For a mid-list author not currently under indictment, I receive lots of hate mail. Back when I publicly resigned as an Adjunct Professor of Bitterness at Boston College to protest the selection of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker, for instance, my email box filled with hundreds of notes from patriotic citizens. They threatened to sic Navy Seals on me. They compared me to Hitler and Stalin. They said my daughter looked like a maggot. It was grand.
So when I wrote my new book Against Football—which probes the variegated corruptions of America’s most popular and profitable sport—I was braced for some extreme reactions. America being what America is these days, I was not disappointed.
I’d like to share a few of these letters, along with responses to my loyal correspondents. (Note: the letters themselves are recorded here verbatim, though I’ve used pseudonyms.)
Ready? Hut hut yikes!
There is something immoral in everything: gay sex, gambling, tattoos, writing books to make money. Watching football isn’t immoral. Grown men get paid millions of dollars to put there [sic] brains on the line. It’s there [sic] choice to do so. High School and College not as many injuries. There’s a reason football is the greatest, most popular game on the planet. People like violence, they like physical aggression, it’s as old as the Roman Coloseum [sic].
You cover a lot of ground here, so let’s take these one a time.
First, your list of immoral activities is awesome. It’s like the Ten Commandments as conceived by Gomer Pyle.
Second, the reason NFL players get paid so much money is because fans like us are addicted to football. I know this sounds confusing, because we’re used to the media scapegoating players and league officials and owners, and thus insulating us from our role as sponsors. The moral question is: should we underwrite the game?
Third, yes, high school and college players do not suffer as high a percentage of injuries as pros. This is because they are not as big and strong and fast as the pros, and also because injuries to the human body—in particular the brain—are incremental.
Fourth, people do like violence and aggression. They also like heroin and deep-fried Twinkies and porn. Despite the ardent enabling of capitalism, taking pleasure in an experience isn’t actually a moral justification for having that experience. It’s just proof that you have a functioning limbic system, like the rest of the animal kingdom. What sets human beings apart from other animals is that we come equipped with a conscience. We are capable of imagining the suffering of others. Without this capacity, life would be a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Finally, historians generally view the Colosseum as a symptom of the imperial decadence that eventually doomed the Roman Empire. I’m not sure you want to be citing that particular piece of architecture to bolster your argument for football’s enduring supremacy.
You are the Biggest Faggot.
Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I have to admit that it came at the right moment. For years I’ve been working hard to prove just how big a faggot I could become. I developed a lisp and a swishy gait and grew out a mustache and started wearing tight denim.
At first, this desire to display my hyper-homosexuality was just a personal thing. But eventually, like all truly ambitious faggots, I started following the Top Queen Rankings (TQR) posted on the Secret Gay Internet That We’re Not Supposed to Tell Straight People About. And pretty soon I didn’t just want to follow the action. I wanted to compete. I doubled my workout and moisturizing regimen. I memorized the lyrics to every Stephen Sondheim musical ever written. I manscaped compulsively and started dressing in hot pink lederhosen and LCD displays. And obviously I had lots and lots of gay sex in public settings.
If other faggots were administering oral sex to ten strangers in a softly lit bathhouse, well then, I would suck off a dozen strapping lumberjacks in a crowded public square, and make sure my efforts were streaming live online. I had so much anal sex last summer that the training staff put my rectum on injured reserved for, like, five weeks.
But that’s just the way I am. When it comes to the TQRs, Will, I show up ready to gay every day. I give 110 percent, regardless of the risks. I leave it all on the field. I guess what I’m trying to say it is that your support means a lot to me.
You’re living proof that if you scratch a liberal you’ll find a fascist. We read your book and found it to be a perfect example of how leftists operate. If people organize a book burning, you’re up in arms. But when it comes to destroying a whole way of life—and yes, football is a way of life for many of us—you have no compunction. The good news is that your self-righteous bleating will never move the needle one bit. We consider your call for a boycott to be a ringing endorsement. Pass the nachos, dude.
Anna and Cam
Anna and Cam,
Many things confuse me and your letter is one of them. As I understand it, I am both destroying your way of life and, at the same time, completely powerless to destroy your way of life. I feel I should tell you that this is how I feel as the parent of three young children every single minute of every day.
The next reporter that ISIS wants to behead, I hope we can give them you in his or her stead.
Totally get what you’re after here but I’m concerned about the logistics. ISIS is a fundamentalist movement among Sunni extremists. We don’t really “give” them journalists to behead. It’s more a situation where they capture journalists then behead them for publicity purposes. ISIS doesn’t appear to negotiate with Westerners. So it’s going to be tough to arrange the sort of swap you’re endorsing.
But I’m willing to trust that you’ve got a connection to someone high up in the ISIS hierarchy, or can establish one, because you seem like an intelligent resourceful person. But you’ve still got the dilemma of convincing ISIS that I, Steve Almond, am worth beheading. This could get tricky, because I’m not a foreign correspondent or even really a journalist. I’m just a football fan who wrote a book about his tortured decision to turn away from the game. In this sense, I’m actually kind of anti-American, if you think about it. Which makes me kind of pro-ISIS. I actually publicly opposed the war in Iraq.
But who knows? Maybe I’ve done the math wrong here. ISIS does seem to recognize the American proclivity for bloodlust, the way in which we can’t quite turn away from violent spectacles. I also do a lot of whining in Against Football about how the NFL peddles a medieval worldview when it comes to defining gender and denigrating women and gays. In theory, then, ISIS members might be huge NFL fans.
Likewise, they might be utterly smitten by a guy like you, Lex. After all, when someone writes a book you disagree with your first impulse is to have his head chopped off in public. That’s straight out of ISIS playbook, brother.
When you stop eating meat from factory farming, stop idolizing the military, stop wearing clothes made in third world countries, and stop supporting the putrid garbage that wastes society’s resources from TV and Hollywood (and the excessive money paid to entertainers as a start), I’ll stop watching football.
Can I tell you a secret? Sometimes, late at night, when we know we should be doing something noble such as reading a book or prepping tofu for tomorrow’s vegan potluck, me and the wife watch us some dumbass television. I’m talking rock-bottom scuzzfest shit. Rock of Love. Sister Wives. Like that.
And yet, in the morning, we continue to make what we consider to be ethical decisions. We don’t eat meat. We compost and recycle compulsively. We take public transportation. We donate to Doctors Without Borders. This is how life works for those of us living in the absurd abundance of America. We are all complicit in our own ways.
But it sounds to me like you’re using this argument more strategically. You really love watching football. And your excuse for doing so—knowing that it’s a profoundly violent game run by greedy billionaires, etc.—is that moral perfection itself is impossible.
This is a pretty failsafe rationale, but it puts you in some unsavory company. I’m thinking, specifically, of The Misfit from the famous Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Here’s how he viewed things:
Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.
Your letter implies that living in a fallen world grants you the right to sin as you please. That doesn’t make you a righteous man, Caspar. It makes you a religious psychopath.
I read your book. Here’s the problem with all your claims about sexism: men and women aren’t equal. Man is physically stronger than woman.
South Shore Glen
Have you ever pushed a small human being out of your body?
Then shut your fucking mouth.
Hey First Cut,
Having read your book, I am wondering if you were just not skilled enough to play in high school and now want to take your aggression out on the best sport in the world because you were denied?
Probably. I think most football fans, if they’re honest, are driven in part by slavish envy. We all wish we’d been bigger and stronger and faster and we weren’t and that’s why we’re on some sofa hoping that our team beats your team, so we can feel at least a vicarious sense of dominion. It’s pretty pathetic when you look at it straight on.
I should mention that I was (and am) insanely competitive. Part of the reason I quit playing sports in college was that I realized I wasn’t ever going to be great. I didn’t have the skill or commitment. But it’s also true that I found the world of jocks kind of dull. They didn’t have much to say. Being good at a sport was all that mattered. The mindset was conformist. It felt like a pretty small life.
To some extent, being a fan has that same comforting smallness. You know where you stand because the standings tell you.
I guess for me leaving football was about trying to live a larger, more doubtful life. That’s what I tell myself anyway. What do you tell yourself?
Read your book. (What I could get through.) Why don’t you simply admit the truth and write, “I used to love football until my team [the Oakland Raiders] started to suck.” Go Seahawks!!!
I admit it: I used to love football until my team started to suck. What’s more: if the Raiders had been great over the past few years, I doubt I would have written Against Football. I would have been preoccupied with the annihilating ecstasy of feeling like a winner, just like you and the rest of the Seahawk fans I met recently in Seattle.
Maybe this is America, Danielle. Maybe this is what it means to be an American in this age of private terrors. Maybe we need a beautiful savage game to make us feel alive and united. That’s how I felt when the Raiders were winning, when Kenny Stabler was throwing up his wounded ducks for Cliff Branch to snag and Rich Gannon was scrambling for impossible first downs. I’m sure that’s how you feel right now. I envy you that.
But remember that winning never lasts. It’s a bad deal you make with fate. Soon enough your Seahawks will suck. They’ll be Brian Bosworth and Jim Zorn, not Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman. Not saying that to be a jerk. It’s just the truth. What will you do then, Danielle? Is there some chance that you’ll regard my book any differently? That you’ll see it as a lamentation for the childish needs we carry into adulthood? Or the manner in which those needs are ruthlessly exploited for profit?
Consider this: at the end of our own fourth quarters, how will we look back upon our decisions in this life? Will we cling to the conviction that it was wise to give so much of our hearts and minds and wallets to a game? Or will we feel such attentions might have been better spent on our own struggles—to love and create and forgive? Will we think back to the grace and heroism we found in those bright stadiums? And will that be enough to cancel out our regrets?
Rumpus original art by Max Winter.