September 27, 2014
I’m a big Steve Almond fan. I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers. His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles. Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.
Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.
BL: I’ve watched some football this season. I feel the need to admit that to you.
SA: I hope they were good games and that you enjoyed watching them! No, I’m not sandbagging you.
Look: I realize I come off as pretty evangelical about quitting football. But mostly I’m trying to keep myself convinced. The game gives fans a lot of pleasure. For some dudes, that pleasure outweighs the guilt.
Yeah, but does that make it right?
Each dude (or dudette) gets to decide that. My goal was to present as true a picture of what football is as I could, and to let people make up their own minds—to pass judgment on myself, not other fans.
The point of my book isn’t to induce fans to turn away from the game; it’s to compel them to see football for what it truly is. After that, they should do what their own conscience recommends, not what Steve Almond Righteous Apostate says.
It really is an addiction, isn’t it?
Have you watched even a minute of it?
I haven’t. But I’ve been insanely tempted. As happens with recovering addicts, the entire world has basically become one giant throbbing high-def plasma screen on which the NFL Red Zone package is playing 24/7. So that’s been nice.
Bill Simmons went off on [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell on his podcast this past week. Called him an outright liar. Used expletives. Dared his bosses at ESPN to give him trouble for it. And they suspended him.
Bravo Bill Simmons! Way to go off on the most convenient villain ever! I just wish I could cuddle up on the couch with Bill and watch Norma Rae together. That would be so awesome. And then, when the movie is over, we can talk about how the NFL is going to be totally different when big, bad Roger Goodell is gone. It’s not going to be a huge, soulless $10 billion dollar industry! It’s not going to extort tax dollars from our cities! It’s not even going to cause brain damage anymore! I can hardly wait.
Maybe this was Bill’s first step toward coming to terms with the harsh reality? Possible? It does seem to be a process for people.
Yes, you’re right. It is a process. And I know Simmons speaks frequently about his misgivings regarding the NFL. Look, I really like him as a writer/personality. He seems smart and passionate. But he also has a tendency to make big declarations about how corrupt football is and then sort of throws up his hands and says, “Whattaya gonna do? I love the game!” In other words, his morality feels performative. He doesn’t actually act on his publicly stated convictions. He blasts guys like Goodell without holding himself accountable as a consumer and promoter of the game.
And then Hannah Storm gave an emotional editorial that’s gotten a lot of play on television and online.
The craziest thing about that righteous little soliloquy wasn’t that Storm earns a salary promoting football. It’s that she talked about watching the video of Ray Rice knocking his girlfriend unconscious with her daughter. At breakfast. I’m just so curious about how that went down. Was it like, “Hey sweetie! I made buttermilk pancakes for us. Remember: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But before we say grace and dig in, I think it would be a really good idea for us to do a little bonding. How about if we watch a video of something violent and sickening? No, honey, not NFL replays of the weekend’s biggest hits. I have something even more breakfast-appropriate in mind!”
Wow. I really don’t get that form of parenting. Does Storm believe that showing her daughter this video is somehow instructive? If so, in what way exactly? I’m genuinely curious about that.
Did she really watch the video with her daughter at the breakfast table? Or had her daughter, like, seen it online? And then they discussed.
Well, here are her exact words: “Meanwhile one of my daughters has her first fantasy football team this season, but at breakfast this week instead of discussing how our team was doing, we watched the Ray Rice video play out again and all its ugliness.” I take that to mean they watched the video. Maybe she means “watched the Ray Rice video play out” in a more general sense. Either way, it still kind of spoils the Cheerios.
Do you think the NFL, and football in general, is reaching a tipping point?
No. I think a tipping point would be President Obama sacking it up and giving a speech about how he’s decided to quit watching the game, and why. Or Bill Simmons. Or an NFL star going into a coma as a result of an on-the-field collision. Or a guy like Brett Favre admitting he has incipient dementia in a TV interview. Or a college president at a major university announcing that she’s shutting down the football program because it doesn’t serve the educational mission of the school.
On the other side of the media equation, you have retired Raven Ray Lewis, no stranger to legal trouble, commenting on the current travails of Ray Rice.
Yeah, I think when you lie to the police about a double murder and then plead out to a charge of obstructing justice it’s probably not a good idea for your network employer to present you as a moral authority. But that’s just me and my crazy pinko logic.
You think Goodell survives this?
Probably not. I think eventually he falls on his sword, receives a nice golden parachute, and paves the way for his logical replacement, Condoleezza Rice. It’s the ultimate PR move. With any luck, Rice will then inform the American people that ISIS has the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon (she’ll pronounce “nuclear” just like Dubya) and launch an invasion of Syria using NFL players. But just the guys from the practice squad.
And what about this “independent investigation” that the NFL has launched. Robert Mueller, former FBI director, is reportedly overseeing it. Are you optimistic that he’ll be giving us a full and transparent account of what happened?
I have a hard time giving a shit about Goodell. The real question is whether Condi wears that awesome Darth Vader dress at the next NFL Draft. I’m thinking yes.
1Here’s the full audio of my Otherppl podcast interview with Steve Almond. [Note: the audio will be available for free for the next several weeks, retroactive to its original air date—August 10, 2014. After that, listeners will need an Otherppl Premium subscription to listen.]