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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25 comments
Alfred J Bev III
Alfred J Bev III

Why is it NFL job to enforce justice? Why wasn't Rice arrested?

voxnovo
voxnovo

@HubbuchNYP Mr. Almond eyeballs the trees and totally misses the forest. He calls to mind a physically flexible man who spends most . . .

michaelstephens
michaelstephens

@wparker.idk  I would contend that Almond, and people with his motivations, don't believe they are distorting Dungy's statement, they would say they actually know "what he REALLY means" and that because he's an overtly religious man, his words and actions vis a vis homosexuals/ality are always motivated by bigotry.  They would tell you that they actually know what was in his heart: 


"Among the things that will happen, it turns out, is that a retired coach and devout Christian, who publicly opposes same-sex marriage, will cast vague aspersions on you, citing the "distractions" your presence might cause while conveniently creating just such a distraction. This was nothing new to Sam."


I mean, come on man.  This author just can't comprehend that someone like Dungy, who knows a thing or two about dealing with the media in a coaching capacity,  would be thinking about anything other than than his hate when asked about Michael Sam. How ridiculous and intellectually lazy is that on the part of the author?  


Also, I'm a non-white, non-religious East Coast liberal artist and I feel no hypocrisy at all in my football fandom.  There is so much more to rebut in this article, but I'm already at the TL;DR point.


Brandon Rhodes
Brandon Rhodes

No one wants to hear this. But they will. More and more, as time marches on.

kojak777
kojak777

If I died and went to hell it would be Cowherds radio show 24/7 .... look up "Bull shit artist"  in the dictionary  u'll see cowherds pic... he was born at a Holiday Inn --he's an expert on everything

wparker.idk
wparker.idk

"Football, like capitalism, is really just a benign form of populism, a game that shouldn't be taken too seriously."


I can't tell what the author hates more -- football or capitalism, but this article is a ridiculously long load of beans. Whatever he thinks of football, why is he making capitalism out to be a bad thing? 

I am a sports journalist so I will say this up front. I will also say that football is not my favorite sport, but I am not going to demonize things I don't like and try to shame people into not watching what I don't like. 

To hold Colin Cowherd up as a strawman for all that is wrong with football is just ridiculous. He's a blowhard about most everything, not just football.


Almond also distorts the Tony Dungy/Michael Sam issue. Dungy was referring not to Sam's sexuality as a distraction, but to the obsessive media coverage that included a training camp Oprah Winfrey network reality show that was wisely scrapped. That was done at the behest of Rams players, by the way, who thought that was a bit over the top. Sam's handlers and the NFL agreed to something before ever letting any team that might draft Sam know about it. 

There are so many flaws in this convoluted mess of a piece here by Almond, but I'll end my remarks with this observation: The culture of football is hardly as corrosive, misogynistic, homophobic, amoral, parasitical and gratuitously violent as the larger American popular culture, with its obsession over celebrities, hip-hop and rap, and movies and television programs like "Breaking Bad."

Football can't come close to any of that unadulterated crap, IMHO but I'd never be as arrogant enough as to suggest to someone who enjoys it should feel bad for doing do.


BAJones
BAJones

“Ardent football fan” Almond has convinced me that we should get rid of American “football”: the kind that is based on crashing skulls, but seldom uses feet. Real football (aka soccer) - the kind that is actually played with the feet - is available as a substitute.

Nostalgic macho holdouts who long to wrap themselves in padding; to wear huge metal helmets with face guards which may protect skull and teeth, but will also maximize the chance of a broken neck; and to rack up two or three concussions per year; can always buy a Harley.

TigerDavid4Him
TigerDavid4Him

@DOBrienAJC cowherd is the same moron that blames the Tony Stewart incident on southern culture and how NASCAR promotes it.

jl_weber
jl_weber

@DOBrienAJC Football is the sport I love the most, but also the one that causes the most cognitive dissonance. Hard to justify my fandom.

Richard Pilkington
Richard Pilkington

This year I'm going to blame the NFL for their unfettered jingoistic military support. 2,000 returning American vets commit suicide every year.

robertlongonline
robertlongonline

Thanks for sharing that link @ThatRyanWhite  My interest is certainly peaked.  A bit of a stretch i know, but i couldnt help but wonder how Roman's defended watching actual slaughter as morality dictated its demise within their culture.  I'm guessing with violence.  

DrewHunkins
DrewHunkins

This is a dynamite piece by Mr. Almond and adds to my own personal ever growing unease about where all this football hysteria is heading.  I admit that I enjoy watching a good college football or NFL playoff game, but I too was growing increasingly disillusioned with some aspects of the surrounding environment of the game.

It's almost getting to the point in which one feels they're selling out a bit of their ethical and moral underpinnings when they simply want to chill out and watch a game.  Moreover, the over commercialization has reached sickening proportions, product promos, television commercials and corporate logo feces intercede at virtually every dead moment. 

aholland82
aholland82

@ThatRyanWhite I just picked up the Weinreb book. It'll be good to devour that on the river this long weekend.

ThatRyanWhite
ThatRyanWhite

@aholland82 I just cracked that one open, too. And yes, I know exactly what you mean. Each season, my excitement is more uncomfortable.

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