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Football originated in the 1820s as a hazing ritual at the better East Coast colleges, where it caused so many broken bones that Yale and Harvard banned the game in 1860. Students kept playing anyway, working out rules and a scoring system. Their version makes today’s game look arcadian. There were no pads or helmets, and the only way to move the ball was for phalanxes of players, arm-in-arm, to knock their skulls straight against each other. Eighteen boys died playing in 1904, most of them at prep schools. After Theodore Roosevelt’s son broke his nose on the field at Harvard, the President met with college officials. Among the reforms issued was the legalization of the forward pass.

“Kick-Off,” by Herb Stratford.

“Kick-Off,” by Herb Stratford

This thumbnail history begins Steve Almond’s against football: one fan’s reluctant manifesto (Melville House, $22.95), a small and powerful and slightly too-ambitious book that wants to rouse the political will Roosevelt summoned a century ago. Almond’s offense is multi-pronged. There’s the NFL’s financial chicanery, with stadiums funded by taxpayers and profits pocketed by wealthy owners; the ruined lives of college “amateurs” who forfeit both career and education, if they’re lucky enough not to be thrown out mid-scholarship; the brain damage of the retired pros. And then there’s the rest of us, glued to every replay, following the close-ups, listening for every crack of helmets butting. Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war. “Watching football . . . actually causes us to be more bellicose and tolerant of cruelty, less empathic, less willing and able to engage with the struggles of an examined life,” he writes.

“Stadium Lights,” by Herb Stratford

“Stadium Lights,” by Herb Stratford

Almond visits the lab of Dr. Ann McKee, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, who gets the players’ brains when they die. A longtime Packers fan, she tells him that it’s impossible to change the league. He doesn’t agree. “Football is a form of entertainment,” he writes, “not a chip that gets implanted in our necks at birth by the Overlords.” He’s a fan, too, formerly rabid and now guilt-ridden, of the most embarrassing of teams: the Oakland Raiders. Almond is a sympathetic narrator, his evidence incontrovertible, the moral authority firmly on his side. But will he convince anyone? After he published a magazine piece on the subject earlier this year, he was flooded with hate mail. “I read an article you wrote about football and I couldn’t help but think of a slutty girl I knew growing up,” one admirer wrote. “I thought she had the biggest vagina I’d ever seen before until now.” Almond adds it to his collection. “Nearly every piece of hate mail I received made reference to my vagina,” he writes, “which was usually characterized as very large.”

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