Review by Michael Webb
Against Football by Steve Almond
Random House 2014
Towards the end of the third Christopher Nolan Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises”, Anne Hathaway’s Selena Kyle asks Christian Bale’s Batman to flee doomed Gotham City with her. “You don’t owe these people any more. You’ve given them everything,” she begs. And indeed he has, being cinematically bruised and broken and assaulted almost constantly throughout the three films.
“Not everything. Not yet,” Batman replies.
Steve Almond’s new book, “Against Football“, asks the same question a fair minded citizen of Gotham City might also ask: exactly how hard are we entitled to ask our heroes to break themselves on our behalf? Setting aside the imagined bruises of the fictional Caped Crusader, the very real damage done to brain and spine, ankle and neck, by sports like football requires fan and non fan alike to ask themselves, who are we, if we are the sorts of people who allow, in our culture, entertainers to destroy themselves for public amusement? Have we not progressed beyond Roman emperors, roaring with laughter as human beings are torn apart by wild animals?
Football is by far the largest and most violent of America’s sports. (Every sport has its own toll in ruined knees and hips and elbows, and sports like hockey, boxing, and mixed martial arts are certainly as violent as football, but no sport is both as destructive to its participants and simultaneously as popular and lucrative as American professional football.) And everyone who participates in modern society, even if you don’t know a flanker from a flank steak, is culpable- if you patronize Yahoo or Comcast or Frito Lay or Budweiser or Nike, then you’re part of this problem too.
Almond’s book is a polemic, not intended to be an evenhanded debate. He grew up a football fan, as this author did, and can recite years and stats and great moments like any other sports fan. Almond, the author and cultural critic, doesn’t hate football, but he hates what it is doing to the people who play it, and, by extension, to those of us who passively or actively support it. And after finishing his book, where he provides some very sensible reforms to make football, if it is going to continue to exist, more palatable for all concerned, it is hard to shake the feeling that every concussed skull, every twisted knee and early heart attack, is part of a butcher’s bill that I, and all of us, have to pay. Almond’s book is a tremendous read, as all of his work is, but more than that, it’s an important one, and one that leaves you slightly queasy the next time you set your fantasy football roster or take part in live sports betting.
How much do we ask of our heroes? Almost everything. And even though they volunteer for the duty, and even though they have a slim chance of becoming wealthy beyond imagining, and even though very few of them have materially better choices in life, it is very hard to imagine that this is not too much to ask.