Sunday is America’s annual concussion carnival, the Super Bowl. Steve Almond knows a lot about it—he wrote the book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
Jon Wiener: Let’s review the evidence. Are you sure that football players get head injuries that lead to brain damage—or is that just liberal whining?
Steve Almond: I’m sure it’s liberal whining, but one of the stories that got obscured earlier this season was an actuarial report the NFL commissioned in response to the lawsuit filed by former players. The NFL’s own actuaries estimated that 30 percent of former players are going to wind up with long-term cognitive ailments. In America’s most famous workplace, the employers say that nearly a third of their employees will wind up with brain damage.
I’ve heard that football is big business. Is this true?
It’s about $10 billion for the NFL, the tax-exempt NFL. The college game is probably more than that. There is the game of football, which is beautiful in many ways. Then there’s this rapacious industry that has grown up around it, which is essentially American capitalism on steroids.
Were you ever a football fan?
Oh yeah. Forty years. And I still love the game. As a form of entertainment it’s absolutely thrilling. It reconnects us to the intuitive pleasures of childhood. It’s watching greatness, grace and heroism on display.
But for football fans, isn’t part of the fun of the game witnessing the violence, the head injuries? “Hit ‘em again, harder!”
Almost any fan you talk to will say, “I don’t watch the game to see the violence.” There’s something disingenuous about that. I will say, as a recovering fan, that I did watch for the violence. That’s part of the charge of football. It’s a collision sport, which separates it from most other sports. That’s why they replay all the big violent hits; that’s the reason they have those parabolic microphones on the sidelines. You can hear it in the crowd when there’s a big hit. Touchdowns get really loud cheers, but there’s nothing like that “oooh!” sound of 50,000 people who’ve just watched a player suffer some kind of brain injury in a big hit. Football allows us to indulge in our blood lust without facing the blood part of it.
You say in your book that the problem goes beyond violence and includes racism. But isn’t football a place where black people excel and become heroes—and also wealthy men?
There is a tiny sliver of the total number of men who want to play football who wind up becoming wildly famous. But the reason they become famous that they play a really violent sport that’s a profound risk to their own health—for our entertainment. It’s the most decadent kind of plantation system you can imagine. It’s a highly monetized version of a slave auction. The only rubric by which these young African-American men are being judged by the representatives of the white owners—note the word—is how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how strong they are. Football is a way to control and channel our own misconceptions and distorted thinking about male sexuality, especially African-American males.
Is there any way to make football safe for the players?
It’s not a concussion problem. It’s not a violence problem. Football has a physics and physiology problem. The physics are simple: mass times acceleration equals force. The players have gotten more massive, much bigger than they ever were, and they run faster than they used to. Therefore—do the math—the force is much greater than it’s ever been in the game. But the brain remains what it always was, a soft organ encased in the hard shell of the skull. The players can no longer safely play the game because of the physics of our bodies. Any of these ideas about a different helmet or a rule change are just magical thinking. No responsible neurologist suggests the sport is ever going to be made safe, especially because the real danger is not concussions. It’s the accretion of the hundreds and thousands of sub-concussive hits that leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, this form of dementia that’s associated with football at every level—not just the big catastrophic hits, but the dozens of hits that are part of every single football play.