Steve Almond speaks against football at the first library book festival.

How can anyone be against football? Let Arlington author Steve Almond, a lifelong football fan, count the ways.

Speaking to an audience of about 70 at the first Arlington Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 1, in the Robbins Library Community Room, Almond was by turns amusing and rueful in making his case about the dangers of the popular, particularly American sport.

The sympathetic, older crowd chuckled after library Director Ryan Livergood, at nearly his last event as library director before returning to his native Illinois for a new library position, made an introduction dressed in a 1920s-era football uniform, complete with leather helmet, a reincarnation of Red Grange.

As Livergood ambled away, Almond offered: "I won’t look at Ryan's tush." The mock-gay reference evoked the undercurrent of male ambivalence that is part of sports culture.

Ruefulness came as the longtime Oakland Raiders fan, who said he hates the Patriots, called some flagrant fouls on football. He did so by reading excerpts from Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto. The 2014 book is his 10th.

2003 Patriots game left impact

Off-hand, conversational, needing a shave, he read a passage that included a Globe clipping about the Dec. 3, 2003, 12-0 Pats win over the Dolphins. In that snowy game, running back Kevin Faulk took a vicious hit and sustained a concussion.

Almond carried the clipping through three family moves. It said, in part:

"I wasn't out cold, but I was out .... I knew that something was wrong with me. I knew that, like, it wasn’t normal ...."

The passage, he said, was not about Faulk "but about me. I knew that something was wrong with me."

The degree of violence was abnormal, Almond concluded.

Ryan Livergood, a Red Grange lookalike, introduces the author.Ryan Livergood, a Red Grange lookalike, introduces the author.

A former investigative reporter, he has probed the psyche of the sport, and in conveying his findings, the author maintains an ironic distance.


Steve Almond speaks against football at the town's first library book festival:
     "Why do we need a fully savage game to feel alive?"


He calls football "a really lovely form of art." He hopes his book will "honor the ethical complexities of the game."

"Why," he asked, in a question that drew applause, "do we need a fully savage game to feel alive?"

The excerpts he read were judiciously brief. The questions from the audience were pointed, but none defended football.

Asked what sports his three children enjoy, Almond said his 8-year-old daughter plays soccer, his 5-year-old is into art and the 18-month-old has his own game -- pulling everything off shelves.

A key influence

Almond, 48, who played football when he was young, said a key influence behind his thinking in Against Football is Richard Slotkin, who wrote "Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860." 

Slotkin, a professor of English at Wesleyan University, Almond's alma mater, shows how attitudes shaping American culture evolved from anxieties of European settlers struggling in a strange new world.

Almond translates Slotkin's ideas by showing how Americans find connection through a "pornography of violence." That includes gun ownership -- and football.

Basketball calls for speed as athletes devise deft ways to get open and score.

Baseball slows athletic reality into a game of strategic moves. Yes, kinds of power are alive in both sports, but ...

"The point of football is to collide," Almond said.

A basic law of physics

Noting a basic law of physics -- force equals mass times acceleration (F=MA) -- he points to the increased size of players, a key factor that accelerates the impact of collisions.

The main issue is not the big hits, he said, but "the accretion of subconcussive hits" -- which he says lead to dementia and other ills.

Junior Seau comes to mind. The freewheeling linebacker and 10-time all-pro finished his career with the Patriots. After he took his life in 2012, studies by the National Institutes of Health concluded Seau suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of chronic brain damage found in other football players.

Asked whether the National Football League has called the author to better understand his viewpoint, he said it had not, but the NFL Players Association did after excerpts of Against Football were published in The Boston Globe.

Suggestions to make sport safer

The fan in Almond does not want football to end, so he seeks ways to make the sport safer.

He cited Purdue University research. Using monitors in helmets, they showed diminished brain function after just one football season, with damage to the frontal lobe.

To improve the sport, the book includes some suggestions. They include:

-- Incentives to encourage youngster to stop increasing their weight;

-- Higher education improving graduation rates among athletes by having sterner academic standards; and

-- Having monitors helmets to measure hits.

"What about the future?" a member of the audience asked.

"I don't know; it's up to us," Almond began tentatively. "It's an issue with language ...."

He said sportscasters like to downplay reality with the phrase, "He got his bell rung."

And with capitalism: "Football is a huge cash cow," Almond said.

"Moral progress is an inconvenience," he said, yet noting the clear changes that have occurred over the last 50 years with respect to boxing.


Boston Globe, Nov. 7 (opinion): NFL plays on, unscathed by scandals


This story was published Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. The writer was born nearly where football was invented, in western Pennsylvania, land of Namath and Montana. His father has been a Pittsburgh Steelers' fan since 1935 and his brother was once married to the sister of a member of the four Steelers Super Bowl teams in the 1970s.