Reviews, interviews, and etc.

It's been a pretty good couple weeks of coverage for How to Be SafeA quick news round-up here, for those of you not hanging on my every tweet: 

1) In The New Yorker (!!!!), Katy Waldman writes, "the book’s alienated affect, flecked with sorrow and humor and rage, is so recognizable as one of the few rational responses to the status quo. In McAllister’s passion and exhaustion, in his struggle to communicate the incommunicable, one hears murmurs of Emma González’s speech at the protest on Saturday.”


2) O Magazine (blurry pics above and below provided as proof that I'm not making this up), Natalie Beach calls the novel "searing," and "haunting." 


3) In Time, Sarah Begley writes, "Anna sees that something is rotten in these United States, and she refuses to gloss over it. . . . Anna is messy, intelligent, absurd, rude; you might even say distasteful. You could not call this a pleasant novel. But its brutal honesty befits the times.” 

4) For Bookpage, Amy Scribner says HTBS is, "[a] prescient, achingly real novel," and, "Despite its searing subject matter, How to Be Safe is beautifully written. It’s also occasionally funny."

5) Bustle writes: "A gutting, shocking novel that circles a small-town tragedy, How to Be Safe is one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the year."

6) Entertainment Weekly included HTBS on a list of recent novels about gun violence

7) I did an interview with Midwestern Gothic about how to write about hot-button social issues, writing small towns, and writing in a female voice. 

8) I have some events coming up soon in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn (and also maybe DC and Baltimore). Maybe come to those events, please. 

News + more news + how I learned to teach

A roundup of links and news and so on below:

  1. In the past couple weeks, How to Be Safe has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. A sample from Booklist: "Combining a deep character study, prescient satire, and an unfortunately all-too-timely evisceration of U.S. gun culture, McAllister’s well-voiced and remarkably observed page-turner is in almost all ways an anti-thriller—itself a comment on the current, terrifying mundanity of similar events."
  2. In The Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote some of the nicest things anyone has ever written about my work. A sample: "Like nothing else I’ve read, 'How to Be Safe' contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions."
  3. If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like to read, you can pre-order the book from pretty much anywhere.
  4. How to Be Safe is also on the LibraryReads top 10 list for April. Librarians, as always, are our favorite. 
  5. I've been adding a lot of events for HTBS. Right now, they're mostly in the Philly area, but I'm continuing to update that page, so please check back occasionally to see if I'll be in your neighborhood. 
  6. The Millions published another short essay of mine, this time about how I learned to become a better creative writing teacher by breaking away from a default syllabus and giving students more freedom. There's also some discussion of the worst day of class I ever endured. 
  7. I think that's it.

Some Things that Happened in 2017

In a year when so many people lost so much faith in the fundamental institutions of our country (and I know a lot of people felt disenfranchised long before the past two years, and I know it’s a function primarily of good luck that I’d been able to live without that daily anxiety for most of my life), it seems pretty stupid to write a year in review post about the relatively minor events of my own life. But I feel compelled to do it anyway. Because the scope of the problems is so vast and still so unknowable that I don’t even have anything worthwhile to say about them. Because most days, the only thing you have is the personal. Because taking stock of yourself is at least one way to try to control some of the things you can control.

For the past five years, when people asked me and my wife what was new, we didn’t have much to say. We weren’t having children like so many of our friends. We were settled into the same jobs that we’d had for years. We already owned a home. Very little was changing. That was fine, even if it made for boring conversation. This year was different. A lot of things happened. Some of them were very good. Others were not very good at all.



1. I published my first novel: It didn’t end up in any of the year-end lists and it never quite broke through the marketing noise, but it’s selling much better than my memoir, and more importantly, my publisher facilitated a number of opportunities for me that exceeded any reasonable expectations I’d ever had for my writing life. I did live radio. I spoke at events in a dozen cities. I was featured (alongside Lauren Grodstein) at the Free Library of Philly. I got reviews and interviews in major publications. I flew to Vermont for the Misty Valley New Voices event, where the world’s friendliest people treated me to a dinner and a tour of their quaint town (I know quaint could be read as patronizing, but it’s the only appropriate word), and then taught me how to ski, then gave me a wine bottle with my face on it, then had me read to an enthusiastic crowd from the altar of an old church, and then they gave me dinner again, and then I had some bourbon sitting by the fire in the lodge and I felt like everything in the world was briefly okay. This all happened a week after the inauguration. When I landed in Rutland, my driver said he didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just give the president a chance. “I mean, he hasn’t even done anything bad yet,” he said. The next morning, the president signed the Muslim ban and when I came home, I was greeted at the airport by thousands of protesters. An inconvenienced passenger stood next to me in the terminal and said he wanted to beat the fuck out of all those protester pussies.

2. I spent a beautiful afternoon in Charlottesville, after speaking on two panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I had a salad and three beers and sat (almost) in the sun, and next to me, a woman who kept asking the bartender confusing questions finally apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I’m a poet.” All college towns feel a little bit fake, like movie sets built for young beautiful people, but I found it to be a very nice town overall. I didn’t know anything about the city’s history then. Five months later, Charlottesville would become home base for the white supremacist mobs the president loves. On the bus ride home, I would get a call from my wife telling me her father was dead. The rest of the year has been defined by his absence, and I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about it. I’ve written so much about dead parents, I feel like I’ve used it all up.

HTBS promo.jpg


3. Before my father-in-law died, when he was in the hospital recovering from a minor surgery that in no way suggested he would be dead soon, I told him I was close to selling my second novel, to a new publisher and a new editor (available in April!). It wasn’t official yet, but it was close. He clapped for me in his hospital bed. Seven years ago, when I published my memoir, he called me and asked, “How does it feel to have an actual dream come true?” And I had never thought about it in those terms before. I had dreamed of doing a thing when I was young, and then that thing had happened. It seemed impossible. I was trying to act very nonchalant about the whole thing, and he gave me permission to feel good about it. Anyway, he’s dead now. It’s hard to get past that.

4. My wife and I sold our first house, which we had bought at the height of the real estate bubble, using the life insurance money from her mother’s death as a down payment. We lived there for five years, and then moved because we were able to get a good rate on a house owned by an injured police officer who told us, as we were visiting the house for the first time, that he hated New Jersey and was desperate to leave. We spent the next five-and-a-half years renting the house because it was unsellable. Real estate is miserable, and I have thought so many awful things about the municipal workers in Barrington, New Jersey that I’m too ashamed to detail them here. Since 2012, we’ve completely wiped out our savings twice for the sake of that house. We’re lucky to have good enough jobs and few enough debts that we could survive it. To even entertain the concept of savings. I’ve been a homeowner for 11 years and the one thing I’m sure of is that I do not want to be a homeowner.

5. For the first time in my employed life, I worked on a two-year contract. I have to reapply for my job again in March, but for one year at least, I was certain that I would be employed in consecutive years. I think I’ll probably get another new contract, but also public education is being dismantled piece-by-piece and nobody wants to be an English major anymore. And I’m sorry, because this was supposed to be one of the positive items.


6. My dog died the night before my wife and I flew to Paris to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We’d owned her for three years. She was one of the dumbest animals who has ever lived, but she was very sweet and had had a hard life, and, though my wife cared for her deeply, the dog was more closely bonded to me. I spend a lot of time alone in the house and it’s nice to hear a dumb old dog snoring under the desk while you work. It’s nice to see her roll onto her side and slap her tail against the carpet just one time, summoning you for a belly rub. It’s nice to have some external motivation to go for a daily walk. With the dog, I felt more like an actual part of my neighborhood than I ever have in my adult life. I spoke to neighbors. I let their children pet the dog. I saw the subtle changes in people’s homes. The dog died because we chose to make her die. She had stopped eating and drinking most days, and for the last two months, she rarely left our bedroom. We were certain she would die while we were on vacation, and at least this way felt like we were doing something sort of humane. Having a dog is often a burden, and it’s expensive, and they make the house filthy. I’ve promised my wife we will wait a while to get a dog, and still I check Petfinder once a week just to see who’s available and who needs a home. Two nights ago, in the rain, I carved a hole in a Rubbermaid container and then into a Styrofoam cooler, which I placed inside the Rubbermaid, so I could construct a makeshift shelter for a feral cat we’ve named Oreo. We put food out overnight and it disappears, but I have no idea whether we’re feeding a cat or a family of rodents. It feels good to be taking care of something, even without the reciprocation of a dog’s heavy, dumb head dropping into my lap when she’s lonely.


7. What am I supposed to say here about Paris, besides that going to this city had been one of my wife’s goals since she was old enough to know Paris existed? We ate so much food. We drank a lot of wine (I spent a lot of this year experimenting with drinking more, and found that it works pretty much any day of the week). I struggled with the language. The toilet in our AirBnB stopped working on day 2. The Eiffel Tower was one of the seediest, most unpleasant landmarks I’ve ever seen. Crowds at massive tourist attractions behave monstrously. While we were there, the American president called self-identified Nazis “very fine people.” I had to email my mom every day to let her know I had not been killed by a terrorist. Everywhere we looked, there were police and military patrolling with massive guns. The crepes were great. We rode the Metro all over the city. We felt free and in love and for days at a time we could forget about all the other nonsense. You can be in a place where terrible things are happening all around you and still feel good about being alive if you’re with the right person. Platters of cheese help.

8. I wrote a short essay about guns that has almost certainly been read more than any other thing I will ever write. I wrote it in an hour, and it's one of the only complete pieces I've written since mid-summer. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about that either.

9.  I taught an advanced fiction course and then the fiction capstone course, retaining many of the same students, and it was the best teaching experience of my life. Most days, I felt actual joy walking through the door to the classroom, looking forward to hearing what strange, funny, insightful things my students would say. I learned a lot about anime and also about swords. I was floored by their ambition and commitment to writing, which is so much greater than mine was at their age (I wanted people to think of me as a writer, but I had very little interest in writing; I barely even read anything then). We talked about whether fiction and art even matter in a world like this, and they continually reaffirmed my sagging faith.

10. I read a lot of books. Some of the books I liked a lot: Sweetland, The Red Car, Ghost Story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closely Watched Trains, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Mrs. Bridge, Girl at War, Dirty Diamonds #8, Massive Cleansing Fire. Some writers keep incredibly detailed records of their annual reading, and though I think it would be nice to be one of those people, I am not one of those people. It’s possible I’m a bad reader. You can find more about these books by searching for them on the internet.

What makes something a good year? I have no idea. A year is an accumulation of days in which you hope more good things happen than bad things, and then you make some promises to yourself to try to make the next one better. It all keeps happening no matter what you say or do.

Two out of five stars to 2017, a mostly shitty year in which some good things happened for me.

What to do with my body

This morning, as I tried to process the news about the shooting in Las Vegas, I wrote a very short essay called "What To Do With My Body In the Event I Die in a Mass Shooting." I had intended to maybe not share it at all, or just post it on this site, but the good people at The Rumpus liked it and published it this afternoon. 

You can read it here. It starts like this:


Take that body and don’t even clean the blood off the skin, don’t wash it out of my clothes. Don’t change my facial expression or adjust my posture. Don’t do anything to hide the reality of my death. Let people see me exactly how I was in my last moments, my face twisted in horror and confusion, my body curled unnaturally as if hunching my back could ever protect me from the bullets (nothing can protect you). I want them to see my mouth agape, my eyes feeling betrayed but also weary, because in those final moments, I know I would be shocked but not surprised (you can’t be surprised by something that happens every day; nobody is surprised to see the sun rise in the morning).

The Future of Print Literary Journals

I have a new essay up at The Millions, discussing the future of print literary journals in an era when most writers submit to online journals first and printing can seem like a huge waste of money and time. As I note in the piece, I don't think I'm smart enough to come up with the perfect formula, so I talked to editors at a number of other journals and gathered their thoughts. Here's a paragraph from that thing: 


In February, I joined thousands of other writers at the annual AWP Conference, at which several hundred exhibitors were selling books and literary journals, and many people were happily stuffing their tote bags. Among writers and editors, there is clearly still a demand for print. If we accept the premise that editors will continue printing, then the question isn’t “Is print dead?” but rather: what should print do to distinguish itself from digital? How can we justify the existence of this product in the face of cheaper, more accessible alternatives?

Book Extras: A Re-imagined Life

Note: In Fall 2016, I wrote a short essay about the origins of The Young Widower's Handbook for The Algonquin Reader. For those who weren't able to get their hands on a copy, I've reproduced the essay below. 


First you start drinking, then you start talking about death. It’s a natural progression.

At least it is for my wife and me.

We’d been dating for two years when my father died of esophageal cancer. A year later, her mother died of ovarian cancer, the byproduct of a hereditary predisposition that she passed on to my wife. We were in college then. Time suddenly seemed very limited. The future seemed like a place other people got to visit, but not us. I moved to Iowa City for grad school and she stayed at home with her dying grandfather.

After two difficult years of maintaining a long-distance relationship, I was in both a personal and professional crisis: I’d wasted my time in grad school, drinking every day and never writing, and I was coming home carrying no completed work and about thirty extra pounds. I had applied for a temp job and had no marketable skills. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to marry her. I proposed after my graduation, and then we drove home together, our first real road trip. I called my brother from the parking lot of a Bob’s Big Boy to tell him I was getting married. We got lost in western Pennsylvania and drove until midnight looking for a place to sleep. I don’t remember much else from the drive, except the feeling like I’d passed through something, like I was finally entering the good part of my life.

Four years later, we were in Seattle, celebrating our third anniversary. The year before that, we had gone to Ireland, and before that, we were in San Francisco, and there had been a number of shorter trips in the interim. Since then, we’ve traveled to Italy and a dozen other places. I’m an anxious traveler—about the logistics of flight, about the crowds, about visiting the right places at the right times, about being lost—and I wouldn’t have gone on any of these trips without her. I would have talked about going, but never committed. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed our travel, I realized recently that it’s never so much about going to a specific place as it has been about being with her while we are in that place.

There has been an unspoken urgency to our travel: to see as many places as possible while it is still possible, while we are still physically able, and while we’re still both alive.

By the time of our Seattle trip, we were both in our late twenties; if we were fated to die at the same age as our parents, then we had already crossed the midpoint of our lives.

I know it sounds melodramatic. But the deaths of our parents were foundational for us; they made us acutely aware that at some point one of us will be alone again, and quite possibly that will happen long before we’re ready, if being ready is even a possibility.

When we were in Seattle, the weather was so perfect it was suspicious (had everyone been lying about the rain just to keep visitors away?), and we were sitting outside at a French restaurant that served homemade sausage that tasted better than almost anything I’ve eaten in my life, and we were both feeling very lucky to have a life that allows us moments like this. We were deep in that giddy mid-vacation high where we had convinced ourselves that not only could we move to Seattle, but we should. We ordered the fourth-cheapest bottle of wine to avoid looking like the kind of cheapskates who just pick out the lowest-priced bottle regardless of quality. We started talking about where we would travel for future anniversaries, and then she said something about how I’d better not die on her.

I promised not to be dead—or rather, I promised to try really hard to not be dead—and then I asked her for the same. Soon, we were discussing how I would handle it if she died suddenly. Would I still talk to her family? Would I sell the house and move a thousand miles away? Would I ever date anyone again? Would I even leave the house? Would I completely collapse (this was my prediction)? Would I eventually find some way to rebuild a decent life? Friends are sometimes horrified to hear that we used this occasion, of all occasions, to talk about my hypothetical life as a widower. But it’s not like I was plotting her murder. It’s not like I was looking for an escape hatch. We were a little drunk and we were in love and we were capable of talking like adults about sad things.

At some point, I joked about how I could carry her ashes with me and travel to the places we’d never seen.

“That really sounds like a book,” she said.

It did sound like a book, I agreed. I hoped it wasn’t already a book.

We ordered another bottle of wine.

Over the next hour, The Young Widower’s Handbook came to life. We brainstormed the general shape of the novel together: the backgrounds of the young couple, the cause of the wife’s death, the road trip, and potential stops the widower could make. I scribbled notes on the backs of receipts, and she tapped out text messages to me so we could have the ideas stored somewhere.

When we returned to the hotel, I sat and scrawled two pages of notes in our room; in the morning, I couldn’t read some of them, but many of the notes from that session have survived, in some form, to the final draft of this novel. That morning, I wrote the opening paragraph, which hasn’t changed since that day.

This novel comes from a place of great love and great fear. Before meeting my wife, I was a very sad, very angry young man, and her love and compassion showed me how to be a decent person in the world. We’ve been together for almost fifteen years, and so the person I’ve become is so intimately tied to her and our relationship that I can’t envision who I would be without her. In writing The Young Widower’s Handbook, I envisioned the protagonist, Hunter Cady, in a similar relationship, and wanted to explore his despair as he not only tries to properly honor his dead wife, but has to learn to re-imagine himself in a new life. Starting in Philadelphia, he carves a jagged path across the country, hitching on the final leg with a group of travelers, and ultimately arriving in San Francisco. Nothing on the road trip goes according to plan,  but each interaction with a stranger in a strange city is a chance for him to redefine himself, to try to be the man his wife always believed he could be.

In writing these scenes, I wanted to face my own fears. I wanted Hunter to honor his wife’s memory while trying to overcome his fear of the future. I wanted him to discover a version of himself that he could be proud of—the version that his wife had always seen. And I wanted readers to feel exactly what I felt that night in Seattle, on our anniversary, when my wife and I were celebrating the best days of our lives.

Two new essays

Another quick post just to note that I had two new essays published last week. 

First, this piece at The Review Review, in which I offer advice to writers on how to conduct themselves at readings when promoting their books. Here's a sample:

A lot of these tips, I admit, come down to issues of personality. Your job is to just try to act normal for a couple hours. This is difficult for some people; if you’re an asshole, you can’t fix it, but you can at least try to hide it for a while. Some days, selling even a single book seems impossible. You need to do everything you can to improve the odds.

Next, Miracle Monocle, the literary magazine from the University of Louisville, released their latest issue, which includes my travel essay, "The Least Authentic of All Experiences." It's a little longer than the travel essays I wrote on this site last summer, and it's about Italy, romance, authenticity, vanity, and a lot of other stuff. A sample of this one:

On this trip, we will see so many priceless artifacts that I will get tired of seeing them. Before this vacation, a friend described seeing the Pietà as one of the most moving experiences of his life, witnessing such a profound testament of love and beauty. I look at it for a long time and agree it is well-made, and then I look longer, wondering why I haven’t been moved in the same away. I take a picture and walk to the next sculpture. When we get to the Sistine Chapel, the woman in front of me falls to her knees in tears, and my first thought is: okay, we get it. You’re moved. And my second thought is a deep well of regret for being so cynical I would assume this emotional reaction is contrived. I want very much to be the sort of person who sees amazing art and falls to his knees in wonder, but this doesn’t seem like something you will yourself toward.



News roundup, part 2

A quick roundup of news related to my novel, my life, and my other writing-related activities:

1. reviewed The Young Widower's Handbook and said a lot of nice things about it: "Though terminal ennui could become tiresome, McAllister adroitly deals with a major issue: How does one partner keep going after the other dies?"

2. The Seattle Times included TYWH in a roundup of 4 noteworthy debut novels, and also said some very nice things about it.

3. The Washington Independent Review of Books said, "Be warned, this is among the most heartbreaking first chapters in contemporary literature," and also they seemed to like the other chapters a lot too.

4. Shaun Bossio interviewed me for Redivider about my book, my writing routine, and the failure of English departments to articulate their value. 

5. At the end of the month, Mike Ingram and I will be among the many authors featured at the new UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay. This will likely involve a like episode of Book Fight, in addition to some other events. Due to time and budget constraints, this looks like the only stop I'll be making in the midwest for now, so if you're near the area, I hope you'll consider coming out. 

6. I wrote a short essay about the inner lives of sports mascots for The Classical, and had a lot of fun with it. It starts like this: 

The sports mascot ecosystem is a strange and unsettling place. The animals within it act in ways that are both familiar and wholly unexpected. Even if we put aside pressing questions about the suspension of traditional predator-prey relationships during games, and focus on their biographies, we still know so little about the interior lives of these creatures.

7. As it turns out, I may not be able to make it to DC for the Barrelhouse Conversations & Connections conference, though if you live in the area you should go, because there are so many great people there, and featured authors Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sarah Sweeney, Geeta Kothari, and Tara Campbell are worth the price of admission alone. 


Audio Entertainment

A number of options for those of you who have a burning desire to hear my voice (which, as an aside, one thing I've learned over the past four years that babies really like my voice for reasons I can't explain, they just stop what they're doing and snap to attention, so maybe if you have young children, you can set up a playlist of me talking about things and your baby will be soothed and calm and everyone will be happy*). 

1. I was on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi. We talked about sports fandom, death, and mourning. 

2. I was on the #CNF podcast with Brendan O'Meara. We talked about podcasting, editing Barrelhouse, shifting between fiction and nonfiction, and finding urgency in your writing. 

3. I was on The Drunken Odyssey with John King. We talked about my memoir "Bury Me in My Jersey," the problem of being a football fan, structuring books, writing about love, and a bunch of other stuff. 

4. The Young Widower's Handbook is available as an audiobook through Audible. A sample below:


5. On Monday, 2/6, I will be on WHYY's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane from 11-12. 

EDIT: If you missed the Radio Times episode live, the audio is up now.

6. If you still need to hear more of my voice, you can always listen to the latest episode of Book Fight!

*happiness not guaranteed

Quick updates

1. Last week, the literary journal JMWW published my short essay, "See You in a While." It's about drinking beer on my deck with my dog and trying to appreciate good things. It'll take you less than 5 minutes to read. 

2. Today, the lit website The Millions published a piece I wrote about how podcasts can build communities and change the way we discuss books. As I say in the essay, "Literary podcasts are like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine." I say more stuff besides that too. Read it here.

3. Booklist reviewed my book and said, "McAllister’s debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby." So that's a good thing.

4. I've been adding lots of events over the past week. Starting 1/21, I'll be making the rounds, with a bunch of stuff in Philly and South Jersey, but also events in VT, GA, Boston, DC, and hopefully some more places soon. See the full listing here, and check back for future updates.

Indisputable Evidence and the Existential Ref

This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL  rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse. 

The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.

*          *          *

Do you know what a catch is?

This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?

The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.

On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.

Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.

Incomplete pass.

Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.

And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?

When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.


I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.

Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.

I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.

I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.

The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.

These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.

The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.

The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.

In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.

The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.

While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.

With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.

A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be ruled a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.

As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.

Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence

The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.