An Interview With Steve Almond, author of “Against Football”

Against Football cover

Steve Almond isn’t scared to rake some muck. In his latest book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Almond tackles his personal obsession head on. “I’ve spent years trying to quit football,” he confesses, only to succumb, like many Americans, to the game’s allure. He acknowledges a need for distraction in a world where “sea levels rose 3.2 millimeters last year. The Nikkei average is down 6 percent. Dick Cheney remains sentient.” He explores our fascination with football’s athletes, how we, a mimetic species, “want to find magic within ourselves. And, failing that, we want to watch as someone else does.”

But mainly Almond grapples with football’s moral complications. Many of its players are hand-picked from impoverished communities, sequestered from the general population, exploited for their strengths, then cast off when damaged. (The average player can expect up to die two decades earlier than his fans). Sexual violence by players is condoned; when the assaulted speak out, they are slut-shamed. How at a time when our government is cutting social support networks, taxpayers are bankrolling stadiums with no return on their investment. “That’s not even capitalism, that’s feudalism,” Almond notes.

Almond’s book offers no solutions, just raises questions. Yet with the NFL slated to become as big as McDonald’s and Nike within ten years, Against Football is a provocative book relevant to the sports’ fans and critics alike.

Almond and I first met at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland. We spoke about muckraking by phone.

Who were your favorite muckrakers? Who influenced you?

For sure Steinbeck. He did a series of features for a SF newspaper that explored the plight of migrant workers in CA. He spent years on it before trying to write the Grapes of Wrath, a great book that resonates louder and louder as America descends into its capitalistic psychosis, and it all started from his muckraking.

What are your favorite protest novels?

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee is what we would call now immersion journalism. What he is really writing about is the American story of poverty vs. great wealth. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is an amazing book, deeply disturbing.

An amazing muckraker who does not get enough love is Debbie Nathan. She wrote one of my favorite books of all time, Women and Other Aliens, mostly journalism she did for the Texas Monthly while living in El Paso. She writes so beautifully about what it’s like when a wealthy country is up against a country where people are starving to death. Which is really our border situation when you look at it with moral clarity. Immigrants want to come to the United States not because we espouse noble values, but because we are the land of plenty. We represent the exact same dream to those kids on the border as California represented to the migrant workers that Steinbeck wrote about.

Muckrackers are simply the people who take a step back and ask basic moral questions. Why are there these huge disparities in wealth on our planet? How does this wealth affect our perception of human worth? Why do we treat people who believe so deeply in the American dream as criminals simply because they were born at a certain latitude and longitude that isn’t the United States? Or because they have the wrong color skin?

Were there any cultural factors that led to your muckraking?

I’m a child of Watergate, of the Seventies, when investigative journalism was a big deal. It’s hard for younger people to imagine this, but the media hasn’t always been this big stimulation game. It wasn’t all about getting clicks and keeping eyeballs glued to some fabricated fucking soap opera narrative completely divorced from the moral implications of how our political actors behave. I believed in Woodward and Bernstein, in the idea that a corrupt president could be taken down by an intrepid free press. I remember watching Nixon resign and absorbing the idea that these guys took down a crooked lying corrupt administration.

How did your family background impact your writing?

My parents were part of the countercultural movement; there was a real discussion of morality in our house. My parents were both involved in the protests against the Vietnam War and the larger social causes of that time: The War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement. They were deep believers in social justice, which is not a political thing. It is a moral thing. It does not fit in the cable news rubric of politics as bloodsport. It’s more like, “Hey, if you see suffering in the world, part of your job as a human being is to be a little bit responsible for alleviating that suffering in whatever way you can.”

Plus, my folks were psychiatrists so they were concerned about the insides of people, why we make the decisions we make. What inside of us reduces our capacity to feel sympathy for others or activates our self-destructive capacity? Those questions are really psychological questions and the place that answers them most powerfully for me is literature, both fiction and nonfiction. All of these preoccupations come straight from my family. And if you want to trace it back a few more generations, I come from a long line of rabbis who are asking big questions about the world and why it operates as it does. And how, as it spirals into chaos and confusion, we make sense of the world? How do we make meaning from this incessant rush of experience? These concerns — maybe I should call them anxieties — have always been in the groundwater.

How did those questions lead you to writing a manifesto against one of your favorite pastimes?

Part of the job of the rhetorician is to argue with the world, but the more interesting question is why do you do that? Before you spend your time complaining about the rest of the world, why are you going to watch the Oakland Raiders play football on a Sunday? Why have you chosen to orient your whole life around watching some corporatized combat between grown men in black and silver uniforms, when you’ve got other business to conduct. And when you know that the game itself is corrupt on six different levels?

The point of Against Football is not just that the game fosters a tolerance for greed and violence and misogyny and militarism. The real intention is to investigate why fans like me, who know all this, still become obsessed, why we give so much of our head and hearts to this corrupt game.

The point of Against Football is not just that the game fosters a tolerance for greed and violence and misogyny and militarism. The real intention is to investigate why fans like me, who know all this, still become obsessed, why we give so much of our head and hearts to this corrupt game.

For me, the answer comes down to the family I grew up in, my own neuroses about masculinity and competitiveness, and how I made my place in my family, and the family of man, by becoming an athlete and a fan. I’m not trying to strongarm the reader so much as understand my own crazy.

I think we’re in an historical moment where people are finally starting to question the hazards of the game, where the biggest thing in America has also become one of the most morally complicated.

Yeah, you knew Sept 11th was serious because they cancelled all the football games.

Interestingly, the more I researched football, the more I saw it as reflection of American pathologies. I wanted to figure out how it operates on our psyches — our sexual identities, our racial identities, our attitudes towards war and soldiers. It became a lot deeper and darker and it kept expanding.

I wasn’t expecting it to be as muckraking as it is. I wasn’t expecting, for instance, to write so much about cases of sexual assault. But those cases are so stark. It’s so obvious that we, as a culture, grant certain privileges and prerogatives to these players. They become our archetypes of masculinity.

Any case of sexual assault is disturbing and frightening. But a much of the community in Steubenville, Ohio tried to cover up a brutal sexual assault simply because the perpetrators were high school football stars. They looked past the fact that a young woman has been physically and psychologically traumatized.

The more I looked at the way in which America’s brain operates on football the more disturbed I became. And I wondered: what might America look like if we did not devote so much time to this game? If we did not spend so much time watching men slam into each other until many of them get brain damaged? I realized that football was a window onto this larger question of wealth and poverty in the country. Like anything, when you really look at it, it’s about everything.

It was interesting the way you tie the rise of television and nationalism. It’s interesting because while you are tracing the dominance of football during the Iraq War, the most recent one, I was noticing at the same time the rise of the celebrity industrial complex. Both of them they are all distractions from all the things that are really involving us, right?

They’re distractions from an anxiety that Americans justifiably feel. Most of our civic institutions are broken. Our political system is broken. It’s broken because moneyed interests want it to be broken, because their businesses run better when government is inefficient and corrupt. People don’t have political heroes. And there is something about sports that does appeal to us on a very fundamental level: the American ideal of a meritocracy. And also to our exceptionalism, our desire to see and associate ourselves with greatness. Plus, there’s the inherent drama of the game itself, which is real. It’s not just brutal. It’s a brutal form of beauty. Football is like the Doritos of sport: it’s been engineered to hit our bliss point.

Football is like the Doritos of sport: it’s been engineered to hit our bliss point.

Did you have any nervousness about having written a manifesto against America’s favorite pastime?

Football is just a game. But it’s also a huge industry and a huge national passion. It occupies a lot of our psychological and emotional real estate. It’s the job of writers and artists to probe the meaning of that terrain. This is just the business I’m in.

And I want a whole bunch of people to read it. They can hate it all they want, but at least read it. I want women who have no interest in the game but understand its cultural import to read it. I want reluctant fans like me to read it. I want Chuck Klosterman and Bill Simmons and all the members of the sports media to read it. I know I’ll face some hating and I’ll take that. I just want the book to spur a larger discussion that goes beyond concussions, that also asks us to confront the false dream that football has sold us.

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