The Bowl


With the Superbowl looming, I thought I’d leave the overinflated Deflate-gate behind and read something more interesting about, yes, football.  I was listening to the latest Dear Sugar Radio where Cheryl and Steve shared criticism they’ve gotten after publishing their respective books.  Apparently if you’re a woman writing about walking alone in the wilderness, you get “You should have been tied to a tree and raped on your Pacific Crest Trail hike” and if you’re a man trying to puzzle out what you love and loathe about football in America, you get hate mail accusing you of being “a big pussy.”

Given my issues with football — Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger, Adrian Peterson, Roger Goodell, Jameis Winston, and the list goes ridiculously on — it will come as no surprise that I’m reading this book where a lifelong football fan wrestles with some of my own questions. What does it mean, as a kid, to be picked or not picked for ‘the team’?  How did a sport that causes brain damage become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning?  Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia?  The players are getting so huge, should there be a weight limit?  What is our expectation of the student-athlete who spends 40-60 hours a week playing, practicing, recovering, working out (only 45% of Division I football players graduate)?  Why do I have such mixed feelings about this sport?

On page 125 Almond writes:  “I don’t mean to be flippant.  I’m sure there are many college players who pursue their studies strenuously.  My point is that the system doesn’t require them to.  The notion that they’ve enrolled in college to learn more about the world of ideas is a fraud we all consent to so we can watch them compete on Saturday.  And it’s a fraud that degrades the essential educational system…  Which is why, when you hear the name of a large state school such as the University of Texas or Florida or Michigan you don’t think of a college at all.  You think of a football team.”

I hear Michigan and immediately think Go Blue!; Notre Dame puts the team fight song in my head; Ohio State and I wonder, as always, why the players say The Ohio State University.

Will you be watching the Superbowl this weekend?  

22 thoughts on “The Bowl

  1. Joe Ponepinto

    I hate to be the first commenter, but…

    Speaking of hate, I hate it when people who know nothing about their subject write about it anyway. Almond’s argument bothers me, not because he’s wrong, but because this book appears to be little more than the personal opinion of a writer who’s never played and doesn’t watch the game, and is based solely on articles he’s read in other media.*

    Steve says, “only 45% of Division I football players graduate.” Shocking! According to the U.S. Department of Education: The 2012 graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2006 was 59 percent. For African-American men the rate is 32%. (68 percent of NFL Players are African-American… And does Almond;s stat remind anyone of the “X% of murders of black people are committed by blacks” stat? Funny he should use this unilateral reasoning.)

    And this: “I’m sure there are many college players who pursue their studies strenuously.” Gee, Steve, how about some research on the subject instead of your hunch?

    Will I watch the Superbowl on Sunday? You bet. Will I kick the furniture if Seattle falls way behind again? Probably. Do I know it’s a violent game that glorifies the brutal side of our nature? Yup. Do the players know they could suffer brain damage or other debilitating injuries that will ruin the rest of their lives? Yes, they do, but most of them play anyway because this is the best (or only) opportunity they will ever have to achieve something of note in our society, as well as possible financial security. Is the NFL moving too slowly to fix their issues? Way too slowly, but they are moving, which is more than we can say for some other sectors of our society.

    Why then, do I watch? Because it’s exciting. Because competition, especially physical competition is as much a part of our nature as is caring for our children. Sometimes we need it, and what better way to get a dose than with a rigorously controlled game? The players know the risks, as do I. In the realm of evils in the world, professional football is not in the top 10, not even in the top 100. It’s at worst a symptom, but not a cause of what ails us.

    *Now I’m torn between buying his book and proving what I said above, which means Almond cashes in on me, or not buying it and becoming guilty of the same lack of integrity as he. It’s a coin flip. Apologies for taking up so much space.

    1. Teri Post author

      Fine arguments all. One of the reasons this book initially interested me is not because it’s about football or full of data, but because of the hate mail Almond received as a result of daring to speak against this sport.

      It’s clear from the first pages that he’s loved football all his life and is writing about his struggle with what he’s learned about the game, and the business of the game, as an adult. His criticism and the reaction to it reminds me of what happens if you dare to question anything culturally sacred — like religion, for example — you’re not even allowed the questioning.

      I love several sports, I love competition, I love the excitement and the hoopla and the incredible physicality and mental and physical discipline required of world-class athletes. And yet, I struggle with all of the things I despise about it too.

    2. Teri Post author

      and P.S. I tried to take up way more space but when I hit “post” the whole thing disappeared. Joke’s on the blogger.

  2. koehlerjoni

    I’m glad someone is thinking about the sport this way. I’d suggest that our cultural investment in football and its wide ranging effects are much more far reaching than the NFL. When a high school football coach works 100 hours a week during football season and is still expected to go into a classroom and teach five or six academic courses during the school day, how can he or she be held to the highest standard for academic instruction? How can a high schooler be expected to take school seriously when his entire sense of self-worth is wrapped around the game? It’s high time that we as a society started to examine how our addiction to momentary excitement has affected current and will affect future generations.

    1. Teri Post author

      My oldest brother, a very nice and generous man, is a high school football coach. He and his wife chose not to have children because, as he says, I have a thousand kids. Between coaching and off-field training and teaching, he is literally never home. And yet he’s frustrated with the state of the game, the professional and the kid versions.

  3. triciatierney

    I love this little book.
    I picked up an ARC at a NYC small press event because of its size – heading back on the train to CT I couldn’t be bothered to lug anything of the bigger freebies. It’s a fluke I picked it up because I am not a sports fan. I’m completely ambivalent about the whole lot of it – never sure who is playing and feel attachment to no team of any sport. But I was riveted by Almond’s rant. NFL tax exempt?! Building huge stadiums with promises to re-invigorate neighborhoods and other false promises. Race, economics, education — he deals with many uncomfortable issues. He’s smart and passionate and I think, contrary to Joe’s comment – knows plenty on the subject and did his journalistic research.
    I’m such a fan that I’ve chosen it as my current ‘favorite’ book in the bookstore I work in. Unfortunately, I’ve found it a hard sell – people don’t really want to know. Go on, Joe, buy the book!

    1. Teri Post author

      Tricia, the reading of this book was the first realization for me that the NFL is tax-exempt. Call me ignorant, but there it is. It’s just something I never considered. How is this possible? It doesn’t even matter if I agree with everything he says or not … the point is the making of the many arguments which, frankly, are valid.

    1. Teri Post author

      Thank you. Of course this is exactly what I love about the Steve Almond book —- that he’s taking an unpopular and contrary stance with a sport he actually loves. I can feel that he feels disloyal in the writing, if that makes sense.

      1. thegirldish

        It does. When you’re teaching millions of people with your words, sometimes it’s hard to say what you really think and feel because you don’t want to be judged. However, I feel the best writing comes from the most honest caverns of our souls.

  4. lisahgolden

    Reading that book in my living room would definitely start some conversations. I’m going to have to get it. The Electrician is fairly well immersed in football culture. He belongs to at least 3, maybe 4 fantasy leagues. I smile and nod a lot.

    I’m sure I’ll be watching the Super Bowl as a hostage in a cheap hotel room. It will be mostly background while I dick around online or read a book.

    1. Teri Post author

      The whole fantasy league is, well, fascinating. I recently heard that fantasy football has become way more obsessive for fans than the real thing — can that be possible? And if so, what does that say about the whole thing? It’s a curious deal all the way around.

      1. lisahgolden

        I do not understand the fantasy league thing at all. I liken it to my affinity for pinning photos of abandoned buildings in Pinterest. It’s just as pointless.

        I’m getting really good at the smile and nod thing though. 🙂

  5. Paul Lamb

    I’ll probably be watching it, but only by default, because I’ll by in my daughter’s tiny Brooklyn apartment where I won’t be able to escape the sound of the TV, and it will be too cold outside to go for a run. Of course, there will be the distraction of the three-week-old grandson. And salty snacks. I’m assured there will be salty snacks.

    But football is my least favorite sport of all (followed closely by wrestlng).

    1. Teri Post author

      It’s starting to have the same effect on me as baseball did 20 years ago after their strike. At first I was irritated with all parties — mgmt, coaches, players, pundits, lawyers — and then by the time they all came together and started playing again, I had moved on and didn’t care. It took me a good decade to watch baseball again, which I enjoy now at a much less manic level.

      Like you, Paul, I will be watching if it’s already on, but as they say back home, I don’t have a dog in the hunt so I don’t care what happens.

  6. Averil Dean

    Oh yeah, I’ll be watching. I have loved football all my life, in spite of its flaws and dangers. There’s something so human and ugly/beautiful about the sheer effort, the hopes realized and dashed, the falling and hurting and getting up again for another play. I’m not athletic at all, which is maybe why I am so enthralled by watching what a bunch of men are able to do with their bodies.

    I absolutely agree that there are serious issues in football that need to be addressed (and selecting a new commissioner would be a fine place to start). But professional sports have also been instrumental in society’s progress against racism, and I think that football particularly is poised to make a similar leap on the topics of gender equality and domestic violence. The players who engage in this criminally bad behavior toward women are pointing out in stark detail how bad the problems really are. That’s the first step, the most painful one. I believe the issue has now achieved critical mass, which signals to me that we’re on the cusp of widespread changes in the male mindset.

    At least, I hope we are.

    (Go Hawks!)

    1. Teri Post author

      I wish I had that optimism for the future of the sport, but mostly I see the uber-wealthy owners sitting behind a giant cash register while waiting for our 24 hr news cycle to find another story. And yet I’m still watching football, so there you go. My paradox.

  7. donnaeve

    Sigh. Teri, I just spent like 15 mins typing a comment, hit publish and poof. It was gone – message said, this comment cannot be posted.

    So this one is shorter, but all I was saying was thank for not discussing Deflate-gate, and yes I’ll be watching – and stuffing my face.

  8. Alistair Book

    I heard Steve Almond speak at the local library last fall. I found he had some very interesting points about the unrealistic expectations placed on scholastic football players and the mixed messages sent to them with regards to assault, as in “it’s not a crime; it’s football.”

  9. autumnashbough

    I’m waving my hand wildly: “Pick me, pick me! I know the answer to ‘THE’ Ohio State question!” (Sorry I am late to class, though.) About 15 years ago, current and former University of Miami football players started referring to UM as “The U,” as if there were no other universities. Ohio State, thus goaded after their triple overtime win against “The U” in the Fiesta Bowl in 2002 (I think), decided that their school should have the same self-important article precede its name.

    I know this because I used to love football. Not anymore. I’m appalled by the NFL’s tax exempt status, the blind eye they turn toward their players’ violent behavior, and their cover-up of TBIs. Good for Almond, “Frontline,” and “Real Sports” for asking the hard questions!

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