Click to listen to this essay
Responding to Steve Almond’s writing on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and football, Asbridge claims that Almond isolates three key contributors to the perpetuation of unsafe practices in football: the fans, the players and the officials. Asbridge ultimately puts forth the argument that a sense of idolatry on the part of the fan, of an elite fraternity for the players, and of capital gain on the part of NFL officials play significant roles in the continuation of this violence. The interconnectedness of these three comprise the key site of Asbridge’s critique.
ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing
Day Month Year
Rogue Game: A Response to Steve Almond
Q: Do you think CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is a problem in the world of pro-football?
Fan: CTE? Uh, I mean, it doesn’t sound too good, but it won’t be a problem because we’ve got a great team, they’re coming out strong this season, and they’ve got all of us behind them. Go [insert team name here]!
Player: Nah. Most of us have had some pretty nasty hits but the key is just to tough it out, in the end we heal up and are back to normal in no time.
NFL Official: Of course not, this is a media issue. Anyone who’s read our research on the subject, featured in the accredited magazine, Neurosurgery, knows that the real problem isn’t CTE but players’ pre-existing mental, physical, and/or substance abuse issues.
Steve Almond, in a chapter of his book, Against Football, entitled, “You Knock My Brains Out This Sunday and I Knock Your Brains Out the Next Time We Meet,” emphasizes the permanent damage that violence in football often causes to players and analyses reasons as to why it is so overlooked. He pinpoints three main contributors to the marginalization of the violence: the fans, who may “pay lip service to health issues,” but who often suspect hurt players, rather than pity them (Almond 30); the players who willingly disregard their health to avoid feeling/being regarded as weak; and NFL officials themselves, who have no problem lying, manipulating, and coercing to keep people ignorant.
Q: Do you acknowledge that by attending the games, or even watching them on TV, you are facilitating the prolongation of violence in the NFL and the harm that comes to the players?
Fan: Look, this game is no more violent than any other major sport. The players love it and they know the risk of getting hurt. We fans are not the problem, all we’re guilty of is rooting for our team to win.
Almond, as a former football fan, understands the appeal of the game. He recalls that to go on watching remorselessly, both he and his family ignored the violence for years – in fact, he “doesn’t recall that [they] ever talked about” it in some cases (21). Almond chocks up his family’s behavior to more than mere apathy; he cites an underlying “delight that boys (and later men) take in tackling and pounding and hurting” and in seeing such behavior “granted a coherent, even heroic, context” (20- 21). The barbarism, which is allowed only on the field, not only reminds fans of what they can’t lawfully do (that is, inflicting pain on others), but also satiates a primal impulse that, for the most part, lies dormant in modern society.
This fascination is perpetuated, Almond explains, by the fact that we are “soaking” in “self-delusion” (24). He certainly backs this statement up when recounting his meeting with Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who “cuts up the brains of former players and determines if they have CTE” (Almond 31). Almond says that despite seeing the damages of football first hand, McKee is still a big fan – she watches the game every Sunday, she found it “horrifying” that her own son couldn’t play (qtd in Almond 32), and she can’t accept the obvious connection between brain damage and the ethical dilemmas embedded in the game. Unfortunately, Dr. McKee is not alone; many other fans also refuse to understand the magnitude of the violence and how utterly compelling it is.
Q: If you got a concussion while playing, would you rest for as long as your doctor recommended or would you continue to play?
Player: I would play, if I’m being honest. My teammates, they all play through anything, and every one of us is important to the team, so unless it’s really serious we all show. Plus, you know, you can’t really let down the fans – some travel hundreds of miles to see you play, so you’d better play.
Almond’s second problem is with the players. He lists the many health risks of playing football – which include being “nineteen times more” likely to suffer brain trauma (22), being susceptible to dementia (26), dying around 20 years earlier than average (22), and even dying on the field (32), to name a few. He speculates: what if players had to have full disclosure about all these issues before starting to play? Would they reconsider? He concludes that, despite the dangers, “most of those kids would sign […] NFL players are members of an elite fraternity that knowingly places self-sacrifice, valor, and machismo above medical common sense” (28). Pressure from the team, this “fraternity,” is what will get a kid to sign on, with or without full disclosure, and what keeps a player playing, even when hurt. What’s even more dangerous for their health, though, is refusing to care for their infirmities for fear of how the fans will react; this is an upsettingly valid concern. It’s clear from the section above that fans are closed-minded towards the players’ injuries and vulnerability. They find it very upsetting that the same superhero-like tough guys, who are often unfazed by the hardest hits, can be bedridden for weeks because of a bump on the head. Since the players are so idolized, getting the fans to understand, rather than oppose, the weaknesses of these men is tremendously difficult. The blame doesn’t fall solely on the fans though; if the players were to admit their limitations, then their supporters would have no choice but to adjust their mind-sets accordingly, and the players’ health wouldn’t be jeopardized. Instead, however, they doubt the fans’ response so much that “they tend to downplay or even hide their infirmities” (Almond 22).
Q: Do you consider what league officials do to be ethical? Do you consider the game itself to be ethical?
NFL official: Football is one of the most ethical and most American games out there. Our research suggests that playing football doesn’t cause health problems; it’s a safe, wholesome game – the players and fans agree. As far as what we league officials do, it’s all pretty standard.
Though the players and fans are a clear part of the problem, they’ve got nothing on the NFL officials. When football was only played in non-profit settings, such as at high schools and colleges, people questioned the morality of it (23), but Almond explains that when it became a professional sport, morality went out the window and money came barrelling in, and it’s only gotten worse since. Rampant capitalism has put greed at the heart of the NFL. This greed, Almond shows us, is what prompts the NFL officials’ relentless attempts to dissuade people from knowing the truth about the effects of violence in football: in 2012, they refuted proper scientific data on the NFL and concussions with an “inherently flawed” study that suggested football players “enjoy greater longevity” (Almond 22); they created a concussion research group which was headed by a man with no neurological background (Almond 25): they published “scientific” papers that we rejected by a number of peer viewers and editors before Neurosurgery magazine finally accepted them (Almond 25); and they bought their way out of having to say what they really know about the trauma in football under oath (Almond 27).
From this, it’s obvious that the NFL is doing everything in its power to “obscure the most disturbing aspects of the game” (Almond 25), so people can enjoy the violence “without dwelling on the ethical costs” (Almond 24). It’s really quite jarring that the corruption and manipulation can affect so many people and effectively keep them from questioning the NFL’s motives. Fans still “want to believe that the league officials will choose the righteous path over the profitable one”(Almond 24), despite the fact that this is clearly “nonsense and always has been” (Almond 24).
Q: How do you feel connected to football?
Fan: I’m connected by the players, they’re, like, my heroes, they’re so skilled and strong, and by the league because I know it cares as much about the game, the players, and us fans as I do.
Player: I feel more connected than anyone. This game brought me up from nothing, it runs through my veins. I love the fans, they believe in me, even when I’m doubting myself, I love the league for giving me a home here, and they love me back.
NFL official: I’m connected in that I run things. I look out for the players, I look out for the fans, and I help them feel good about the league because we need them and they need us.
The fans, the players, and the officials individually seem like fairly strong forces against eliminating violence in football, but something Almond hints at, which is undeniable, is just how intertwined the three are. Six major relationships appear to join them together:
- The fans need the NFL because it provides that satisfaction only violence creates. Without the league there to hide and lie for the game, the government might begin looking in to the ethicality of it and the violence might be lost.
- The fans need the players because they’re their idols. If the people playing the game weren’t the indestructible super-humans they seem to be, it’s safe to assume there would be a significant drop in interest. The fans “worship players for bravery and excoriate them for vulnerability” because they need to think these guys are extraordinary (Almond 31); it gives them a little hope and a big thrill.
- The players need the NFL because football “isn’t just what they do. It’s who they are” (Almond 28). Not only does the league let them be who they are, it also gives the many players who “began life with limited socioeconomic options” (Almond 30), “glory and riches” for playing (Almond 30).
- The players need the fans because they make them feel like the behemoths they know they’re not. They understand that they could get a concussion by playing, but the fans are so devoted and supportive that they’re convinced to toughen up and become exactly who they want to be.
- The NFL needs the fans to come to the game and watch on TV, as “nearly half its total revenue […] is generated by the tens of millions of casual fans engaged in what we might call ‘passive consumption’” (Almond 24). Therefore, to keep people watching, they “do just enough […] to allow us fans to pretend that the league gives a damn” by expertly hiding the fact that “the business they run is unsafe for their workers” (Almond 27).
- And, of course, the NFL needs the players because if these men – who possess priceless qualities, such as playing through pain, succumbing to wealth, and not questioning the league – didn’t exist, there’d go the whole game, and with it, the league’s billions.
The interconnectedness of the triad makes it that much stronger. Each component feeds on the lies and misconceptions of the other two and they all come out with narrower minds because of it; regardless of intentions, they form a sturdy unit of sheer denial. However, though they do make each other stronger, they also need each other desperately – none can stand without the others. This is football’s weakness. It seems that Almond knows this, as rather than attempting to appeal to the whole unit, he writes to just one section – the fans – hoping that if enough of them become aware, they will cause the whole franchise to collapse.
Q: Do you think football will change in any way?
Fan: No, it’s a great game the way it is.
Player: I don’t think so, so many people like it how it is.
NFL official: Of course, we’re always changing – bigger stadiums, better halftime shows, longer games– you name it.
It’s clear that Almond isn’t expecting a miracle. He knows outside forces alone, such as science, testimonies, data, etc., can’t touch football, it’s far too fortified by its subsections for that; instead, he simply asks one subsection, the fans, to recognize the outside sources and come to an objective conclusion based on them. If fans addressed the self-delusion, if players addressed the detrimental macho culture, or if the NFL addressed the corruption and greed, football as we know it would fall. All that’s needed is a majority in one section to reform this capitalistic colossus.
Almond, Steve. “You Knock My Brains Out This Sunday and I Knock Your Brains Out the Next Time We Meet.” Opening Conversations: A Writer’s Reader, edited by Haivan V. Hoang et al, Hayden-McNeil, 2015, pp. 19-33.