Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto
By Steve Almond
Melville House, 2014
By Kerry Howley
Sarabande Books, 2014
America’s relationship to violence manifests in society as a kind of spectacle and entertainment. The average Sunday NFL game viewer in a sports bar readily acknowledges football is violent and causes injury, yet the pain endured by these modern-day gladiators is not really felt. We believe in consequence-free violence because much of the effects of gridiron collisions, crowd-pleasing tackles and bone-bending pile-ons are hidden from view, explained and redirected by radio and television announcers and NFL spokesmen, according to Steve Almond, author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
Yet there are cracks in the American psyche. Almond approaches the topic of being a fan of the nation’s most popular sport by recounting his youthful football prowess in backyard games and rooting for the Oakland Raiders teams of the 1970s that featured hard-hitting stars such as Jack “The Assassin” Tatum and Ted “Kick ’Em in the Head” Hendricks. Almond uses ironic distance to describe when he began to question football’s transcendence — a player is quoted in the media about being leveled and not recalling lying on the ground after the fact. “I wasn’t out cold, but I was out.” Almond pasted the quote to his office wall.
Against Football is a short book that urges fans to think more deeply about our nation’s most popular sport and perhaps turn off the TV on Sunday afternoons. Almond offers a torrent of evidence: the concussions, greedy owners fleecing cities for new stadiums while municipal infrastructure crumbles, football’s cultural function of valorizing military action. Almond’s confessional is akin to a pebble in a deep and swift-moving river. The National Football League is a $9 billion per year industry. And while the NFL has been criticized for its slap-on-the-wrist penalties for players implicated in domestic violence incidents and its callousness toward thousands of former players who now suffer brain damage from blows absorbed during their careers, the league’s games are the highest-rated programs on television. Want to buy a 30-second ad spot during this year’s Super Bowl? That will cost you $4.5 million.
Almond tries a reasoned approach to reach the jersey-clad masses and the book has gotten publicity while citing thinkers as far afield as Karl Marx and Moneyball author Michael Lewis. Nevertheless, Almond is a voice in the wilderness who does not help his case with cringe-worthy declarations — such as “Our family attends the local Unitarian Universalist service … so we can feel a part of some community that still believes in social justice and economic equality and the rest of those extinct hippie values” — that miss their mark like a quarterback’s wobbly downfield pass that sails well over its intended target.
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Mixed martial arts is not nearly as popular as the NFL, yet the flagship company promoting the sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), now rivals boxing in the size of its following. Mixed martial arts combines striking, kickboxing and grappling, all of which take place inside an octagonally-shaped ring. It is an exciting combat sport currently banned in New York State. It was popularized in the early 1990s through videos of wily and thin Brazilian jujitsu black belt Royce Gracie tying much larger muscled men into knots.
The skills of the fighters have increased over the past two decades and now the sport has found its unlikely bard in Kerry Howley, a bookish writer who immerses herself in the lives of two fighters whose careers are headed in very different directions.
In Thrown, Howley philosophizes the sport’s inherent brutality and pulls no punches about the fighters she follows. She latches on to her subjects, a groupie of sorts, and becomes emotionally close to them. She is privy to the private life of downwardly mobile cage fighter Sean Huffman — his heart-wrenching texts with the mother of a child who may not be his own, Huffman catnapping backstage before a bout, another fighter sobbing after taking a beatdown. And then there’s the requisite shady fight promoter who fakes a heart attack and leaves the site of one of Huffman’s friend’s fights in an ambulance with the cash box in hand.
Huffman’s training and his personal life are his downfall, while watching fighter Erik “New Breed” Koch was “to watch Cartesian dualism disproved,” Howley writes. Mind and body are one with Koch, who is the fighter with a future who overcomes a concussion to earn a UFC title show in Rio de Janeiro. He can take Howley to transcendant moments that she captures on the page.
In both Against Football and Thrown the authors explore the allure and even beauty of violence as spectacle and sport. Almond argues that at the very least we the fans need to stop fooling ourselves and understand that the NFL (the same applies to the UFC) is a corporation that mistreats the players and seeks to maximize profits and minimize risks to management while assuming the fan as a given. The NFL players’ union toyed with going on strike in 2011 before signing a new collective bargaining agreement with the league. What will it take for the fans to walk?