Thursday, October 02, 2014

Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto by Steve Almond (Book Review #95 of 2014)

Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto
In 532 A.D., nearly half the city of Constantinople was destroyed, and thousands were killed, by a riot brought on by a fight between factions of different sporting teams, the Blues and Greens. Sports had become intertwined with politics and ones loyalty to his faction/team trumped his loyalty to religion. This event occurred long before football, modern capitalism, marketing, or television -- which itself cuts into Almond's thesis. Almond does not mention this event or other historical events, and this ignorance really hurts some of his arguments-- that the modern passion of violent sports is primarily an American male response to his social surroundings and stimulated by American-style capitalism, marketing, and television.

I really wanted to like this book because I agree with his basic premise: we need to question the ethics of football, and if it's unethical then we need to stop watching. I stopped watching major league baseball in the 90s because of its perceived lack of ethics and I have, like the author, tried to give up watching football after spending time as a university instructor and seeing exploitation of student athletes as well as traumatic injuries. I have written several blog posts on the corruption of the NCAA and my support of the Ed O'Bannon class action suit. So, I'm with Almond in terms of his argument.  But his philosophical arguments are so poorly thought out, his ignorance of history so blatant, and his attempts at armchair psychology so disgusting that I can't recommend it.

Almond points out the physical and social ills of the NFL monopoly and calls on thought leaders to challenge it. From my Christian point of view, he makes some good points:
"I thought about the amount of time Americans, men in particular but also women, spend thinking about football during a given week, as opposed to thinking about God and the state of our souls and whether we are leading a noble life, and I realized that I probably spent about ten minutes max on these issues, whereas my recap of the Patriots game had already run fifteen or more. I thought about the tens of millions of fans—the tailgaters, the face painters—whose sacred wishes and fears and prayers are reserved for a vicious and earthly game."

"Can you recall a single public figure who has ever condemned football? A major politician? A religious leader? A celebrity of any kind?" (besides Malcolm Gladwell)

Almond attempts to look at psychology of sports fans without looking at any academic research or even basic anthropology. There have been die-hard fans of sports since before anything modern. Almond blames capitalism and its marketing for making us all feel like "losers," thus pushing us to seek tribal camaraderie and something to cheer for in our sports teams. This ignores the fact that people all throughout the history of the world, in every political and economic order have found comeraderie and enjoyment in watching sports, often more bloody and cruel than modern American football. Almond actually contradicts himself on this because his own history of football shows that the game became popular and drew large crowds first, the marketing and exploitation came later. Couldn't one make the argument that reality TV shows such as Jackass are equally deplorable and harmful for society? Yet we call them protected under the First Amendment.

Almond's attempts at sociology include comparing football fan's behavior to the "camaraderie of drink," drawing on an alcoholic's memoir that somehow serves as a relevant source. Point out the African American athletes that become millionaires helps absolve white America of the guilt they feel over historical racial barriers. Rooting for them is supposed to counter the deep-seeded racism that whites actually feel. He even hypothesizes that love of football is evidence of possible latent homoerotic behavior. "I'm 23 percent gay," he writes. His logic is that since ancient Greeks were into homosexuality and pedophilia, it's natural that men professing to be heterosexual really enjoy watching men "grind" each other in a brutal fashion. He is a newspaper reporter by profession and should keep his day job. His own admission of long-time guilt, including still watching football and seeing his love of college football grow even as his moral qualms with the game grew, make the book somewhat hard to read. He admits to his own hypocrisy, yet also criticizes everyone else.

The author also fails to recognize that every sport has corruption and ethical issues. See the high salaries and cheating scandals rampant in soccer as an example. See the brutality and also cheating scandals in international martial arts competitions. Every sport, from MLB to NASCAR, and every stadium get government subsidies. All of them also


Almond imagines a "Marxist NFL," in which salaries are no longer "grossly inflated by our blessed free market." He prefers the NCAA basketball tournament as a more "purer form of meritocracy," momentarily turning a blind eye to the exploitation revealed by the O'Bannon lawsuit and other investigative reporting on college athletics, although he later returns to it and holds it up as another example of corruption in yet another contradiction of himself.

The strengths of the book are that Almond fleshes out the irony of the brain researcher who still watches and enjoys the game, despite knowing the dangers. He
rightly points out the 70 cents on the dollar subsidies that NFL stadiums get, but doesn't realize that each of these stadium projects produce economic impact analyses promising positive return to the taxpayer and the surrounding area. That lack of understanding weakens his argument; he doesn't know as much about all the processes involved as he thinks. He calls out the Bill Simmons of the world who make a living criticizing the sports they write about, making themselves out to be morally superior to the rest of us unquestioning fans; if Simmons really wanted to make an impact he'd announce he was boycotting the game. He rightly criticizes President Obama for stating he has moral problems with the game on the one hand, yet still justifies the game on the other.

"Couldn't the guy at least admit that it's wrong to watch a sport so dangerous he wouldn't let his own son play it?"

So, what to do? Most people, like Almond and myself, still find ourselves watching the game sometimes or discussing it with our friends without opining on its evident immorality.
"I’ve talked to dozens of fans who offer some version of the same concession. Okay, okay, the game is totally corrupt. Can we move on?"

Almond lays out a few ideas. Banning tackle football before college, including college GPA in the (BCS) national ranking formulas, requiring high GPAs for college players, ending tax subsidies for stadiums to name a few. He ignores possible unintended consequences-- by itself, requiring high GPAs for college athletes will cause colleges to discriminate proportionally more against the minorities Almond wants to help.

Two stars out of five. I would say there have been better articles in The Atlantic and documentaries on PBS (which Almond cites) making similar points but in a much better fashion. This book would be better as a long-form article, but no editor would tolerate his faux psychoanalysis.

Two stars out of five.


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