Photo courtesy Melville House
Tragedy is on every page of today’s football narrative. Stories of bad behavior among players aren’t new—but scientific awareness of the repercussions of head injuries in NFL players, and in our children, is.
It is changing how we sports-parent: In Eden Prairie there’s been a 25 percent decrease in youth football participation. In St. Anthony Village, I pulled my own sons out after reading the Sports Illustrated feature on former quarterback Jim McMahon, as well as New York Times coverage of kids and concussions. (And after a physician and former Park Nicollet Institute CEO flat-out told me to.)
Yet three of the four children in my household (all boys) were at Sunday’s Vikings season opener, cheering along in the appropriate merchandise, missing their beloved A.P.
This is exactly the complicated intellectual-emotional space of Steve Almond’s latest book, Against Football. He’ll lead what is sure to be a lively conversation about it at the Loft Literary Center, Tues. Sept. 23.
The point of the book, Almond says, “isn't to judge fans or make them feel bad. It's to compel them to confront the realities of football.” It’s an indictment of the NFL and team owners, an exploration of how the exploitative systems behind football are masked by the epic emotions it produces, and a highly relatable memoir of fandom and boyhood.
But chapter eight does take on the machine of youth football, and it's not nearly as adorable as an eight-year-old in pads. In fact, it's rather anger-inducing.
Here Almond answers six questions for parents, including one about you-know-who.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash: You mention in your book how Jared Allen’s salary compares to a Minnesota schoolteacher’s—a sad comparison kids can process. You also talk about our stadium deal and the public funds it required. How do we explain to kids taxes and public funds and referendums and things even grownups get mixed up about?
Steve Almond: That's a hard talk to have, but it's also pretty straightforward for kids. They recognize (or should) that there are certain things that are really important, such as having good teachers and schools and safe streets. A lot of the problem with American culture right now is that our priorities are out of whack. While games are fun and a release, they shouldn't become more important to kids, or parents, than developing minds as well as a sense of empathy.
Stephanie: I was shocked to read that high school players are twice as likely to incur concussions as college ones. What do you think about the NFL-Pop Warner Heads Up training, and the NFL’s marketing to moms?
Steve: Honestly, I don't have a lot of trust in the goodwill of the NFL. They're a giant corporation that has converted our athletic devotion into a nihilistic engine of greed. They've got a cash register where their soul should be. So when the NFL makes these outreach efforts—whether it's the Heads Up thing or putting pink cleats on their players—I see positive actions. But I also see a calculated effort to "increase market share" and "build revenues." I understand why the NFL is marketing to moms. But I also think that moms, and other women, represent a kind of silent majority in this country. They have the most to lose when it comes to football, because of the dangers of the game to young men, but also the toxic gender roles it portrays.
Stephanie: One of the hardest parts of saying “no” to football as a parent is the question you posed so eloquently: How do we help boys who “are looking for greatness in themselves?” The values of courage and self-sacrifice are, well, valuable!
Steve: It is tough. I have one son and he's five. But I can already see that when he gets frustrated he's more apt to lash out physically. Physical aggression is just a part of the package with boys. And I do hear from a lot of former players and coaches that the game helps boys develop virtues such as discipline, teamwork, and perseverance. But the generalized idea that kids learn only courage from football is an absurd and dangerous myth. (After all, very few young women play football; does this mean they have no hope of developing the same virtues?)
Kids face adversity all the time—in classrooms, at home, on the playground. There's no doubt that sports can help them develop the strength of character to "get back up." But so can a loving parent or a dedicated teacher or an inspiring pastor or a great book—and without putting those kids' health at such profound risk.
Stephanie: Your reflections on your personal experiences with football as a kid were insightful and relatable. How would your childhood have been different without football?
Steve: I'm not arguing that I want "football" to disappear. What I want, mostly, is for this giant, corrupt industry that's grown up around the game to go away. Most of the bad decisions and bad outcomes in football can be traced directly to money, to the commercialization of the game. That being said, there are dozens of other great sports that kids can play. The rest of the world, after all, seems to do just fine with soccer (and cricket and tennis and so on). And here in America, we do have those same alternatives.
Stephanie: What does an educated, moral, intelligent family do together instead of play football? (Don’t say “go canoeing.”)
Steve: I'm not sure that sitting around watching football (or anything else on TV) is really the ideal way to relate or interact. It's a pretty passive experience. What makes more sense? How about a family outing that involves exercise? Or going to church? Or cooking and eating together? Or doing volunteer work? Or reading a book together? Or having a family dance party? I don't mean to be hokey, but our time on earth is brief and precious and we should spend it actively transmitting love for one another. It's not that football doesn't connect families. As I write at the end of the book, I get how it bonds fathers and sons, especially, but also fathers and daughters, and relatives of all kinds. But it's also a way of kind of sublimating intimacy. Rather than directly engaging each other, we have this beautiful, brutal game between us.
Stephanie: And how about that Adrian Peterson?
Steve: What Adrian Peterson and his family need right now is counseling and support, not a media scrum and a nation of rubberneckers.
The best thing parents can do is think about their own children.
There is some argument to be made that Peterson's alleged violence reflects upon the inherent violence of the profession, but that seems to me its own issue. In other words, we don't need to gawk at photos of an alleged beating to comprehend that football is a profoundly violent sport. After all, the NFL just admitted in federal court documents that nearly a third of all players will wind up with long-term cognitive ailments. That should trouble anyone who loves the game, and its players. These same sentiments apply to the Ray Rice case, or any of the other scandals around players' off-the-field conduct.
We should spend less time as a culture gazing at the iniquity of others, and more time reflecting on our own morality, and whether that morality is reflected in the forms of entertainment we consume.
I may be the only one who feels this way, but I found it quite odd and disturbing that Hannah Storm is sounding off on football when it is her job to promote the sport. She has three daughters, and they are football fans, too. But the sport clearly portrays both men and women in ways that are extreme and objectifying. This is why I have trouble, as a father, watching the game.