A bacchanalia of gridiron pageantry

American football – maybe it’s actually not the coolest sport there is? Some heretic called Steve Almond is suggesting as much.

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.”

Yes to all of that, and it also warps our societal attitudes about education and secondary and tertiary education.

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.

It’s like Hollywood that way. Lots of people have a fantasy of being a football star or a movie star, and almost none of them succeed.

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.”

Whereas in proper football – soccer – you get a penalty for bashing people. There’s still bashing but it’s not central to the game.

I’m with Almond, but I know it’s absolutely futile. I’m just hoping the team local to me loses every game so that people will stop yapping about it.



  1. quixote says

    You know the thing that gets me about football? All the stupid pads used as falsies. If they were really for protection, the guys would look more like hockey goalies.

    And the other thing that gets me is that they’re using pads and helmets at all. It’s a game. That means you can set the rules. If you don’t want to get hurt — and I assume that’s the official function of the protective gear — then you set the rules so you don’t get hurt. As in, e.g. real football / soccer.

    But then, of course, the players wouldn’t be standing around looking decorative in falsies, and that’d be no fun.

  2. Ed says

    The only American sport I like is basketball. It and real football are about graceful bodies in coordinated motion, not human tanks bashing into each other, stopping and we have to listen to boring commentary for a long time while the Knights Who Say Nee plan their next move.
    Which is usually just more smashing each other.

    If I want to see a fight (which I occasionally do) I’ll watch boxing or martial arts competitions.

  3. says

    quixote – apparently the hurting and getting hurt are integral to the game. They like it – players and fans alike. They scream like startled pigs when people start trying to prevent brain injuries. That’s one of the reasons I hate the damn game. Another is yes also the pads and helmets: I think it’s incredibly ugly to watch. As Ed says – the graceful bodies in motion are way more fun to watch.

  4. Al Dente says

    George Carlin on the differences between football and baseball.

    And finally the objectives of the two games are totally different. In Football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. In Baseball, the object is to go home and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home.

  5. John Morales says

    Al Dente, clearly George Carlin abuses metaphor for comedic effect.

    Anyway. Gridiron is by far the most tedious version of football I know.

    (the ancillary pageantry is the most interesting thing about it, which is not saying much)

    Aussie Rules.

  6. Al Dente says

    John Morales @6

    Carlin was using common football terms, not metaphors. Blitz, shotgun, long bomb and bullet pass line are all terms used by football players, fans and commentators to describe certain plays.

  7. John Morales says

    Al Dente @7, marching the troops into enemy territory, aerial assault and ground attack are common football terms? I had no idea.

    (Anything to make it less boring, I suppose)

  8. Brian Wibecan says

    I am reading Steve Almond’s new book, “Against Football”, and enjoying it immensely. He covers not only the horrendous possibilities of injury, but the exploitative NFL business model, and reasons he thinks the game is as popular as it is. Almond is a devoted fan, and the reality of football is causing him great inner conflict, something he captures well in the book. The book is funny and informative.

    I had to laugh when he described the homoerotic pageantry that is oh-so-obvious in football if you look for it; it reminded me of an old Norm Crosby comedy routine. But Almond went on to discuss the terrible homophobia in football (with a focus on the Richie Incognito case) and why he thinks it exists; not funny in the least. Yeesh.

  9. lpetrich says

    I don’t like American football either. Tackles don’t look like much of a fair fight, more like several players ganging up on one player. Boxing is better in that regard, because it’s one on one, but boxing also causes brain damage, and rather obvious damage at that. Boxers sometimes become “punch drunk”, and dementia pugilistica was named after that sport.

  10. Dunc says

    I remember noticing during the last Winter Olympics that I much prefer watching the women’s ice hockey to the men’s – the difference being that the women’s game doesn’t allow body checking, and so flows much better. The emphasis is much more on movement and passing than on the ability to flatten your opponents.

  11. says

    chigau @4

    Dionysian Revels had Maenads. Bacchus is a weak and anemic imitation.

    I, too, have become much more of a fan of association football over the past decade plus. However I am still a fan of hockey. I think they are doing better (than the NFL) handling concussions and are sincerely trying to do even better. The international game, such as in the Olympics, has far less hard hits, and I think that is where the NHL should be headed in the future. (It probably also helps that in the Olympics, only the best play, so you don’t have an “enforcer” role on the team.)

  12. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    (It probably also helps that in the Olympics, only the best play, so you don’t have an “enforcer” role on the team.)

    The enforcer role is, thankfully, slowly dying out. Teams are starting to realize that it’s better to have players with actual skill on the third and fourth lines instead of hulking bruisers who can barely skate. I can remember back in the 80s when the Buffalo Sabres had an entire line of goons (Parker-Maguire-Hartman). Now, the Sabres appear to be going into the new season goonless (they didn’t resign John Scott or Zenon Konopka). And given that the old Adams Division teams were historically the roughest minded (partly because the Sabres and Bruins used to have smaller ice surfaces), this is fairly historic.

  13. Kevin Kehres says

    Women’s tennis. Incredibly gifted athletes, agile, graceful, powerful. Where many of the points require strategy over several shots to move the opponent to a non-preferred position before hitting an unreachable winner. Even with the grunting (looking at you, Maria Sharapova), it’s a compelling event. Especially when the opponents are closely matched.

    Men’s tennis relies too much on power and quick points. I could barely watch last night’s Murray-Djokovic match. Points were two or three shots, then someone dumped it into the net. I fell asleep.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    the cynical commercialisation of the sport

    Fortunately, none of this happens in any other sport, or other entertainment. Oh wait, I went to the movies last week, paid $11 for my ticket, and yet had to sit through three commercials for cars and other non-movie related things before I was shown four previews for coming attractions. Nope, no commercialization there.

  15. Claire Ramsey says

    The Entire City of Seattle is cluttered up/bracing itself for a huge street gathering tonight in honor of the National Football League and Super Bowl Champions the local team the Seahawks. Good god, something I really wanted to go to is cancelled b/c no one is doing anything tonight except hitting the streets. No Theo Chocolate ganache- and truffle-making class for me and my friends. . . such a total bummer in so many ways. Grrrrrrrrrrr

  16. Tim Harris says

    And look at the way rugby is going… it was always a dangerous game (I captained a Welsh agricultural college), but in the ‘good old days’, those of Barry John & Gareth Edwards, when they played for Wales, it was often a wonderful game to watch; but, now, it has become an exercise in battering away – I much prefer to watch soccer, if I am to watch a sport.

  17. A Hermit says

    American football mostly consists of people milling around waiting for something to happen:


    According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

    In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there’s barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

    Here it is pie chart form:


    Even if you take out the commercials more than half a football broadcast consists of shots of players standing around…

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