Steve Almond talks systemic issues inside NFL at Common Hour

Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor 

Author and journalist Steve Almond spoke at last Thursday’s Common Hour and gave  a talk entitled “The Eager Violence of the Heart: Re-Imagining America’s Concussive Obsession with Football.” His talk focused on the problematic aspects of the National Football League and the game of football in general. He shed light on the violent nature of football and the incentives that keep the NFL going. While acknowledging that there are positive parts of the football experience shared by many Americans, and discussed the problematic parts that complicate his and others’ relationships as fans of the sport.

Almond is the author of eight books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Against Football, which was a New York Times best seller. In addition to books, his short stories have been in publications such as the Best American and Pushcart anthologies. As a journalist, his work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and other publications. He also cohosts a podcast titled “Dear Sugar” with Cheryl Strayed. He is a self-described “militant emotionalist” in his writing. His written work includes all different subjects while often including humor as well.

Amond began his speech with a personal annecdote: in August 1978, Almond watched football with his father on TV, where they showed a play that “has haunted him ever since.” In this play, a Raiders player was run to the ground, and instantly paralyzed. According to Almond, this is when the thrill of violence turned wrong to him. However, he kept watching football and said he has devoted thousands of hours of his life to watching the Raiders.

Almond shared a brief history of football. At colleges, games were truly destructive and participants occasionally died. Eventually the game was reformed and became less violent.

“Football started as a series of controlled riots.. [with the establishment of more rules, there was a] creation of beauty and meaning from controlled violence,” Almond stated.

What started as an “obscure collegiate hazing ritual” became a professional sport. According to Almond, it still remains a sport that values traditional masculine traits and is used to display manhood.

Television became the ideal medium for football, which made its violence “more intimate and abstract.” Football has since become a regular part of American dialogue, and Almond pointed out that even politicians use football jargon in their speeches. People claim it has intellectual value, which to Almond, makes violence seem respectable. Almond said people spend a large amount of their lives as fans, and Americans spend more time on football than any other cultural endeavor. Overall, more people watch the Super Bowl than vote in United States elections.

Almond emphasized that he is indeed a fan of football, and does not think it is all negative. He played football when he was younger and has experience enjoying the violence that football requires. He says people play to “see what you’re made of.” However, he does feel like he is a “recovering football fan.” He argued that football is more than simple entertainment, and it needs to be critiqued as a moral activity.

“It doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us,” Almond said.

While acknowledging that most players go unscathed, Almond noted that many still receive serious brain damage or other complications. Football does not have so much of a concussion or violence problem but rather “a physics and physiology problem.” Diseases like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) do not occur from big catastrophic hits, but the buildup of many smaller hits over time. This is shown through studies conducted on football players who have never been concussed, yet still show diminished brain functions. Almond believes it is a moral problem to watch a sport in which players frequently get brain damage.

Additionally, the football industry is a multi-million-dollar product, which means that NFL franchise owners are focused on profit above all other concerns. Almond pointed out that the NFL is a nonprofit and that taxpayer money often funds the creation of new stadiums, which people are unaware of. Consequently, Almond believes the NFL does not really contribute meaningfully to economic development when it expands or builds new stadiums. Almond stated that they are mainly concerned with winning and making money, although perhaps not in that order. He described the NFL as “capitalism on steroids.”

Almond also relayed some problematic facts about college football. College football players do not get paid except in scholarships. Another problem Almond sees is that when people think of a college, usually the school’s football team comes to mind, and rather than something concerning the academic quality of the college.

Almond did return back to the idea that football is not all bad. He cited examples of people who watch football with their family members and that connection holds a special place in their lives. He stated that he wants his book and his talk to be an honest conversation, and acknowledge the good as well as the problematic aspects of American football.

First-year Christa Rodriguez is the Assistant Campus Life Editor Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu

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