Bench Points Book Review and Reaction: Against Football

I am having trouble with the words to describe how I feel about this book. I read it at the suggestion of Caleb, one of our editors. The book breaks ranks with the rhetoric and provides Steve Almond’s self-dubbed “manifesto.” To call this book contrarian would be to traffic in understatement. This book carries the reader through the five stages of grief regarding the game as we know it. It is not for people who are blissfully ignorant to the tyrannies of football, nor is it for folks looking to brush up on how they should feel about the socio-political issues surrounding the most profitable sports league in America.

Almond opens with a brief, subjective, and hand-picked history of the NFL. He includes anecdotes surrounding the birth of the game, the initial dangers, and the Presidential intervention required to save it from itself. The opening was particularly entertaining.

Then, his tone shifted as he began to lay out evidence indicting football as a terminal impetus behind athletes’ shorter life spans. The research is damning enough that, as more studies corroborate their conclusions, the game as we know it will shrivel and die. CTE, and the refusal to acknowledge or effectively treat it, will be the end of the game as long as its custodians place profit above the long term health of their workers—in other words, the players.

Almond continues on to the fans, the culture, and the media. His analysis was as scathing as it was of the NFL. He tackles the culture of football and the impact it has on players, communities, and families.  Here is where he charges fans with the outcome of this whole saga, blaming all of us for the current disrepair of the game. He’s right, we sanctioned these horrible things by not shouting down the horrible practices systemic in the game. It’s not beyond saving—like Almond may believe—but growth must happen.

It was after these sections where Almond began to lose me. I do not align politically with the man at all, and I would not have known that if he had stuck to the research-driven prose that he began the book with. However, he trades facts and logic for wild speculation and digression after digression into his own political psyche. Further, he commits a cardinal sin of nonfiction writing by presenting these speculations and opinions in the same way he presented the ironclad evidence early in the book. He misleads the reader in the final four chapters. Despite this egregious transgression, he does not go so far as to invalidate his points—they simply need be taken as opinion from an author who has his mind made up on the subject. Furthermore, the book wears thin on evidence in the late goings. Almond does not have near the number of people to cite when making his claims, and instead resorts to citing poets or other opiners who share his world view. This is not exactly what I signed up for as the reader, and it took me a day to sort this out.

All in all, I would recommend Almond’s book to football scholars. The driving point is that there is something very wrong with this game we love, and something must be done. Almond provides nice insight and fresh research on matters that have been muddied by the NFL’s propaganda machine. Even with his epilogue, the book is long on questions and grievances, but short on solutions or paths to “better.”

This book hurts. It forces introspection and shines a light in dark recesses of your mind on issues I never considered, or never wanted to consider. It makes you think long and hard about the game and how you should feel about watching its coordinated savagery. It’s rough on the emotions, and requires working through. Now that I have, I feel that many of the points in this book are valid and worth considering. I recommend this book with a caveat: Almond’s opinion is not the only opinion in the world on these issues, nor is it substantially more correct than a conflicting opinion; this book creates dissonance, but it should not force principle abandonment on its own. Consider the facts, the reality, and the opinion of the author. Then, form your conclusion.

Truly, football as we know it is at a bottleneck, and recovery looks bleak. The salient issue in Almond’s work is a question: will football survive as we know it? Unlikely. The evidence points to dramatic changes in the manner in which the game is played. The NFL has an opportunity to lead the salvation effort, but it cannot be ulteriorly motivated. The worst thing the NFL can do is deny the ever-clarifying reality and force the fans to face their collective conscience. If football wants to survive, it must legislate real change to protect players from the top down. Otherwise, we will have yet another sport of “sanctioned violence” go the way of boxing in this country.

Growth is painful.

But, it is necessary.

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