You’ve seen the headlines: Miami Dolphins’ starting left tackle Jonathan Martin quits the team and goes for psychological treatment, partially as the result of “persistent bullying” including racist texts sent by fellow Dolphins’ player Richie Incognito. Then there’s Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and the video showing Rice dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an Atlantic City elevator—after he had punched and knocked her out. And there’s the damning PBS Frontline special “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” which opens with the story of Pittsburgh Steelers’s “Iron Mike” Webster, who died at just 50 years old, eleven years after retiring from the NFL. Autopsy results revealed the brutal toll football had taken on both his body and brain. Questions followed about how football destroys the brains of players (high-paid NFL stars as well as school athletes) and how much the NFL knew and when they knew it.

One football fan who could not remain in denial about the controversies swirling around his favorite sport is writer Steve Almond. In his fierce new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, he addresses the problems of racism, misogyny, greed, and grievous injuries that the NFL and NCAA would rather sweep under the rug. Instead of picking up your remote this Sunday to watch the Miami Dolphins take on the Buffalo Bills, you might pick up a copy of Almond’s book at the Brookline Booksmith. Almond will be reading from Against Football at the Coolidge Corner Theatre this Thursday, September 18 at 7PM. I emailed with Almond to find out how a diehard football fan came to write such an outspoken manifesto.

Brookline Hub: Why did you decide to make Against Football a manifesto?

Steve Almond: Well, I knew the book was going to take the form of an extended argument, and it wasn’t going to pull any punches. So “manifesto” felt like the right word — it’s part of the American tradition to speak out against corruption, even and especially when it’s a sacred cow like football.

BH: In the book you talk about the medical evidence showing the injuries caused to the brain as the result of repeated concussive and particularly sub-concussive hits that football players endure during their career. There is a clear connection between these injuries and the onset of dementia, memory-loss, and depression, as well as a shortened life expectancy and suicide. Do you think the NFL has a moral obligation to make changes to the game now that this information is a matter of public record? Or are these injuries just an occupational hazard that comes with the job, like being a police officer or working in a mine? After all, some may say that professional football players are well paid and no one if forcing them to play the game.

SA: Yeah, I’ve heard this rationalization a million times. And used it myself hundreds of times. The reason the NFL exists is because fans (like me) give so much attention and money to the game. So the moral question should be posed to fans: do we feel it’s okay to consume as a form of entertainment a game that causes its players to risk brain damage? After all, police officers protect the public (hopefully). Coal miners provide fuel to heat homes. What do NFL players provide? Entertainment for us couch potatoes. As for the NFL, it’s a corporation. It’s going to do whatever necessary to maximize profits. Period. It has a cash register where its conscience should be. That’s why fans have to step up.

BH: Why do you think parents continue to allow (and often strongly encourage) their kids to play football despite the mounting evidence that “the nearly 1.1 million boys who play high school football are getting hurt…that upward of 65,000 concussions are reported per year?” We teach our kids about the dangers of underage drinking, of taking illegal drugs, of driving their car too fast, so why don’t we worry more about our sons hurting themselves—possibly causing irreparable damage—just by playing a game?

SA: Look, America is profoundly violent, macho culture. Look at our popular culture. And football is just the leading athletic example of this. But I do think that parents are getting more and more educated about the health risks, especially in areas where education is stressed, and youth football numbers are down in these areas because of it. What’s going to happen, at least according to Malcolm Gladwell–and I agree with him–is a further “ghettoization” of the sport. The players will come, more and more, from economically vulnerable precincts where there are fewer opportunities. It’s actually absurd and degrading, but the truth is fans are part of a larger system in which young kids are told that their best “way out” is to play a violent game consumed, mostly, by older men.

BH: Many chapters in your book were eye opening, even chilling. In particular, I found disturbing how even Dr. Ann McKee, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University—a person who is studying the dramatic affects that sub-concussive hits have on the brain and who is seeing the damage up close and personal—is also an outspoken fan of the game. In fact you mention Dr. McKee and others in the lab talking about the Super Bowl. If even the doctors who are intimate with the damage the game can cause are still avid football fans, why do you think the country will be convinced to push for change?

SA: Yeah, it was so amazing. Here they are cutting up brains and still talking about football. Americans don’t like to morally interrogate their pleasures. They want football to be this refuge. They close their eyes to its moral hazards, even when they’re right in front of their eyes, on a morgue slab.

BH: The NFL wants to start charging musical acts to perform during the Superbowl Halftime Show. Is this justifiable or more evidence that the League only cares about increasing their profit margins?

SA: Again: the NFL is a corporation. We, the fans, have given the league incredible power. It is going to use that power to maximize profits. We can whine all we want. But until we recognize that the NFL’s power comes from us, it’s a fool’s errand.

BH: You mention the angry reactions you received when you wrote a related piece about football for The New York Times. You write about receiving emails from angry fans who claimed you had–and I’m using a euphemism here–an over-sized lady part.  Are you concerned about the controversy this book is going to stir up? Did you have any second thoughts about writing a book that would include several very pointed condemnations of America’s favorite sport?

SA: For the record, football is MY favorite sport, too. I miss it terribly, especially now at the beginning of a new season. But it’s still just a game, not some sacred American tradition. And all I’m saying is stuff that everyone knows, deep down, is true. Honestly, I’d feel a lot more scared if I was a young man of color walking home, in this country. The whole point of a book like this is to start a larger conversation. It’s a beautiful, intricate game. But you can’t just take the good things and ignore the bad.

BH: Recently ESPN reported on openly gay NFL player Michael Sam’s showering habits, mentioning that “he is kind of waiting to take a shower, as not to make his teammates uncomfortable.” Is this taking “inside the locker room” access too far?  Why should we even care how or when Sam showers?

SA: The problem is more fundamental: ESPN is only reporting this because fans have such an insatiable desire to hear every single thing about the sport. In this sense, football players are in the same boat as other celebrities. We love to exalt these folks and vilify them. And most of all, we love to consume them as if they were stories, rather than people. It’s pretty despicable.

BH: Do you think there is a way to make the game safer without losing fans?  I thought about boxing and wrestling, where you are pitted against competitors who are roughly your same size.  Can the same be done in football, putting a weight limit on players or employing other safety rules? Who knows, perhaps in the future we can even have robots playing the game rather than people! Then we can get the powerful blows without the bloodshed and brain damage.

SA: No. You can’t overcome physics and physiology. Mass times acceleration equals force. Players are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever. They collide on every single play. And yet their brains remain soft organs that get jarred against the hard skull. There’s no way to undo this. And the NFL and NCAA would never do so, because fans love the violence. That’s why there are those parabolic mics on the sidelines, to capture the bone-crunching hits. That’s why they replay the most violent hits, over and over. Fans have to reckon with their lust for violence and turn away from it before the guys in suits are going to do anything.

BH: You mention the great sports pundits like Bill Simmons, as well as writers like Malcolm Gladwell and other respected journalists, and how even they skate around the issues of football and morality.  Do you think your book might encourage pundits to be more open and forthright?  Have any of them read the book yet and if so, what was their reaction?

SA: I have no idea if they’ll read the book. I hope they do. I’d love for these guys to be a part of this larger conversation, because so many fans look to them as moral arbiters. But the book also directly confronts guys like Simmons for serving as promoters and enablers of the sport. We’ll see.

BH: It seems like there’s a lot of denial in this country about the negative aspects of football–be it racism, sexism, greed or the physical and mental trauma players endure. In your epilogue you touch on ways that these “moral hazards” can be addressed. Ultimately what do you think it will take to get America to sit up and take notice, to demand that the NFL and NCAA change their practices?

SA: As I’ve said all along, it will take fans turning away from the game. Period. They have to vote with their wallets. But that’s only going to happen if people stop relying on the tired old excuses and face the game for what it is — beautiful, intricate, graceful, but also violent and monstrously cynical. The reckoning is ultimately personal.

BH: The NFL 2014 season officially started the first week of September. You mentioned being a big Oakland Raiders fan. Will you be watching?

SA: I will not. But man will I miss it. I already do. The point of my book isn’t to trash football, or people who love it. What I feel about the game is really more heartbroken — that we’ve turned the intuitive joys of childhood into such a corrupt adult endeavor.

—By Jennifer Campaniolo