Against Football Author Steve Almond Blasts the NFL and Its Hypocritical Media Machine

Categories: Longform

ESPN bloviator Colin Cowherd has a blind spot when it comes to the violence in football.
SSG Dale Sweetnam/US Army
ESPN bloviator Colin Cowherd has a blind spot when it comes to the violence in football.
The dog days of summer aren't much fun in the land of sports talk radio. The only major league in play is baseball, with the pennant races still two months off. Amid these doldrums, the Ray Rice story hit the airwaves last month like a gale.

In late July, word leaked that the National Football League was going to mete out its punishment to the Baltimore Ravens' star running back, who was alleged to have assaulted his fiancée in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February. Surveillance footage, leaked online, captured Rice attempting to remove the insensate body of the woman -- whom he subsequently wed -- from the elevator. To this task, he brought all the empathy of a hog butcher tugging at a carcass.

Thus when reports confirmed that the NFL was suspending Rice for a mere two games, the righteous scolds of sports talk soared into a gleeful paroxysm. Here at last was an off-season scandal with legs! The NFL had demonstrated once again its disdain for women and its disregard for the violence against them perpetrated with gruesome regularity by football players. A few even called for the resignation of Roger Goodell, the league's lavishly compensated commissioner.

Most notable amid this sanctimonious din was a talented bloviator named Colin Cowherd, who regards himself (and is generally regarded) as one of sport talk's Big Thinkers. On July 29, Cowherd offered the national audience that tunes in to his weekday ESPN radio show, The Herd, a lengthy disquisition on the broader cultural implications of l'affaire Rice.

"We know that violent images now in America create violence," he began. "We know that. There is no more argument. From 1957 to 1990, 217 studies said short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person: moderate to large in strength. The weight of all studies in America and globally supports the position that exposure to media violence -- movies, TV, video games -- leads to aggression, desensitization toward violence, a lack of sympathy for victims, and particularly in kids.... Okay, so what can you and I do about it? Not much outside of our house or neighborhood. What can the government do about it? What can the FCC do about it? What can major corporations like this one do about it? Take a stand! 'But Colin, the artists need to express themselves.' Really? Like I can't live without Chris Brown? Reservoir Dogs? Grand Theft Auto?"

Cowherd dutifully tagged the NFL's leniency toward Rice as "disgusting, appalling, repulsive. But it's happening all over our society now. Go to a football game and watch a fight. Will anybody stop the fight? No, you idiots grab your iPhones and record it and cheer it on. Desensitized to violence! Because American corporations making so much damn money off violence don't want to stop the profits, don't want to stop the commerce."

Cowherd compared the proliferation of violent images to the flow of drugs into the country and observed that young men "of often lower IQ and socioeconomic means" inevitably see these images and commit more violent crimes.

Then he issued his summation. "We have the data," he said. "Let's do something. Cut off the profits. I don't get it. I just don't get it."

Pop music, movies, TV, video games -- amid the sermonizing, one item was conspicuous by its absence from Cowherd's catalog of contraband: the game he covers.

Football.

It is Cowherd's job, his peculiar burden and gift, to generate outrage, using only recycled news items and his own slapdash sociology, every weekday morning. But the myopia of his July 29 diatribe, in particular, was monumental. Without meaning to, it crystallized the cognitive dissonance that haunts America's vast Football Industrial Complex (FIC) at this historic moment.

Which is to say: Those who pose as the industry's critics have to pretend awfully hard that they hate violence and misogyny and greed and homophobia while at the same time promoting a game that is, objectively speaking, violent, misogynistic, mercenary, and homophobic.

The top-tier talkers manage to sound utterly convincing, even as they craft arguments of dazzling fraudulence and obdurate illogic. It appears never to have occurred to Cowherd that football might be a culprit in America's cult of violence. No, that crisis can be pinned on brutes from the lower castes hopped up on sadistic fictions. It is the feral inclinations of such men -- and not, say, the fact that football is vicious enough to cause brain damage among its players -- that keeps Cowherd from taking his son to a game. The poor lad might be subjected to a brawl in the stands.

What marks Cowherd as a true pro is his ability to tap into the meta-narrative of grievance that undergirds all punditry. It turns out the Rice case really isn't about football at all -- it's about governmental negligence and corporate greed! Fortunately, there are intrepid voices inside the FIC willing to speak truth to power.

Or, at least, sell absolution to the easily deluded.

I should confess right here that I myself have been one of the deluded for nearly four decades, not only an ardent football fan but a devotee of guys like Cowherd, who supply addicts our weekday fix -- the macho Mishnah that preps us for the holy texts to be written on game day.

I won't pretend for a second that I'm happy to have quit watching football. But this distance has allowed me to see the ethical arrangement between the game and the world of punditry that envelops it.

In fact, as the tide of public opinion turns against America's most profitable sport, the prevailing commandment among its media boosters has become increasingly sad and obvious: Thou Shalt Not Address the Moral Hazards of Football Itself.

To do so -- to suggest, for instance, that the Ray Rice affair is the logical outcome of a culture that worships hypermasculine athletes specifically for their savage impulses, and which regards women as ornamental and sexual possessions -- would be to confirm their own role as profiteers in this vast system. Worse yet, it would force us fans, the folks who ultimately subsidize the FIC, to confront our own complicity.

So instead, when evidence of the sport's corruptions erupts into public view (as it does with alarming frequency these days), Cowherd and his cohort must resort, ever more desperately, to a stale tactic: Find the nearest scapegoat and grind him into the turf.

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