I’ve been reading Chuck Klosterman’s work since I was in high school in Grand Forks and he was a (sometimes) controversial columnist writing for the University of North Dakota student newspaper, aptly named The Dakota Student. He even spoke to our high school journalism group once and gave us a shout-out in a column (I believe he referred to the class as “groovy,” but time distorts a lot of messages).
I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written, in part because it feels like he’s been living my life a few years ahead of me (Fargo Rock City — his first book, which was on the subject of heavy metal — is essentially my childhood and adolescence bible) and in part because he has the rare gifts of being both a pure thinker and exceedingly talented writer.
That’s a long windup to say: I will most certainly be buying his new book, But What If We’re Wrong, and I’ll be going to see him at Magers & Quinn at 7:30 on June 13. I’d read it and buy it regardless, but once again the subject matter seems to be right in my life wheelhouse.
The subtitle of the book is, “Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past,” which I do a lot of these days — basically wondering what current conventional wisdom is foolish and how much of it we will look back on with “how did we believe that?” on our minds. Klosterman is the perfect person to write this book. I’m excited.
He offered up a glimpse of it recently in an essay for GQ titled, “Will Violence Save Football?” It’s a book excerpt, and it’s quite good. Anything that gets you to consider a different way of looking at something is valuable.
Klosterman lays out an argument with these basic bullet points:
*Football is an unbelievably popular sport that appears to be at a crossroads because of the dichotomy that exists with both its popularity and its danger. Even people who love football are having a hard time reconciling the violence and related impact on human brains that has been revealed in recent years.
*Many people believe that to reconcile this problem, football will go in one of two directions: 1) It will die off, with the brutality eclipsing the beauty and popularity. 2) It will adapt in some ways to a more regional sport but will continue to thrive as a less-violent version of itself.
Both of these things make sense. When you have an NFL general manager saying of football, “It’s a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play,” you have identified a sport with a problem. On the flip side, the popularity is so enormous and we keep hearing about new safety measures being developed. The tendency among those who love football might be to look at that and believe it is worth the risk.
But Klosterman argues that there is a third possibility, which exists outside the realm of pure and reasonable solutions — a more primal yet also political split that might happen: football survives because it is violent, not in spite of it.
The contemporary stance on football’s risk feels unilateral, because nobody goes around saying, “Modern life is not violent enough.” Yet this sentiment quietly exists. And what those who believe it say instead is, “I love football. It’s the last bastion of hope for toughness in America.” It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the semantic distance between those statements is nonexistent. And if that happens, football will change from a popular leisure pastime to an unpopular political necessity.
Interesting. He later adds:
Football could lose 75 percent of its audience and matter just as much as it does now, assuming the people who stick with the game view it as a sanctuary from a modern world they distrust. Over time, it could really, really “mean something” to love football, in a context that isn’t related to sports at all. It could be a signifier for an idea that can’t be otherwise expressed — the belief that removing physicality from the public sphere does not remove it from reality, and that attempts to do so weaken the republic.
I would say, though, that while humans (and especially authors, even those merely posing questions like Klosterman instead of trying to supply definite answers) tend to like absolutes, the world often works differently.
This doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. In fact, I see a hybrid of scenarios 2 and 3 as football’s most likely path to surviving and thriving — and I disagree with the assessment that football could lose 75 percent of its audience, at least in a financial context.
Klosterman himself notes early in the piece:
Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care. (The NFL) wants people who watch three games a season to join their office fantasy league. They want informal sports fans to feel like they must follow pro football, lest they be seen as people who don’t like sports at all. You can’t perpetuate a $7 billion industry without aggressively motivating the vaguely unmotivated.
Now, it should be noted that Klosterman doesn’t say football would be the same financial juggernaut if it shed 75 percent of its audience. But I do think those fringe fans are essential to keep football on the front-burner — and I think the sport could have it both ways, albeit with a delicate balancing act.
The NFL will need to satisfy the fringe fans who want to believe they aren’t going to see someone die on the field so they can enjoy their weekly fantasy game … while also catering to those who watch specifically for the brutality. It can’t become glorified flag football, not can it continue on its current path.
But maybe that’s just me being too logical — a flaw that Klosterman also points out. My worldview of football is certainly different than that of fans who watch it for different reasons, and sometimes that’s hard to remember.
Regardless, I’ve been thinking about this essay since I read it a couple days ago. Klosterman has done it again, and the book figures to be just as good.