the Globe, so I probably found it on the subway. I do remember the strange buzz that accompanied the reading of these words. The first paragraph is standard sports reportage: game data, a stark description of collision and injury. But that second paragraph! It read more like a poignant existential monologue. Faulk seeks to minimize his injury, then, pressed, struggles to assimilate what happened to him, which most physicians would describe as a significant injury to the brain. What you’re hearing is the linguistic equivalent of a concussion.”