January 26, 2014

"Just so we’re clear on this: I still love football. I love the grace and the poise of the athletes."

"I love the tension between the ornate structure of the game and its improvisatory chaos, and I love the way great players find opportunity, even a mystical kind of order, in the midst of that chaos. The problem is that I can no longer indulge these pleasures without feeling complicit...."

From a NYT Magazine essay asking the question: "Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?" The question-asker is Steve Almond. Am I supposed to know who he is? (Is it immoral not to know?) There's no note about the author on the page and the name isn't a hot link. What's his moral authority?

Perhaps he wants his ideas judged by the strength of this one text, like an anonymous pamphleteer, but I Google his name and see that he's a short-story writer and that he was an adjunct professor in creative writing at Boston College who resigned in protest when Condoleezza Rice was brought in to do the school's commencement address. Moral authority noted.

Here's a picture of Almond wearing a brown shirt that says "chocolate boy." Lest you take that the wrong way, his website is called stevealmondjoy.com and he wrote a nonfiction book called "Candyfreak," about his love for candy and his search for the stories of "the small candy companies that are persevering in a marketplace where big corporations dominate."

I'd embed the photo, but the photographer, who seems to have just snapped a pic when Almond spoke at a high school in Minnesota, put lots of "not in the public domain" language around it when he uploaded it to Wikipedia. How boring! That photographer lacks moral authority in this world of creative commons. It's a picture of somebody else, and that someone else was nice enough to show up and allow photographs.

Here are some photos I took of Camille Paglia when she was nice enough to show up at a bookstore in Madison to talk about a book of hers. She let us take nonflash photos during the book-signing part of the visit, and I keep my photos on a Creative Commons license (attribution, noncommercial).

I wonder whether Camille has weighed in on the morality of football? There's this, from 1991:
I don't go [imitates crying and dabbing tears], "Oh, I'll never be that beautiful!" What a ridiculous attitude to take!--the Naomi Wolf attitude. When men look at sports, when they look at football, the don't go [crying], "Oh, I'll never be that fast, I'll never be that strong!" When people look at Michelangelo's David, do they commit suicide? No. See what I mean? When you see a strong person, a fast person, you go, "Wow! That is fabulous." When you see a beautiful person: "How beautiful." That's what I'm bringing back to feminism. You go, "What a beautiful person, what a beautiful man, what a beautiful woman, what beautiful hair, what beautiful boobs!" Okay, now I'll be charged with sexual harassment, probably. I won't even be able to get out of the room!
And, from 1996, asked by The Yale Journal of Ethics, about her idea "that seduction needs encouragement in our society," she says:
For all the talk and hysteria about date rape, the reality is not overly libidinous men. The main problem is that men are shrinking.
Chocolate Boy, is she talking to you?
Not at the football schools...
.... where men are men, where athletes rule, where the [women] are happy to be women and be very glamorous young women too. There are a very small number of sexual identity problems clustered in gay activist and feminist organizations....

There is a disastrous problem with sexual identity at the elite schools. I don't know whether the young women see the kind of young men who are going to these schools as very sexually aggressive or intrusive, but that is not the case. From Williams to Brown to Yale, the young men are fresh faced, genteel bourgeois boys who were raised in professional households with very active mothers. They are boys with good manners, boys who are very sensitive, boys with their masculinity hardly visible.
Hardly visible and softly visible, gently nudging us to feel moral pangs — pangy-wangs — about the participating in football that is the watching of football. Ah! I suddenly see — Camille is helping me — what is the psychic core of Chocolate Boy's anxiety when he wrote: "I can no longer indulge these pleasures without feeling complicit." Deep down, he wants to believe he's complicit, because that would mean he's kinda — sorta — part of football.

Perhaps when the softly, hardly man watches football he does feel like crying "Oh, I'll never be that fast, I'll never be that strong!" When men look at Richard Sherman, do they still go, "Wow! That is fabulous," or have they drifted into Naomi Wolfish crying "Oh, I'll never be that beautiful"? Or do they find a way to say: I am that fast and strong and beautiful... I am Richard Sherman... through the mystical process of moral complicity.

Think about it, Mr. Almond. Look closely and see:

I love the tension... the ornate structure... the improvisatory chaos...


Bob R said...

Yes, chocolate boy is pretty pathetic, but I'm not completely unsympathetic to the point of that article. I used to be a big boxing fan. The Thrilla in Manila may be the best sports event I've ever watched. And now I watch Mohamed Ali stumbling around and think about how much fun I had watching him get that way.

I think we watch death defying sports - boxing, football, auto racing - for the "defying" part, not the "death" part. When the death part gets too much in our face it spoils the fun.

chuck said...

I go, wow, this is a great post! Love the almonds ;)

sinz52 said...

A standard ploy that left-wingers use either to get a headline or just to have something to write about, is to take a cherished American tradition--and trash it.

That's why you see all these left-wing articles, "Why I Don't Celebrate Thanksgiving," "Why I Don't Celebrate the Fourth of July," etc.

Yes, football is a dangerous sport. But it's far from the only dangerous sport; there are participants in many sports who have been injured or killed. But they usually knew what they were getting into.

And throughout history, audiences have enjoyed dangerous sports vicariously. Perhaps Mr. Almond has forgotten the famous chariot race scene in "Ben-Hur."

I wonder which sports, if any, Mr. Almond participates in himself.

rehajm said...

Given the frequency of concussive injuries in football and hockey I've had similar reservations as a fan. I've shared the same gym with some of them, and it's disturbing not to see them report for work after a head injury.

Bob R said...

It may be that head trauma is getting worse as pro football players get bigger, stronger, faster, but pro football players have live shorter lives for a long while. Something about retiring from the most exciting job you can imagine in your mid thirties is not conducive to a long life. (I always liked the quote about Jack Kemp that it was hard to run for president when it would be the second best job you ever had.)

Ron said...

Are the greatest rates of injury and death from hang gliding? Not exactly high on the macho scale, but you still croak when the wind changes its mind and thinks you would love to kiss that cliff you just jumped off of. Does Chocolate Boy know this?

I would want Paglia to do an audio book of "50 Shades".

JoyD said...

I had just finished reading this column before I came over to Althouse this morning. My instinct, or my inner sceptic, made me think that the neighbor, with his memory of guilt, was a fictional construct. It just didn't ring true to me - it was such a neat little bow on top of his story. Anybody else?

Wince said...

As a writer and thinker, Camille Paglia is everything Chocolate Boy isn't.

A writer who makes you think. A national treasure. Where would the conversation be today without her heterodoxy?

Seems to me Chocolate Boy is the exact opposite of "a box of chocolates": you know exactly what you're going to get. And it's crushingly boring.

SGT Ted said...

The moralizing over this is so precious.

1st World Problems.

bearing said...

I would just like to say that, oddly enough, I have read Candyfreak, and I liked it. I thought it was really funny in an over-the-top way. Unfortunately, it made me crave candy for weeks.

Leslie Graves said...

I am having a "wow, you make the most wonderful connections and write them in the blogger equivalent of an Alice Munro short story and I will never be that fabulous but it sure is fun to watch it" reaction to this post.

Anonymous said...

Not exactly high on the macho scale, but you still croak when the wind changes its mind and thinks you would love to kiss that cliff you just jumped off of. Does Chocolate Boy know this?

The issue is not which particular sport is more dangerous, but the contention that the NFL has significantly downplayed and denied the issue in order to keep ratings and profits up.

If Michael Schumaker ends up in a coma because he had a skiing accident, that is a tragedy, but one that he knew the risks of and accepted. If he ends up in a coma because his F1 car crashes and F1 knew about defects and dangers and did nothing to address them, that is a crime.

And indeed F1 is a very good example, from the 50's to the early 80's it was carnage. They finally said enough is enough and changed the rules to limit speeds and make the cars safer. There hasn't been a death in a race in twenty years.

Barry Dauphin said...

So did he object to Condoleezza Rice because she likes football?

Rae said...

Is this not the infantilization of football players? The players assume the risk of injury, it's a well known part of the game. In return they are compensated handsomely in fame and fortune.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Almond Joy? I though it was Mounds that didn't have any nuts.

Gahrie said...

The problem with professional football is not the rules or the equipment. The problem is a game played by men who weigh 200 to 250 pounds hitting each other violently is much different than a game played by men who weigh 300to 350 pounds hitting each other just as hard, and moving just as fast.
Remember Refrigerator Perry? He wouldn't stand out today.

Valentine Smith said...

Jeez, Almond just looks like he deserves the exquisite beating Althouse gave him. Poor chump.

Valentine Smith said...

He deserves it for simply using the phrase "improvisatory chaos." Fucking prig.

Michael K said...

"The issue is not which particular sport is more dangerous, but the contention that the NFL has significantly downplayed and denied the issue in order to keep ratings and profits up."

Is your real name "Chocolate Boy?"

Left winger? - check,
Doesn't sound masculine ? - check
Doesn't like profits ? - check

Actually, I agree that it is the increasing size of players that is a problem. Also, I've seen a suggestion to reduce chronic head trauma.
Ban helmets.

The chronic problems seem to be a consequence of deceleration injuries that are not prevented by helmets. Jerry Ford famously played football without a helmet and was a better president than any we've had since Reagan.

Robert Cook said...

Biggest problem with football?

It's boring.

David said...

Nice comment by Paglia on the boys of the elite schools.

But she's missing something.

You think archetype Ronan Farrow, Mr. Sensitive Ivy League Graduated Yale at 19, isn't on a big time pussy hunt? Think again. He just adapted his hunting technique to the new environment.

Tarrou said...

So more whinging hand-wringing from a pathetic manling. Nothing to see here.

And the problem with the risk of football is the same as the risk of boxing. Too much protective gear. When you give boxers one-pound gloves to protect their hands, you wind up giving them horrendous concussions. Same thing with helmets. You know what sport doesn't have anything like the level of brain damage as football? Rugby. Once more, meddling moralistic simperers run into the law of unintended consequences.

Meade said...

Robert Cook said...
"Biggest problem with football?

It's boring."

I'm coming to agree with you, RC. And it goes for all spectator sports. DVR has spoiled me. I watch every game in delay-time nowadays and find that 95% of every foot, base, or basketball game demands to be fast-forwarded.

Ann Althouse said...

@ chuck & leslie


I'm trying to find my way back to my old "Tattoos Remind You of Death" ideal.

CWJ said...

When reading moralizing pieces like this, watch the shifts from I/me to us/we. Almond shifts back and forth quite often. This piece has the feel of I am concerned so we have a moral problem.

A personal story of changing attitudes over time has the potential to influence opinion. We can all draw our own conclusions thank you. A personal story as a springboard to draw moral conclusions for the general population is just irritatingly presumptuous.

BTW, his claim that his 11 year old self worried that football would be banned doesn't ring true. Also, I agree with the earlier commenter that Sean the neighbor is probably fiction.

MayBee said...

When my husband was growing up, his hippie-ish parents discouraged him and his siblings from playing sports because they did not like competition.

With all the ban-dodgeball,don't let your kids play outside alone, cancel sport postage stamps cuz the kid isn't wearing a helmet, participation badge culture of today, I can't help but think the handwringing about football (from the same crowd!) is just an extension of that whole line of thinking.

There's nothing about a man who writes about football that way and calls himself "chocolate boy" to make me think otherwise.

KLDAVIS said...

Professor, if you'd scrolled a bit further, you'd have seen that the photo at Wikipedia is published under a CC license (attribution, share-alike), which is actually LESS restrictive than the one you used for your Camille Paglia pics.

The Cracker Emcee Refulgent said...

I enjoyed Candyfreak but, yes, Almond is a self-dramatizing moralist of the classic fits-and-vapors school.
I used to find football boring until my sons started to play. Watching a game where I care about the outcome gave me a new appreciation for the game. It can be a very intense experience to just watch it.

Anonymous said...

it's a well known part of the game.

The cumulative effect of concussion was not known, or at least admitted by the NFL, until recently. It's like saying the tobacco companies shouldn't be held liable for damages even though they continued to claim there was no link between smoking and cancer long after the science was settled.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound masculine ? - check

Oh yeah, brain damage is so manly.

Gahrie said...

Oh yeah, brain damage is so manly.

No more manly than black lung or any of a thousand ways that men routine hurt their health in order to earn an income and have done so throughout human history.

Jupiter said...

Much as I would like to join you all in laughing at this silly idiot, he does appear to have stumbled upon a valid moral concern. Namely, how much damage are we willing to tolerate in the service of entertainment? If someone is willing to be tortured to death on national television, so his kids can afford to go to a good school, is it OK for you to pay to watch it? How many animals were harmed to make this movie?

JoyD said...

Jupiter ...so his kids can afford to go to a good school?? Do you think that was his (hypothetical player's) motivation when he tried out for the high school football team? He wanted it more than anything! It was and is his choice.
Now, speaking as a mother, I'm glad my three sons weren't built for football. They were runners and swimmers. Speaking as a football fan, I do cringe, I do wonder about the gladiator culture this has become, and I do think about our complicity. It still comes down to: his choice. Can you believe that Peyton Manning wanted to come back to the field after neck surgery?? There's a good example. This is his life and his passion. He knows the risks - they all do.

Kirk Parker said...


I really like Althouse's blog, though I might disagree with any number of her stances--but seriously the combination of Althouse-inspired-by-Paglia is dynamite!

Kirk Parker said...


Re boring: why would anyone watch baseball on TV??? Seriously, are you tv-watchers mental???

Baseball was meant to be enjoyed by sitting outdoors, on a fine warm day, watching the players to their thing on a real grass field.

Any other method of spectating just death--but slow-torture death, not the quick-merciful variety.

Kirk Parker said...

Following the link trail, I come across this comment from Althouse back in the 2005 piece on Paglia's appearance at [the other] UW:

"And I do still have my old "Maggie Mae" paper, which I ran across recently and read with a combination of shame (at myself) and outrage (at the institution that should have forced me to become educated). "

Things were really that bad, even that early in the Suicide Of The West™? I'm (if I my math and recollection is correct) 4 years younger than you, and I while the few college papers I've retained definitely show immaturity, there's nothing really embarrassing to either me or my alma mater in them. (Note I'm not saying I saved any of my freshman papers, OK???)

Or is the rot of academia something that started in the east and took a while to reach the Left Coast?

gk1 said...

All this hand wringing from chocolate boy reminded me of this Patton speech:
"The bilious bastards who write that kind of stuff for the Saturday Evening Post don't know any more about real fighting under fire than they know about fucking!"

Joe said...

I'm not bothered by violence in pro and college sports. I think we overdo high school sports, but generally those taking part are making a conscious choice, though not always a mature one. However, I cringe when I see pee wee tackle football.