10 Great Longform Essays About Football in American Culture
Pre-Superbowl Reading—or a way to avoid it completely
Football is not the most literary of sports. Baseball has a much more intellectual pedigree, fueled by an intense American nostalgia, literary and otherwise; boxing has drawn the attention of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and Katherine Dunn; tennis only needs David Foster Wallace (but Álvaro Enrigue is good too); and even soccer has Among the Thugs (not to mention Monty Python’s “Literary Football Discussion“); American football, though, can only be associated with a few good works of literature—though there are some out there. But literary or not, football is part of the fabric of American culture, and so you’re likely aware that this weekend it’s throwing its grand annual competitive soiree: the Superbowl. If you’d rather be reading, but still want to engage in the cultural moment, I recommend starting with one of these great longform essays about football in contemporary American culture, which cover everything from our evolving understanding of CTE to football’s relationship to television, domestic violence, and yes, of course, Trump. If you’ll be watching the game, well, read up anyway—there will be lots of time to talk about all these essays during the million and one commercial breaks.
Reid Forgrave, “The Concussion Diaries: One High School Football Player’s Secret Struggle with CTE”
A heartbreaking and humane essay written, in part, to honor the last wishes of a young ex-football player who killed himself after years of struggle with CTE—chronic traumatic encephalopathy—and asked his family to share his words with the world. On football culture, toughness, family, and fear.
Zac left instructions: Print his story off his laptop, post it to Facebook, use the pain of his life and too-early death to warn the world about CTE. Get people like us—football fans, football players, football lifers—to face the truth about people like him.
And now we have. Those were his instructions, so that’s what his family did. So now what?
We could ban football. (But we love football.) We could allow people to play football only once they turn 18, which is what Omalu has proposed. (And what happens when 18-year-old athletic phenoms—freight trains who have never learned to tackle properly—are suddenly turned loose on one another? Is that better?) We could take away tackling. (Sorry, no one’s watching the National Flag Football League.) We could build a safer helmet. (Which will only encourage players to use their heads as weapons.) We could have a consistent concussion protocol through all levels of football. (We already do in the NFL. Ask Cam Newton how well it’s working.)
Every solution ends up not solving enough of the problem.
And for most of us, this is perfectly okay. The paradox of CTE’s discovery is that it’s given most of us a sneaky ethical out, hasn’t it? No professional football player can claim now to be unaware of the risks. It’s a free country. We’re all adults here.
Unless we’re not adults. Unless we’re kids, like Zac was. Can we really let kids keep doing this? If so, how? Now what?
Mark Edmundson, “Football: The Lure of the Game”
Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014
In this personal love letter to football, Edmundson considers the beauty and joy of the sport in poetic prose—and even compares football to poetry (“they overlap more than you think,” he writes) as well as America itself (violence and grace; freedom and exploitation; glory and ignominy: terrible beauty).
I sometimes wonder (being, I suppose, of a wondering disposition) what it is that draws us to the game. By Saturday afternoon in the fall—assuming I’ve kept away from mid-week games—I’m feeling something like an addict’s need. The urge to see some football really does feel nearly physical. It’s an American hunger, this interest in the game: I’m almost sure of that. Football’s played in Canada but, despite impressive marketing efforts, it hasn’t caught on in Europe or anywhere else. I don’t think it ever will. That is unless America and the world become synonymous, the way Rome became synonymous with the world for some time. Football is the American game, like rock is the American music, and black speak is the American vernacular, burgers and fries are (like it or lump it) American food, and golden beer served at sub-zero temp is the American drink.
If visitors from a galaxy far away landed in our precincts, landed in New York City, say, and asked us to show them (not tell, show them) what we were all about, how would we respond? I’d be tempted to take them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the palace of Western culture. Or I might be inclined to guide them up between the sentinel lions at the New York Public Library and into the great reading room. But in either case, I’d be wrong. I’d be idealizing. No, surely the best place to take them, if they wanted to see America, would be out to the Meadowlands to watch the Giants go to war with the Redskins, or take on the Dallas Cowboys, blue versus gray, the Civil War one more time. Maybe better, one would take them up close to a flat screen TV—high definition, surround sound, the works—and let our visitors view the images that have now become, if this is possible, more life-like than life. And you would point to the screen in joy and consternation and sometimes in dismay or something close to horror. And you’d be tempted to say: This is who we are. This is what we Americans are about. But then, what exactly would you mean?
Chuck Klosterman, “Will Violence Save Football?”
Klosterman’s essay about football discusses and dismisses the two prevailing theories about football—that it will die out, and that it will change dramatically—instead arguing that it’s actually violence, and the tendency of fans of a widely decried pleasure to close ranks, that will keep the sport around. His argument is, in 2017, frighteningly familiar and relevant.
A few months after being hired as head football coach at the University of Michigan, Jim Harbaugh was profiled on the HBO magazine show Real Sports. It was a wildly entertaining segment, heavily slanted toward the intellection that Harbaugh is a lunatic. One of the last things Harbaugh said in the interview was this: “I love football. Love it. Love it. I think it’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men, in males.” Immediately following the segment, the reporter (Andrea Kremer) sat down with Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel to anecdotally unpack the story we’d all just watched. Gumbel expressed shock over Harbaugh’s final sentiment. To anyone working in the media (or even to anyone who cares about the media), Harbaugh’s position seemed sexist and ultra-reactionary, so much so that Rush Limbaugh felt the need to support it on his radio show.
This is what happens when any populist, uncomfortable thought is expressed on television.
There’s an embedded assumption within all arguments regarding the doomed nature of football. The assumption is that the game is even more violent and damaging than it superficially appears, and that as more people realize this (and/or refuse to deny the medical evidence verifying that damage), the game’s fan support will disappear. The mistake made by those advocating this position is their certitude that this perspective is self-evident. It’s not. These advocates remind me of an apocryphal quote attributed to film critic Pauline Kael after the 1972 presidential election: “How could Nixon have won? I don’t know one person who voted for him.” Now, Kael never actually said this.†† But that erroneous quote survives as the best shorthand example for why smart people tend to be wrong as often as their not-so-smart peers—they work from the flawed premise that their worldview is standard. The contemporary stance on football’s risk feels unilateral, because nobody goes around saying, “Modern life is not violent enough.” Yet this sentiment quietly exists. And what those who believe it say instead is, “I love football. It’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America.” It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the semantic distance between those statements is nonexistent. And if that happens, football will change from a popular leisure pastime to an unpopular political necessity.
††What she actually said was: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
Timothy Michael Law, “Football’s Cancer”
Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015
There’s more than one kind of violence at play here; this essay tackles systematic racism and exploitation as the primary problems with football in America.
Commentators are presently drumming up hysteria over concussions in the NFL and criticizing the sport for its overt violence, but there is a more surreptitious malady. Outbursts of violence in society, according to Žižek, sidetrack us. The violence in the background, structural and systemic, is more pernicious.
If football is ailing, it is not because it is too dangerous but because high-stakes players have figured out how to use it to create enormous wealth by exploiting a working class of athletes while minimizing their responsibilities to them. Economic exploitation is the cancer spreading throughout the body of the sport, proliferating cells as it corrodes the health of its overwhelmingly black workforce.
Most of the players are black, the fans white. For these few hours on Saturday, white college kids, alumni, and Bulldog fans who have come from near and far will act as if they have seen gods on earth. The scene is electric, and you might be easily fooled into thinking that here is proof of post-racial America. Once you’ve lived outside the South, you realize how remarkable it is that football’s popularity is greatest in Southern states that were and remain the most segregated, where antebellum hierarchies are reflected in attitudes outside of stadiums but where, during fleeting moments of athletic competition, predominately white audiences cheer madly for black athletes. Racism persists in the South in ways that some younger Americans elsewhere can no longer fathom, but black athletes and entertainers have been making white audiences (in both the North and South) laugh and cheer for centuries—so long as they are staying in character. A hip-hop artist and an athlete may sing to us, rap to us, play for us, but we still want to control the script.
Žižek cautioned that we often fail to notice systemic evils because secondary and tertiary concerns distract us. To address malignant biases and our own propensity to exploit requires the kind of uncomfortable work that keeps many fearful of seeing a therapist. The media fascination with concussions allows them to appear serious about football’s problems, but since they are part of the profiteering, exploitative machine, we should never expect to find this urgent confrontation among football’s talking heads.
In not a few ways, football’s cancer is the same cancer that has attempted to silence and demonize the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Young black men remain useful as long as they turn a profit for the managerial class and don’t shout too loudly about their labor conditions and opportunity. The impulse that drives many to consider football’s maladies of little consequence is the same impulse that drives the #AllLivesMatter response, and this impulse stems ultimately from a recalcitrant attitude that refuses to look squarely in the mirror, beyond the surface Žižek warned about.
Malcolm Gladwell, “Offensive Play”
The New Yorker, 2009
In which Malcolm Gladwell asks the question: “How different are dogfighting and football?”
These are dogs that will never live a normal life. But the kind of crime embodied by dogfighting is so morally repellent that it demands an extravagant gesture in response. In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain. A dog that will not do that is labelled a “cur,” and abandoned. A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess “gameness,” and game dogs are revered.
In one way or another, plenty of organizations select for gameness. The Marine Corps does so, and so does medicine, when it puts young doctors through the exhausting rigors of residency. But those who select for gameness have a responsibility not to abuse that trust: if you have men in your charge who would jump off a cliff for you, you cannot march them to the edge of the cliff—and dogfighting fails this test. Gameness, Carl Semencic argues, in “The World of Fighting Dogs” (1984), is no more than a dog’s “desire to please an owner at any expense to itself.” The owners, Semencic goes on,
understand this desire to please on the part of the dog and capitalize on it. At any organized pit fight in which two dogs are really going at each other wholeheartedly, one can observe the owner of each dog changing his position at pit-side in order to be in sight of his dog at all times. The owner knows that seeing his master rooting him on will make a dog work all the harder to please its master.
This is why Michael Vick’s dogs weren’t euthanized. The betrayal of loyalty requires an act of social reparation.
Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness. When Kyle Turley was knocked unconscious, in that game against the Packers, he returned to practice four days later because, he said, “I didn’t want to miss a game.” Once, in the years when he was still playing, he woke up and fell into a wall as he got out of bed. “I start puking all over,” he recalled. “So I said to my wife, ‘Take me to practice.’ I didn’t want to miss practice.” The same season that he was knocked unconscious, he began to have pain in his hips. He received three cortisone shots, and kept playing. At the end of the season, he discovered that he had a herniated disk. He underwent surgery, and four months later was back at training camp. “They put me in full-contact practice from day one,” he said. “After the first day, I knew I wasn’t right. They told me, ‘You’ve had the surgery. You’re fine. You should just fight through it.’ It’s like you’re programmed. You’ve got to go without question—I’m a warrior. I can block that out of my mind. I go out, two days later. Full contact. Two-a-days. My back locks up again. I had re-herniated the same disk that got operated on four months ago, and bulged the disk above it.” As one of Turley’s old coaches once said, “He plays the game as it should be played, all out,” which is to say that he put the game above his own well-being.
Jamil Smith, “The Necessity of Football”
New Republic, 2015
In this essay, Smith, a onetime associate producer at NFL Films—where his job was to assemble glorifying montages—argues that it actually the inadequacies of football, and not its saving graces, that make it so necessary to the American experience.
I have no excuse, really. Every time I’ve thought about leaving the sport behind, I remember my favorite photograph: a black-and-white shot my mother took of me in my football uniform in the eighth grade, standing next to my father and smiling after a win. But nostalgia is a reason to love the game, not a reason to need it. Perhaps, then, this is where I should tell you why—even in the wake of Omalu’s revelations—I feel we still need football. Not to rescue the NFL’s largely black labor force from its humble origins, or to entertain the masses that refuse to let it go in the wake of mounting tragedies. We need it partially because football serves as a kind of fun-house mirror for our national character.
The reflection comes in various forms: social movements, national tragedy, political spectacle, and yes, our sports. And we are a dramatic country, so much so that the volume of theatrics we see in every corner of our lives dulls our senses. We need more, and we need it louder. And in spectator sports, we want to see the best versions of ourselves reflected back at us, or else why would we consider it entertainment? We want to believe that inside that arena, everything will be all right because our men are the strongest, and our fight is the hardest. This is why between 2012 and 2015 the Department of Defense paid 18 NFL teams a total of more than $5.6 million for marketing and advertising, including flying military bombers over stadiums at taxpayers’ expense. It’s also why we watch hit montages week after week, delighting in the crack of the pads or the punch of the music without wondering whether that player just got pushed a bit further toward CTE. Football marries artfulness to brutality, providing the most honest interpretation of American character that we have available, and I enjoy football despite its horrors because I have learned to do the same in my life in America.
The problem is that too few of us recognize ourselves in the beauty and the carnage the NFL presents each Sunday. The game won’t change because we’re not changing. I hope a new audience will be exposed to Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story and understand that the only way to get football to change is to present its faults in an uncompromising fashion, pressuring the NFL and those who love the sport to face themselves and do better. Omalu exemplifies a model of America in which its citizens, in virtually every political context, work to change this nation for the better. Abandoning football won’t fix the sport—Americans need it so that, one day, we might learn to see ourselves for who we truly are.
Louisa Thomas, “Together We Make Football”
A look at the NFL’s history of domestic violence—players who commit it, fans and teams who ignore it—and what that says about sports culture and the myth of football as a “family.”
Domestic violence does not happen on a football field. It happens in bedrooms, cars, parking lots, elevators. Intimate-partner violence and sexual assault are epidemic in the military. They are pervasive in Silicon Valley, on college campuses, in small Alaskan towns. They exist in all countries and in all times. Getting rid of football would do nothing to change this.
And yet there are connections between a culture that sidelines women and disrespects them, a culture that disrespects women and tolerates violence toward them, and a culture that tolerates violence toward them and commits violence toward them. Nearly half—48 percent—of all arrests for violent crimes among NFL players are arrests for domestic violence.
Men have worried that masculinity was under threat for as long as football has been around. The sport as we know it, after all, began during an era and in a class so nervous about decline that there was a condition, neurasthenia, to describe men’s anxiety. The easiest way to prove you were a man was to adopt an attitude of aggression. Those who were vulnerable or different were, and are, not merely unwelcome. It’s as if they were contagious. It is as if they were dangerous.
The NFL calls itself a family. If that’s the case, it’s a family of fathers and sons but not wives and daughters. It’s a family that more closely resembles the mob than a family connected by blood or love. It’s a family that protects its own by cutting others, a family that privileges loyalty over what’s right. But loyalty goes only so far in the NFL—because at some not-so-distant point, the family turns into a business. When concussions enter into it, or salary caps, or age, the family becomes about winning Sunday’s big game or about the business’s bottom line. If it’s a family, then it’s a fucked-up family.
Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Comprehensive Illusion of Football”
The New Yorker, 2015
Television changes everything—including football.
“Before modern TV, it must have felt more abstractly gladiatorial,” Richard Linklater, the filmmaker, who was himself a Texas high school quarterback, says. We were discussing the way that these days, on television, you can impart personalities to the players and coaches on the screen. The N.F.L. has wired participants for sound and improved its broadcasts’ camera angles and photograph definition. Camera operators pan the field and sidelines for raw reactions. The emotion fans tend to feel most keenly is outrage, and, following along, producers have lately specialized in conveying assorted shades of indignation. We think of Giants coach Tom Coughlin as a man perpetually aggrieved and consider Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan a puerile teen-ager—after all, that’s how they behave in our homes. Of course, both men are far more complex. “Once you can see their eyes, everything changes, and you think you know them,” Linklater says. “TV does that—that powerful, possessory bond with the audience. The public might fawn over actors they know from movies, but if they know you from television, they act like they’re a relative. They really think they have access, and they almost consume them.”
Part of football’s appeal is the violence, which gives it the feeling of a real-life action movie. But the violence has always been risky for TV, as well as for the players. Long before there was any public controversy concerning the long-term effects of football-related blows to the head, TV sought to make the game more palatable by magnifying its balletic beauty and deëmphasizing the brute concussive aggression of the hitting. One of the game’s most notorious collisions took place on “Monday Night Football” in 1985, when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann. The reverse camera angle revealed Theismann suffering a grotesque compound leg fracture. That was too much reality for family television. In the decades since then, much to the dismay of defensive coaches, the most revealing football rules changes have put restraints on contact and otherwise eased the task of completing passes. Part of this is that America loves touchdowns, and another piece of it is that passing looks prettier on TV. But concerning ourselves with the graceful choreographies of receivers and defensive backs also relieved us of the unsettling responsibility for witnessing what’s going down off-camera.
Paul Solotaroff with Ron Borges, “The Gangster in the Huddle”
Rolling Stone, 2013
An in-depth profile of former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez—who, four years later, has yet another murder trial coming up in less than two weeks.
Most people, even self-important stars blowing thousands on bottle-shape women, might have simmered down about now. But the 23-year-old Aaron Hernandez wasn’t like most people; for ages, he hadn’t even been like himself. The sweet, goofy kid from Bristol, Connecticut, with the klieg-light smile and ex-thug dad who’d turned his life around to raise two phenom sons–that Aaron Hernandez had barely been heard from in the seven hard years since his father was snatched away, killed in his prime by a medical error that left his boys soul-sick and lost. Once in a great while, the good Aaron would surface, phoning one of his college coaches to tell him he loved him and to talk to the man’s kids for hours, or stopping Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, to kiss him on the cheek and thank him damply. There was such hunger in that kid for a father’s hand, and such greatness itching to get out, that coach after coach had covered for him whenever the bad Aaron showed–the violent, furious kid who was dangerous to all, most particularly, it seems, to his friends.
Robert Lipsyte, “Donald Trump Represents the Worst of Football Culture”
The Nation, 2017
An essay that bemoans Trump—a failed team owner himself—as emblematic of the worst aspects of “jock-culture”, but looks to Colin Kaepernick and others like him as a ray of hope.
His kind of boastful, bullying, blowfish persona is tolerated in locker rooms (as in sales offices, barracks, trading floors, and legislatures), just as long as the big dog can deliver. Which he has done. It’s no surprise that his close pals and business associates in SportsWorld include two other notorious P.T. Barnums, boxing’s Don King and wrestling’s Vince McMahon (whose wife, Linda, is now Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration).
Another typical jock-culture trait is rolling over for the alpha(est) dog in your arena, be it the team leader, coach, owner, or even the president of Russia. One wonders, had Trump become a successful NFL owner, would he have wimped out as completely as New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft did when Russian President Vladimir Putin pocketed his Super Bowl ring in 2005 and walked out of their Moscow meeting room with it. It was never returned.
As the season ended, Kaepernick’s teammates awarded him their Len Eshmont Award for “inspirational and courageous play,” making a mockery of reports in the media that he had been alienating the rest of the team. Edwards describes the media and the sports establishment as clueless when it comes to Kaepernick’s growing support among athletes—a phenomenon that promises “some turbulent times over the upcoming Trump era.”
Kaepernick’s most transcendent transgression has been the way he punctured the comfort of football’s sweaty sanctuary, letting in both light and some hard truths—including this reality: that objectified and extravagantly well paid performers can still have real thoughts about the world outside the white lines, a world becoming more and more perilous for those who think Trumpball should not be the national pastime.