AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO completed his Confessions at the close of the fourth century. In this deeply personal account, the first autobiography in the Western tradition, he recounts his love for his friend Alypius but complains that “the moral maelstrom of Carthage had sucked him in, seething as it was with frivolous entertainments [nugatoria spectacula] and especially with the craze for games in the Circus.” Alypius was “miserably entangled” in these vacuous theatrics, and Augustine had to rebuke him, to tell him “how his blind obsession with the folly of the games would fritter away his many talents.” Fortunately for Alypius’s soul, God agreed with Augustine on the silliness of sport. In a class session, the bishop mocked “those held in thrall by that madness,” and Alypius knew he was the object of Augustine’s satire. At that moment, Alypius “wrenched himself from the deep pit into which he had eagerly plunged, blinded by his weird delights.” Ready to follow the righteous path, “he took a grip on himself, the filth of the games was rinsed away, and he stopped going to them.”
More than 700 years prior to Augustine’s victory over Alypius’s love of sport, Aristotle, in his Poetics, suggested a way for us to understand that sports can be useful for the physical and moral training of the young, and that sports spectators can also derive benefit. It is “natural for all to delight in works of imitation,” Aristotle says, and since audiences in both the theater and the arena witness challenges and contests that simulate real-life experiences, spectators take home important lessons observing the way characters or athletes overcome obstacles. James V. Schall, seconding Aristotle, writes:
The best way to catch the meaning of ourselves as physical beings endowed with bodies is to watch those of our kind exerting themselves in the highest of athletic skills, to become hushed as the challenge unfolds, to cheer the play and the winner, to know that good players also lose, to see the spirit suffuse the flesh.
For Aristotle, play and contemplation of the divine were similar spheres of activity because both are detached from the world, both are done for their own sakes, and both transport us into another state of mind. Two millennia later, in 1912, Émile Durkheim’s work shows an inseparable bond between religion and games in his concept of “collective effervescence.” Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life resulted from his study of aboriginal religions, during which he found that while the typical daily life included hunting and gathering, punctuated periods of communal gathering produced an energy that transfused the group. These moments of assembly invited members of the clan or group to forget their individuality, to enjoy the unity of the collective, and to participate in the ebullience of the occasion. The presence of a totem at the event harnessed their attention and became the symbol of the clan. As social beings, all of humanity shares in rituals that lead to collective effervescence, whether they fit modern categories of “sacred” or “profane.”
René Girard, more recently, has linked the sacred and profane through attention to violence. Girard’s Violence and the Sacred assumes that religion and violence cannot be separated, and that violent rituals, among which we can include sports like football, have a redemptive quality. Violent rituals have the social function of defusing the violent inclination in human nature.
Girard developed a theory of the scapegoat in which he argues that in a violent ritual:
Society is seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a “sacrificial” victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect.
His theory assumes that the human heart is naturally violent, and that we need some sort of public show of aggression and violence, in a controlled atmosphere, to take away our own urges to expend our wrath on one another. For Girard, without rituals, the cyclical nature of violence would continue until the entire community is consumed.
The key, Bain-Selbo reminds us, is that there are certain times when such violence can be performed, and they are hemmed in by the rules of the ritual. Rituals imitate violence in order to keep violence at bay.
One hundred years later, football fans experience collective effervescence packing into stadiums with 100,000 other fans, or gathering with friends in front of a television, losing their minds in ecstatic praise of the symbols of their devotion. But not everyone shares this fervor, and attitudes toward the sport range from Aristotelian to Augustinian, resulting in praise or condescension toward us fans. Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto and Mark Edmundson’s Why Football Matters hit the bookstores at the kickoff of this season, goading us to consider the virtues and vices of football. Almond waxes Augustinian, Edmundson Aristotelian. They join Eric Bain-Selbo, whose Girardian Game Day and God was published five years ago, in asking us to reassess our relation to the game.
I’ve been a lifelong devotee of this religion, unabashedly Aristotelian on the value of sports. At Oxford, I raised eyebrows when I’d tell colleagues that my weekend nights in the autumn were spent with New Orleans Advocate reporter Faimon Roberts in front of my computer, streaming both college and professional football well into the wee hours of the morning, but it never bothered me. I played football from Pop Warner to high school, and among my first memories in this world, as a toddler in Florida growing up on hearty plates of fried chicken and biscuits and gravy, are weekend-long buffets of televised football, with halftimes spent outside with uncles and cousins and my father and brother. Today my brother coaches high school football in Georgia.
I was also an obsessive archiver of football games as I became a young teenager. My mother would go to Walmart to stock up on blank videotapes so that I could record every game that came on television. I had two — sometimes three — VCRs connected to as many televisions to record as many games on as many networks as I could. Then, after the last play of Monday Night Football, during those four and a half brutal days of darkness, I had a half-dozen or more games on videotape to hold me over until the next kickoff.
If we ever discover a football gene, I will test positive for it. Yet even at an early age and in a state of innocence, I was not unaware of some of the bleaker aspects of the game.
Almond’s Against Football asks us to question the morality of our allegiance to American football, but Almond is not entirely anti-football; he sometimes feels Janus-faced because for him, too, football is in the blood. Edmundson, in Why Football Matters, sets forth a defense of its virtues, but Edmundson’s personal memoir of his education in the game is not entirely pro-football, either. He admits at each chapter’s close that those noble virtues the game teaches can also be vices.
Almond’s impetus for the book and his worries mostly concern violent play. He decided to write after reading a story about a player who had trouble speaking coherently in an interview; he was apparently in a concussed state. After some time thinking about it, Almond realized that the story was not about this player with a concussion. Turning introspective, he realized the real story was about Steve Almond. He was overcome with guilt, so he stared into his soul to ask how he — and we — could enjoy watching such a violent sport. He now sees himself as a recovering addict and wants to shout through the megaphone to call us to action so that we might reform the sport, making it “less destructive […] to the national soul.” His repeated deployment of the first-person plural indicts all who watch the game. Almond aims to be prophetic, and his rhetoric, as a result, is turgid.
“I happen to believe that our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia,” he writes. What kind of society, he asks, enjoys watching “giant muscled men” inflict pain on themselves and others in a sport “that causes many of them to suffer brain damage”? Childhood forms of play like running and leaping and tackling have been transformed into “a corporatized form of simulated combat,” and “the leading signifier of our institutions of higher education.” Although the latter phrase gives a nod to the college football game, the main target of his ire is professional football in the National Football League (NFL).
Almond pushes several of the right buttons — race, economics, education — but he is troubled most deeply by the victims of the game’s violence. The increasing number of concussions and brain injuries professional players experience render the game immoral, and we have become its immoral purveyors. I don’t want to diminish the serious life-altering injuries of which professionals are at risk, but we also need to heed Almond’s other warnings in an opposite way than he intends. He wants us to be wary of the power of television in seducing us to love the game. But we also need to be aware that television producers love emotional human interest stories on top of a piano track, and the few we’ve seen of former players now suffering from dementia or other illnesses could have the power of distorting the reality that thousands upon thousands of players come through the NFL every few years — the average career lasts only 3.5 years — and leave with their bumps and bruises but without brain damage. In college and high school, the stories strike us harder. These are kids after all. The numbers of significant injuries are nonetheless few. The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at UNC-Chapel Hill compiled statistics from almost 50 million high school and college football players from 1982 to 2012, and only 0.81 out of every 100,000 players reported serious injuries from football (0.29 were fatalities). Comparing their research to earlier numbers, they showed that the game has undoubtedly become safer at these levels.
Almond lumps together all levels of football, and his proposal that all kids under 16 should be prevented from playing the game fails to distinguish between the intensity of the professional game and its amateur levels. Although it may not be apparent to the casual observer, the gap between the talent and athleticism at the college level and the professional level is still immense. The gap is even wider between college and high school. Almond’s “giant muscled men” are in the NFL, not at my Etowah High School in Woodstock, Georgia. And the most common source of childhood and adolescent head injuries is not football but individual activities like cycling, skateboarding, and skating.
Almond’s humor makes his book bearable; he has undoubtedly met his aim to write a book “full of obnoxious opinions.” He admits his book is short on constructive proposals, but even the suggestions for reform he does make are impractical. Rather than killing the game altogether — Almond’s pieces in popular media to promote the book have been more rhetorically charged (in The New Yorker, his piece is titled, “I’m Going to Miss It”) than his proposals, which are rather mild — there are small changes that could help. The NFL should, for instance, support independent research on the question of brain trauma; their previous efforts have been riddled with conflicts of interest. The NFL employs these players, and they ought to show more concern for the welfare of their laborers. But Almond also thinks the violence of the game says something about those of us who enjoy watching it. He’s not theoretically or philosophically informed, he’s just going on sentimental, gut feelings about what we ought and ought not to watch.
Eric Bain-Selbo’s important book on the religio-ethical dimensions of football, Game Day and God, interprets Girard for the game of football. He writes that an outright condemnation of all forms of violence would ironically result in more violence breaking out in the community. Only by being spectators to forms of controlled violence will we find an outlet for the violent urges in the human heart. “Religion has an element of violence in it,” Bain-Selbo writes. “Play originates in or at least is related to religion. Football is play, but also ritualized violence.”
Girard’s theory is weak on evidence, but Bain-Selbo thinks that the catharsis theory can be rehabilitated and modified to salvage its fruits. He cites John H. Kerr, in Rethinking Aggression and Violence in Sport, saying that a modified catharsis theory should include not only violence but also the realization that in the midst of the fairly boring existence that modern life is, sports can provide the escape and thrill necessary to give us a jolt of excitement. We watch violent sports “to achieve elevated arousal.” We’re back to Aristotle, it seems. And Durkheim’s “collective effervescence.”
Bain-Selbo tells us that “violence always has been embraced and controlled socially,” and “this acceptance has served certain purposes, whether those be the scapegoating of the surrogate victim or the euphoria of vicarious ‘risk taking.’” Drawing on Michael Novak, who speaks of football in The Joy of Sports as “revelatory liturgy,” explaining that football “externalizes the warfare in our hearts and offers us a means of knowing ourselves and wresting some grace from our true natures,” Bain-Selbo concludes:
We might not always want to know of our violent and aggressive selves, but at least some cultural creations can turn that violence and aggression into something that has some merit and some beauty. Football, perhaps, is such a thing.
The tone of Mark Edmundson’s book is not that of a prophet but of a memoirist. He is a piquant storyteller, and he defends the virtues of the game by rehearsing on most of the book’s pages the lessons he learned playing. He’s not blind to the problems in the modern game, but he’s not ready to declare himself done with it, nor to cast judgment on football’s millions of fans. For Edmundson, football teaches character, hard work, perseverance, and numerous other virtues. Americans shaped the game, but “the game shapes us too.” He understands that each of these virtues can easily become vices, that football can teach “dull conformity,” that football’s lessons in bravery can lead to brutality, and that loyalty can produce a herd mentality. In the end, though, it is a beautiful, virtuous game.
This memoir of Edmundson’s “education in the game” is the odyssey of a white man growing up with the influence of an involved father.
My football education began with my father. Of how many other boys in America, past and present, is that true? I might even say that my education proper, my education in the ways of the world, began with watching football with my dad. And how many others might say the same — both for better and for worse?
And football taught him that “you get rewarded for hard work.” These are not experiences with which every fan and certainly not every player will resonate, but Edmundson, like Almond, is bothered by the perplexing dynamic that highlights one of football’s problems: predominantly white audiences pack in stadiums and gather around TV screens, ultimately enriching white owners and executives and coaches, to watch a sport in which about 70 percent of its players (laborers) are African Americans.
Edmundson uses the powerful illustration from Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man of the blindfolded, boxing black boys to wake his readers up to the nature of football’s exploitative side. The organizers and spectators in Ellison’s story enjoyed watching the bloodbath between the fighting kids. They then stopped the festivities to reward the boys for the fighting. When the battered victims lunge forward to collect their gold pieces and high-denomination bills from the floor, they feel the floor is wet and are shocked by an electrical current. But they’re so desperate for the money that they endure the pain and voltage to collect it. All the while, the white audience roars in delight. Edmundson doesn’t do much with this, but his prose is evocative enough to invite us to explore further on our own.
His explanation of the intertwining of religion and football is a truly bizarre part of the book. He cites Marcion (Edmundson has “Marcius”), a second-century anti-Jewish antagonizer who argued that the God of the Hebrew Bible was a vengeful, hateful deity; the God of the New Testament was all about love. This contrast was meant to show the superiority of the Christian message over the barbaric Jewish one, and Edmundson adopts it to suggest that Christians, many of whom make the most radical football fans, like to have their cake and eat it too: they like to cheer for a violent game while praising a Jesus of love and forgiveness and compassion. He doesn’t seem aware that this idea has proven all too useful in the history of anti-Semitism.
More central to Edmundson’s argument is the idea that football can provide a catalyst for identity formation. “When a boy is trying to grow up, football can be a form of education that works when no others can,” he writes. “The boy will listen to his coach and his teammates when he won’t listen to anyone else.” Football is a problematic sport, but it is also a beautiful thing that has and continues to provide a social and psychological cohesion for many who watch and play.
One of these books calls for outrage and opposition while admitting a former love, one offers a less passionate analysis of our need for violent ritual, and one is replete with praise and admiration while admitting ongoing concerns. Almond has the right instincts to question problems like race and the corporatizing of the game; Bain-Selbo suggests that if there are evils involved, they are necessary evils, and Edmundson offers a more balanced picture with praise and recognition of some of the dangers. All three books leave a lot of room for deeper contemplation.
I’m not quite sure whom Almond’s book is going to appeal to. Most readers who enjoy football will hate it for its indictment of the game and of themselves, but even those who might in principle agree with his defense will find it hard to discover more than a humorous rant, with too much armchair moralizing to call us to action, with proposals for reform that are paternalistic and impractical.
Bain-Selbo gives us a philosophical framework, but leaves us otherwise pretty much where we started. Isn’t it possible to have rituals of sacred violence — the Catholic Mass is one, for instance — that don’t involve brain injuries? It answers the question of the utility of football without dealing with the ethical issues Almond and others address.
Edmundson’s prose is humorous but also serious, his praise and criticism careful and measured. Above all, he’s a storyteller extraordinaire. If one feels that Almond is beating a drum and disconnecting the television, Edmundson has invited us to share a plate of buffalo wings, to watch the broadcast, and to consider together the moral complexities of football.
Timothy Michael Law is founder, publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of The Marginalia Review of Books, and an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen. He is the author of When God Spoke Greek, reviewed in LARB here.