Confronting the 'football industrial complex'

An Atlanta Falcons defender tackles a St Louis Rams player in a game in November 2010.

"Are you ready for some football?"

It's the shouted rhetorical question that has started Monday night National Football League (NFL) broadcasts for decades.

For the millions of Americans who make the NFL by far the most popular US professional sport, the answer has long been yes. And it will be again on Thursday night, as NFL season kicks off with a matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the defending Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks.

Start Quote

Fans need to recognise that the game isn't going to change until we force the issue by walking away”

End Quote Steve Almond Author

Every Sunday (and Monday, and some Saturdays and Thursdays) for the next five months, millions of Americans - and plenty of Brits, thanks to three regular-season games in London - will feast on a bacchanalia of gridiron pageantry.

Best-selling author Steve Almond, however, won't be watching.

The self-professed long-time American football fan writes in the Los Angeles Times that he feels guilty about watching a sport whose participants risk traumatic brain injury. More than that, however, he says he objects to "the cynical commercialisation of the sport, its cultish celebration of violence and the more subtle ways in which football warps our societal attitudes about race, gender and sexual orientation."

He says that he, like other spectators, are enabling the corruption of a game he used to love.

"Fans need to recognise that the game isn't going to change until we force the issue by walking away," he writes.

It's not as easy as it may seem, however, as every sport channel and website this time of year is packed full of football-related content. Moreover, with friends who are passionate fans, boycotting football means abandoning the social activity that revolves around the weekly contests.

Former NFL star Earl Campbell is driven onto the field during a Houston Texans American football game in January 2013. Former NFL star Earl Campbell, 59, suffers from debilitating back and knee pain following a seven-year playing career

"A lot of people criticise football," Almond says. "Not all of them recognise how deeply meaningful it can be to fans like me."

In another piece, written for Salon, Almond addresses what he calls the "toxic lies" football fans tell themselves to calm a guilty conscience.

The game is getting safer? Hardly, he says. Tackling and violent collisions are still an integral part of the game. Injuries still abound. And even the most state-of the art gear can't prevent possibly debilitating concussions.

The players know what they're getting into and are paid millions? It's only because the fans create the market. Players perform for our amusement. And the "Football Industrial Complex", as he calls it, grinds up and spits out the tens of thousands of others who play but don't get the golden lottery ticket of a career in the NFL.

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Football is a warlike game, and we are now a warlike nation”

End Quote Mark Edmundson University of Virginia

Complain as Almond might - and he'll keep on doing it, as he's got a book to sell on the topic - football's popularity shows no sign of fading.

According to University of Virginia Prof Mark Edmundson, it's because football represents what the US has become.

"Football is a warlike game, and we are now a warlike nation," he writes in the Los Angeles Times. "Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people."

Back when the US was more pacifistic - when it had to be dragged, kicking and screaming into world wars - baseball was the national pastime.

"That game is skill-based, nonviolent and leisurely," he writes.

Football, however, "is urban, tough and based to a large degree on the capacity to overwhelm the other team with sheer force. Football is a tank attack, a sky-borne assault, a charge into the trenches for hand-to-hand fighting."

He, too, worries about the societal cost of the sport. Is football an outlet for our passions or a contributing factor to a growing culture of violence?

"If the modern world is truly a place where a nation must be ready to fight constantly in order to survive, then perhaps football serves a general good," he writes. "But whether the only way to thrive as a nation and a people is through the capacity for warfare, one can certainly doubt."

Michael P Noonan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute thinks such an reading is going too far, however. All sport - baseball, football, jai alai, whatever - is a proxy for war, he writes for US News & World Report. Football, however, is popular in part because it most resembles the modern ideal of warfare:

"Quick, violent action. Fighting similarly organised foes. Defined end-states with a clear victor. This is how most military professionals would also prefer war."

All of this debate recalls an old stand-up routine by the late comedian George Carlin about the differences between football and baseball.

"Baseball is a 19th Century pastoral game," he says. "Football is a 20th Century technological struggle."

Perhaps most importantly, according to Carlin, the difference between football and baseball is expressed in the attitude of the fans.

"In baseball, during the game in the stands there's kind of a picnic feeling," he says. "Emotions may run high or low, but there's not that much unpleasantness."

"In football in the stands during the game," he counters, "you can be sure that at least 27 times you are perfectly capable of taking the life of a fellow human being - preferably a stranger."

Growing up, my favourite football teams were the NFL's San Diego Chargers and the University of Texas Longhorns. For many years, Junior Seau anchored the Chargers defence with passion and skill. And I still hold dear a football autographed by star Texas running back Earl Campbell.

Seau is dead now, having taken his own life after suffering for years from symptoms of brain trauma. At 59, Campbell can barely walk, his body wreaked by the cumulative effects of countless violent tackles.

Is this what football does to its stars? Almond suggests that this is the blood on the hands of the millions of fans.

And yet unlike Almond, I'll still watch games this fall. I'm still ready for some football.

But I'm starting to feel uneasy about it.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    The basic pretext may be valid but the question remains: why do people want this? As long as they do in a free society there will be a football industrial complex ready and willing to provide the fans with what they want. And in the end it's the mob mentality that loves the game that will prevent the fans "from just walking away". Maybe conduct containment is the only real answer we have here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    64 sure, sports (as other things) can turn lives around. But that doesn't mean there aren't risks. A worse culprit is boxing (a worse culprit of similar injuries). In the end it comes down to what those involved are willing to risk. Sadly though lawsuits against teams for injuries is not unheard of. And that is where the real wrong is (they don't know the risks? Well that isn't the team's fault).

  • Comment number 65.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Utter BS the rules have changed to the detriment of the game over the last 20years. You are lucky to see one big hit a game and that gets flagged. This is the same liberal BS that wants the Washington Redskins to change teams name. Players play as kids upwards for fun. I played in London from age of 15 for 13 years not for money but because I enjoyed the game. It can turn a young life around.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    US Professional football is nothing more than a capitalistic extravaganza that wrenches money from "fans" and even citizens who live in a city that want to build a stadium. What a racket!

    US citizen who never watches any sport these days, and has no TV. :-)


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