Confronting the 'football industrial complex'

An Atlanta Falcons defender tackles a St Louis Rams player in a game in November 2010. Image copyright Getty Images

"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.

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.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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.

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.