It’s the bye week. Time to relax and . . . think about football.
Last February, my friend Dennis Johnson spotted Steve Almond’s New York Times op-ed, “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” Almond was arguing that football fans are “in a morally queasy position . . . [tolerating] brutality” that routinely causes catastrophic brain injury, and worse.
A lifelong Oakland Raiders fan, Almond writes that watching football “causes us to be more bellicose and tolerant of cruelty, less . . . able to engage with the struggles of an examined life.”
Johnson runs Melville House publishers, and pitched Almond an idea: Write me 30,000 words in a few months, and we will have a book to sell right before the start of the football season.
The result was Almond’s throaty j’accuse, “Against Football,” one of the best-timed and most relevant non-fiction books in recent memory. When Almond’s book appeared, it seemed as if football had hit reputational rock bottom: the brain-diseased, retired All-Star Junior Seau had committed suicide; Boston University had published devastating reports on sports-related concussions, and even President Obama declared, “I would not let my son play pro football.”
But after publication, the horrors kept coming. Three high school football players died in one week in October. The NFL disgraced itself covering up Ray Rice’s pummeling of his wife in a casino elevator. “We looked like such geniuses for timing,” Johnson said. “Who would have thought the NFL would be offering us so much free marketing assistance?”
And yet. Right-thinking mothers may be yanking their children out of Pop Warner junior football programs, but the lifeblood of the NFL — its television ratings — remains generally strong. The Patriots’ recent 26-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers was the most-watched regular-season Sunday game since Nov. 4, 2007, with over 30 million viewers.
“Against Football” has sold OK, but it hasn’t been the blockbuster Johnson was hoping for.
“I thought this whole football culture was going to blow up,” Johnson told me. “Instead, you have a lot of people who just shut down on Sunday and don’t want to hear about the nastiness, the homophobia, and the absolute certainty of physical deterioration. No one feels motivated to do anything and meanwhile they keep watching the game.”
I thought about Almond’s book a few weeks ago when a friend texted me: “Gronk commits legal murder in 4Q.” I hadn’t been watching the Patriots-Colts game, but easily reconstructed Rob Gronkowski’s crazy-amazing, late-game attack on Indianapolis safety Sergio Brown on my laptop computer.
It’s all there: Gronk smashing Brown way off the field, and apparently trying to run him into a TV camera truck, which — yes — could have killed or maimed Brown, a former teammate. The Patriots took the fifteen-yard penalty and the $8,200 fine, and if they disciplined their star tight end, then I didn’t read about it.
When I heard Gronk’s explanation for the beatdown – “He had been yapping at me . . . I threw him out of the club” — I broke out laughing. I’m still laughing. Gronk is a passionate player, to be sure.
I guess football enters the broad category of things we know, but don’t really care about. We know our iPhones are made by people working in near-slave labor conditions, but hey — look at this new app! These supermarket grapes are delicious; I wonder who suffered lifelong spine damage to bring them to my table, and so on.
I recently heard a talk show host opining that football will soon fade into the twilight, eliminated as a high school sport and relegated to a second-tier TV status, as hockey is now. But I doubt it. It’s too interesting; it’s too primal. At times — see Gronkowski — it’s too funny.
I wouldn’t even call it a guilty pleasure. It’s a real pleasure. Now, on to the playoffs!Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.