It’s hard to imagine Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, published in September, could have been timed any more appropriately. The Ray Rice saga may have grabbed the most headlines, but with each new arrest of an NFL player, with each new revelation of domestic violence, child abuse, drunk driving, drug use, gun violations, trespassing, assault, or attempted murder, it feels as though the nation is finally ready for some long overdue, collective soul searching. Whether coming from fans like Almond or insiders like the former general manager of the Chicago Bears (who later backed off from his initial admission that “I was a part of it”), continuing admissions and confessions suggest the sport may be nearing a watershed moment.
How did a lowly ball boy abet the bloodshed?
The latest one that caught my eye was Eric Kester’s op-ed in the New York Times, “What I Saw as an N.F.L. Ball Boy.” Kester informs us that he still lies awake at night, guilt-racked over his role in the violence. How did a lowly ball boy abet the bloodshed? By administering smelling salts, and by hiding the worst signs of the violence. For a vivid gut-check on what the players endure, read this excerpt:
Cameramen know not to show players sniffing salts, and I participated in similar acts of cover-up. One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of “game-used inserts.” Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I’d put in a special bin for disposal.
Last year’s “Great Reads: Sports from the Inside” included two titles written decades apart—Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League (1970) and Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile (2013)—that remind us the issue has been with us for a long time. Is change imminent? For the sake of the players, and the kids who emulate them, I hope so. But I won’t hold my breath.
Meanwhile, Kester is writing a book based on his experiences, adding still more testimony for fans to consider.