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Athletes, Politics, and Power: Steve Almond, Mark Leibovich, and Etan Thomas in Conversation

In this live episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, recorded at the 2018 Miami Book Fair, writers Steve Almond, Mark Leibovich, and Etan Thomas talk to hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the NFL, the NBA, and moral and political questions around professional sports.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Readings for the Episode

Whitney Terrell: So for the purposes of this podcast, I’m going to channel the aggressively un-woke thoughts of a certain afternoon talk show host in my hometown of Kansas City, a guy who grew up in a very segregated, all-white part of Kansas City and says things like he can’t support Colin Kaepernick because he once wore a Fidel Castro T-shirt. We all know this guy, right? We’ve listened to him on the radio.

And what this guy would say, to your idea about peak football, is that all this fretting is nonsense because of Patrick Mahomes. Ratings are up again, the game is healthy, the Kaepernick-sparked protests against police brutality, which you discussed so powerfully in your book, Etan—are in the past. It’s business as usual. What would you say to that?

Etan Thomas: As far as it being business as usual?

WT: Yeah.

ET: Well, athletes using their voices is not something that’s gonna just stop. Kaepernick did a great job making a lot of mainstream America feel uncomfortable, and they didn’t want to deal with the topic that he brought—at hand. So much so that they completely changed his reasons that he gave, specifically, as to why he was taking a knee, and made it about something else, and you saw what happened from that was a lot of different athletes are using their voices to speak out on different things. And what I wanted to do with my book was to start to interview some of these athletes and get more in-depth as to why.

You know, you always heard the report that this athlete took a knee, this athlete wore a shirt, this athlete spoke out, but I didn’t see the follow-up reports as to why it was so important to this athlete to be able to use his voice, and speak out about this particular issue at this particular time, and that’s what I wanted to do.

WT: Yeah.

ET: So I talked to Eric Reid, and spoke to Dwayne Wade, right here from Miami Heat, and he went into detail about why he spoke out after Trayvon Martin was killed. You know, talked to Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, and all these different athletes, and then right now there’s this resurgence of athlete activism that was a little bit, you know, missing from—a little while, from sports. You had a time in the ’60s, and I interviewed Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and—you know, those athletes who were the pioneers of the ’60s, John Carlos, but then you had a little bit of a quiet period, like, in the ’90s, where not a lot of athletes were speaking.

Now you see this resurgence, and I wanted to get to the reason as to why, and a lot of it goes to what’s going on in current society, with police brutality, with racism, with systemic oppression, and the things that Kaepernick has laid out, so when you’re having this conversation, you’re having a strong reaction to the different people who don’t want to hear athletes talking about these topics, and that’s when you hear “Shut up and play,” “Stay in your lane,” “Shut up and dribble,” you know, don’t go into these areas, just stick to what you’re doing.

WT: That’s what that host always said. I’d be jogging and he would start saying, like—Well, I don’t know what these football people are protesting about, they—they—not saying it, and I’m like—well, yes, they are—

ET: Right.

WT: You gotta look, you know, but you gotta try to hear.

ET: A lot of people weren’t trying to hear. He made them uncomfortable, and you heard a lot of the time—Do that on your own time, and it’s like, well, if you do that on your own time, nobody’s going to see it. The whole point of the protest is to make people uncomfortable so everybody can see it—

WT: Right.

ET: But that’s just people who don’t want to hear your message. You know, one of the things that I’ve heard, speaking at different universities, and getting feedback from different audiences, is people asking—what is going to come of this? You know what I mean, like—what is the reason? Like, why do you feel that this needs to be heard—and it’s that many people don’t know. And hearing an athlete talk about personal issues that they’ve had with the police makes it resonate more with mainstream America because they love that athlete.

Jahvaris Fulton, Travyon Martin’s brother, said, “A lot of people are paying attention to this topic, and everything that happened, just because Lebron James and Dwayne Wade said—no other reason.” And he said, you know, if it weren’t for athletes using their voices, many people wouldn’t know his brother’s name, and I think that’s just a powerful and sad statement of where we are in society.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s really helpful to hear you talk about about that long history, and I’m so happy that athletes now are not, quote-un-quote, staying in their lane. Even though the games get played, things go on, it’s really helpful to hear those comments brought to the surface by these important figures in our culture. And as the NFL continues about its business, the other thing—and Steve, I’m turning to you here—

that keeps going on are concussions. Your book came out in 2014. I’m going to assume you haven’t abandoned your decision to stop watching football no matter how many yards Patrick Mahomes throws for, so there’s also fans protesting in their way. Can you talk to our listeners and our audience a little bit about how you came to that moment?

Steve Almond: Well, basically, when you’re addicted to something that you recognize is morally indefensible, one way of forcing yourself to walk away from something you love is by writing a book.


SA: It’s manifest on a zillion different levels, and then you kind of have to stick to it, and that’s pretty much what it took. I loved watching football. The early chapters of Against Football are an attempt to explain why the game is so beautiful, why it’s so dramatically satisfying. It’s quite miraculous, you know. The physical genius is a thing to behold, and everybody wishes to be able to invent miracles with their body, and athletes do it right before our eyes. And the game of football’s strategically dense, and it’s ornate, and has this primal violent component to it, but it’s also quite graceful and poetic, and just as a narrative—as a storyteller, it has the biggest swings, and momentum. There’s lots of reasons that people love football, and I didn’t want to write a book saying—aw, football’s brutish, and we should get rid of it. I was more like, Oh, my God, I love this thing, but when I check under the hood—and I’m sure Mark can speak to this, ‘cause that’s a lot of what he does in his reporting, is to check under the hood of politics—it’s just morally rotten. If my five-year-old daughter looks at a football game, her first question is: Where are the female players? Where are the girls?

And I have to point to the minimum-wage-paid, bouncing breasts on the sideline, and say, actually, that’s your role model.

[laughter, audience reaction]

SA: To be effective, as a football player, you have to suppress your empathy, just to do your job, and that’s before you get to the attitudes around masculinity, around race, the sort of, toxic hyper-capitalism monopoly system that the NFL industry—the football industry, and that’s before you get to the fact that it is a workplace where a third of the players are gonna wind up with brain damage. And, the thing—the reason that they play the game, in large part, is because of fans like me, because that’s what creates the incentive system, the incentive in football—all sports, but football in particular. Really simple: winning and money, and not in that order. That’s it. Those are the incentives. And those are real incentives, and they’re powerful, but they’re really morally corrosive.

WT: I think you might have been on with this talk show host that I’m thinking of, although I will not out him on the air. There’s one before him that I like a lot, and there’s this other guy who I argue with a lot in my mind, but he might say to you—here’s my chance to argue with him—he might say to you, “Haven’t the leagues new rules on helmet-helmet collisions, and concussion protocol, and all this other stuff, you know, how you can sack the quarterback, some of them instigated by critics by you, I mean, they’ve been taking place over the last, you know, two or three years, made the game safer—have we rescued the game in the way that, as you describe in your book, Theodore Roosevelt tried to do in 1904?”

SA: Yeah, so, there’s a suitcase that all fans carry around, maybe—all people. It’s full of rationalization.

WT: [laughter]

SA: I’ve carried it around for 40 years, and it grows heavier as you relieve yourself of your moral ignorance, and so it’s just wrong to say that football has a concussion problem, and it’s even wrong to say that it has a violence problem. It has a physics and physiology problem. That’s just it. You know, mass times acceleration equals force, and so you have bigger and stronger players moving at greater speeds, and slamming into one another, and the physiology part of it is the brain is a soft organ encased in a hard shell. And so it’s not really a problem with concussions. That’s a dodge, a way of avoiding the real issue. The problem is there are maybe fifteen hundred sub-concussive events that a football player, at any level, exposes themselves to, and those are like small car accidents that take place inside the helmet, and they lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And the league itself has now conceded in their filings in this huge lawsuit that former players filed, that they expect up to 30 percent of their players to experience some CTE. So now take a tiny step back, and ask yourself if there’s any other workplace in the United States, where, just in the course of doing your job, it would be OK for almost a third of the participants to wind up with brain damage. So that’s my goal—just to be the big bummer.

WT: Just when the Chiefs were getting good!

VG: So I think one of the things that we’re getting at, a little bit here, in all of these answers, are the power relationships between owners, and players, and fans, and—Mark, you had amazing access in the reporting of your book, and as a results, you have some jaw dropping descriptions of the privileges afforded for the—most part—white, male, and aging club of NFL owners. Could you talk to us a little bit about what those owners are like, and maybe read us a passage from your visit to the NFL owner’s meetings.

Mark Leibovich: Yeah.

WT: I brought a book for you.

ML: Yeah, I wouldn’t say—most of them are not aging, many of them are just aged.


ML: Not to be ageist, here, but I mean, that’s what the median age is like, in their 70s, or so. Look, the fact is, and this sort of goes to one of the earlier points that was made, I think it’s great that players are using their voices, but the fact is that Colin Kaepernick lost his job. Eric Reid lost his job for a while. One of the people I got to know in the course of reporting is a guy named Martellus Bennett, who played 11 years in the league, and he has a podcast in L.A. now, and he played a couple years at the end when he would raise his fist during the national anthem, and he got all kinds of terrible racial—racist abuse, by the fans. He was playing for Green Bay at the time, but a lot of his African American teammates were saying, you know, we’d like to do that too, but it’s a terrible career move. And he would say, well, you know, I’ve been in the league 11 years. I just signed a three-year contract. I’ll do it for all of us. I do think it’s important—you know, obviously my reality here is the NFL, and I think the NBA does a much better job, from what I can see, but, the NFL does want football to be an escape. They want people not to think about hard truths about medical science, about politics, about things like police brutality.

Transcribed by Damian Johansson.

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