Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Books

Review: Almond tackles difficult questions in 'Against Football'

As the sliding doors open, the man drags his female companion out of the elevator on her knees. He pulls her inert body forward, then lowers the young woman face-down on the hallway floor. Her lower legs and bare feet still extend back into the elevator. Her companion, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, tries to extricate her; at one point he seems to prod her legs with his foot. Then another man arrives and the 200-pound athlete lets go of his fiancée. Very slowly she struggles to consciousness and a sitting position.

The widely seen video of that February incident is disturbing, as is the aftermath. Rice, charged with assaulting Janay Palmer in the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., resort, entered a diversion program, avoiding jail. In March, she married him. Then, in July, the National Football League announced its sanctions: a two-game suspension and a fine. This in a league where players are suspended twice as long for using marijuana or taking Adderall.

There was furor, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dug in. "I think what's important here is Ray is taking responsibility," he declared. One wonders: Exactly how or where else could that responsibility be allocated?

Had he still been writing Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond would no doubt have dealt with this sorry sequence, including Rice's return to practice to a standing ovation. As the Ravens website proclaimed: "His hometown fans showed him a lot of love.''

That complex, excessive, tainted love for the game of football and its players, with all their brutality and excesses, is the focus of Almond's book. It's an indictment, a self-excoriation, and a provocative analysis of why so many Americans are hooked on this organized violence. Almond has been an obsessive fan for 40 years; his reported essay is "a personal attempt to connect the two disparate synapses that fire in my brain when I hear the word 'football,' the one that calls out, Who's playing? What channel? And the one that murmurs, Shame on you."

Almond calls football "an unnecessarily violent game that degrades our educational system, injures its practitioners, and fattens a pack of gluttonous corporations." Yet his addled heart also holds that football, "in its exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form of art."

That's his dilemma, one many fans will respond to. If you've watched the game for a decade or more, you sense viscerally how it has become a much scarier, near-apocalyptic spectacle, with ever-more shattering collisions and, seemingly, more broken men carted off the field.

A writing professor, Almond rails against the ways football has corrupted our "institutions of higher learning.'' The most chilling note on college and high school players comes from a brain researcher who says we have the stereotype of the dumb jock reversed. It's not that players who gravitate to football are less smart, he believes; instead, it's playing football that diminishes their cognitive abilities.

Mainly, Almond lambastes the NFL, which he calls "the epitome of crony capitalism, a corporate oligarchy.'' (This $10 billion-a-year business is a tax-exempt not for profit? Some high-level lobbying there.) He uses last season's Miami Dolphins harassment scandal to assert that football fosters homophobia, and he hauls the pro game up on racism charges as well: "Can anyone really watch the NFL combine — in which young, mostly African-American men are made to run and jump and lift weights — and not see visual echoes of the slave auction?"

Almond also traces a "pattern of violence'' by football players against women. Mostly, though, he deals with the harm players do to each other and themselves on the field, and the NFL's shameful history of denial regarding concussions and brain injuries. The stories he tells of former players' depression and dementia are heartbreaking. At least two of them have committed suicide by shooting themselves in the chest, so their degraded brains could be studied post mortem.

But we know all this, or much of it, don't we? 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?

Almond is passionate, he's revealing, he's funny — "maybe our entire Republic is concussed,'' he muses. But as he admits, his book is "long on questions and complaints and short on solutions.'' In the last few pages he proposes, among other things, revoking the NFL's nonprofit status and a weight limit for players or teams. None of that will happen.

The more compelling question, then, is how the seduced were taken: Just what has this game got on us? The author trots out some not very original ideas on football as mock combat. Maybe men enjoy (and bond) watching other men lay each other out, because they "experience vicarious feelings of dominance.'' But women compose roughly 40 percent of the NFL fan base, and a third of football's TV viewers. What's their problem?

Soon, though, Almond gets to some keener reasons for the game's grasp. To begin with, "the action (is) simple enough to appeal to a child, the strategy dense enough to engage men of learning.'' More broadly, football perfectly tweaks tensions "between violence and self-control, brains and brawn, ferocity and grace, individual stardom and communal achievement, between painstaking preparation and the instant of primal release.''

He gets it right, and offers some of his most eloquent language, when looking back on his own fall for football: "What kept me hooked was the limbic tingle familiar to any fan, the sense that I was watching an event that mattered. … The players dashed about, their bodies lit in a kind of bright funnel of consequence."

Ultimately, though, one consequence looms disturbingly large: the game's violence and dangers, intrinsic to its appeal. Almond astutely breaks down a stadium crowd's reaction to a player getting "jacked up'' (sustaining a vicious hit) as "an involuntary exclamation that combines shock, distress, and delight in about equal measures."

In one telling passage Almond and his sources discuss football's "rich narrative structure'' and dramatic potential. Early 20th century sportswriter Heywood Broun compared the quarterback's signals to "preliminary exposition. Then the plot thickens. …'' Narrative creators in film and in print know that whenever possible, they should "raise the stakes''; football's are high, and evident, from the first snap. The players — the protagonists and antagonists — show great courage as well as skill on every play. The excitement of this Sunday storytelling is intensified in brief 60-minute chapters, outcomes revealed in just 17 regular-season episodes. And, Almond concludes, "the physical risks create a higher grade of drama.''

This game is so thrillingly good and wildly bad it fires neurons and cuts through complacency, even in a jaded era. Football's reality show is live, unscripted and saturated in conflict. From this story and spectacle, fans are not likely to turn away; such is our hunger for our hunger game.

John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa.

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