published Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Cook: End the fantasy of football

My son has his own houndstooth hat, for crying out loud.

Just the other day, we watched preseason, then bought a new ball, ran some slant routes in the front yard -- start toward the mailbox, then cut hard left to the neighbors' rose bushes -- and then went back inside to sort out his jerseys: Peyton on top, an old M. Vick on the bottom, Aaron Rodgers right in the middle.

"Dad, can we go throw after dinner?" he asked.

"Is the pope Catholic?" I answered.

So what I'm about to write fills me with grief, anger and a very real amount of anxiety, the way it may feel to quit smoking.

Here goes.

Thanks to a man named Steve Almond, I am oh-this-close to boycotting the football season entirely. No more watching games on TV. No more fantasy draft. No more Saturday college or Sunday pro. I'll go deaf-dumb-and-blind to it all.

Why?

You know the reasons.

Deep down inside, you know.

"I've come to believe that football fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, misogyny and militarism," Almond writes in the Boston Globe. "I believe it does economic damage to our communities and to the national soul. These are some of the reasons why I've stopped watching."

Football can get right many things: a team ethic, a struggle over adversity, a leaping-athleticism and the contribution of a library of heroes. Peyton. Reggie. Jim Brown.

Yet football gets a lot wrong: It has the power to distort something within the male soul. Modern football, namely the NFL, promotes a grabby sexism. It supports a show-me-the-money greed that has nothing to do with character, virtue or integrity. It is soaked in alcoholism.

It carries, as historian Taylor Branch said, a whiff of the plantation.

It is violent and destructive.

And some days, we love it more than God.

That's why, starting this season, Almond's going cold turkey against a game he's loved for decades. (Guy grew up in Pittsburgh; says he's not just a casual fan, but a fanatical one.)

Not long ago, he found himself at the hospital-bedside of his mom, who was suffering from dementia. Almond began to realize the similarities between his brain-injured mother and modern football players, for whom brain injury seems less the exception and more the rule.

"Football can cause traumatic injury to the brain, not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played," he writes.

Recently retired pros are 19 times more likely to suffer from memory-related illnesses, like Alzheimer's and dementia, than the general population, one study shows.

So Almond's conscience couldn't square the pleasure of watching football with the morality of it. By cheering on Saturdays and Sundays, aren't we conferring blessing and approval on a system that is inherently destructive? What's the degree of separation between us on our couch and the bedside of a retired player suffering from suicidal thoughts and dementia?

"I found myself feeling more and more complicit about my love of football, a game that destroys men's brains as a matter of course," he writes.

So he stopped watching. Reprogrammed the presets on his car radio. Turned off ESPN. Told his buddies he wasn't going to the bar anymore for game night.

And he began writing.

Today, which is also the same day Madden 15 comes out, Almond releases his new book -- "Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto" -- which describes the way he began to rethink his uneasy allegiance with modern American football.

Almond questions:

• What does it mean when our institutions of higher education embrace a sport that causes brain damage?

• Are we addicted to football?

• Does it promote racism, homophobia, violence and greed?

In my heart of hearts, I know the answers to these questions.

But I also know that watching football has brought me a lot of joy, especially with this mini-me boy at home. Do I really want to give that up? Do I really want to boycott that?

Then again, what am I teaching my son ... if I don't?

"Consuming as a form of entertainment a game that causes human beings to suffer brain damage is wrong," Almond writes. "It would be convenient to ignore this fact or rationalize it away. It would also be immoral."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Rickaroo said...

I'm dumbfounded to see no comments! I really thought there would be a heavy response to this article. David Cook, you make some valid points about Americans' love (obsession) for football, but I think that to become a martyr and give up watching and being a fan is like spitting into the wind. Football is too much engrained in the American psyche to think that one or a few individuals' giving up watching it is going to make one iota of difference. Still, I suppose if one's conscience is troubled by taking pleasure in the viewing of it, then ya gotta do what ya gotta do.

As for the concussion aspect of it, even with the risks and dangers being exposed now more than ever, there doesn't seem to be much of a drop-off in kids and young men of all ages, from grammar school to the pro-level, eagerly participating in the sport. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is that there continue to be measures, both technological and rules-oriented, put in place that minimize concussions as best they can.

As violent as football is (it's as close we can come to actual gladiatorial combat without the blood and the killing), it is still quite humane with regards to the sportsmanship that is evident. There are far more instances where the participants are basically good sports than there are times when they give in to unchecked violence towards their opponent. And at least we can take heart in knowing that the vast majority of football fans prefer to witness good sportsmanship instead of excessive violence between opponents.

I believe that one would do better to target professional "wrestling" as a peculiar American perversion instead of football.

August 26, 2014 at 4:55 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

For anyone who might be interested: there is an excellent documentary on the dangers of concussions, primarily in football, but inherent in many other sports as well. It's called "Head Games." I saw it on Netflix streaming but it has been a while ago, so I don't know if it's still available there.

August 26, 2014 at 5:37 p.m.
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