by Feb 4, 2016Culture, Piety4 comments

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I used to watch a lot of football growing up. It was our family thing on Sunday afternoons. I played football, too, with pads and everything, for three years in junior high: left guard, defensive end, kicker, punter, even quarterback. There is an honorable tradition of American toughness that I see in football. And though its community-uniting power was gone in my town by the time I began to play, I know that power still exists in some places in the country, and that it existed as a very positive force in my father’s own biography. I love to see a running back explode through a hole in the line, a quarterback scramble and get a pass off, a kick returner thread the defense for a 95-yard score.

But I basically stopped watching football quite a few years ago, when I went to college. At first I was just busy with school and had no TV, but then I found as I grew in my faith that I wanted my Sundays to be dedicated to other things. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and for me that meant, well, other things. I tried to catch the Super Bowl every year, at least—or what I could catch of it after church. I honestly didn’t judge football-watchers if they weren’t skipping church for it. I bought the argument, then as now, that “rest” on the sabbath may mean different things for different people. Before their own master they stand or fall. Life went on.

But then I watched League of Denial, the PBS documentary about the concussion crisis.

And then I got moralized by a New York Times reporter, an older man who wondered openly what the moral thing to do was now that the country knew the truth about CTE.

Then I moved to Seahawks country where people are gaga about (NFL) football in a way people in South Carolina never were.

Then I read Alan Jacobs saying,

I have been watching less and less football in the past couple of years, for the same reason that thousands of other people have become uncomfortable with football. I’m not on principle refusing to watch or anything, I just … tend to find other things to do.

(I encourage you to read the whole, brief post.)

Then my five-year-old son started to pick up from the surrounding gaga that he was supposed to be excited about the Seahawks, and he started asking to go to a game.

Then I bought him a cheap Seahawks football in a moment of weakness. (I do like throwing a football.)

Then he kept asking to go to a game. I tried to put him off, explaining that I don’t like to be entertained by people getting their heads hurt. I tried to say this in such a way that he wouldn’t go report it to everybody at church, making them feel as if I had taken some major stand against football. I couldn’t take a major stand, because I still liked watching highlight videos of Johnny Manziel from his college days…

Then his mother bought him a Seahawks T-shirt, and I was forced to draw a hypocritical line, despite the football I’d purchased and the football highlight videos I still occasionally enjoyed. I told her to take the shirt back. I just couldn’t in good conscience buy into a merchandising juggernaut built on the shoulder pads of people who were hurting themselves, potentially lifelong, for my viewing pleasure.

Then I had to ask myself: do I really feel this way enough to encourage others not to watch football? People aren’t getting hurt on every play, right?

Then I read this today, by a pathologist, the former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Why don’t I call for football’s abolition, as I did with boxing? In part, I admit, because of my own bias toward football, but also because I believe that violence is a byproduct of football — one that can be reduced — not the intended result, as was the case for boxing.

I hope he’s right, for the sake of the sport I enjoyed for so long. But I don’t think he’s right. Football without the tough hits that make people wince while they cheer—that’s not football.

I do think he’s right about what he said next:

But the motivations of reformers like me are irrelevant. Parents are being made aware of the dangers of football and the potential for long-term disability, so they can (or not) give informed consent for their children. If large numbers of young people stop playing the game, as they stopped boxing, the talent pool will begin to dry up and the N.F.L. will have a smaller reservoir of talent and fans to tap.

A societal argument that, I predict, will never clearly be won by anyone in our generation, will be won in succeeding generations by mothers and fathers (including me) who simply will not choose to put their kids on football teams. The NFL will go into a decades long crisis-management/ignore-it-as-much-as-possible mode; what else can it do if my suspicions are right that violence is a necessary part of the game? Helmet-to-helmet contact is, I gather, not the only cause of damage to football players’ heads.

And if the CTE studies continue to point in the same direction over time (and I believe according to the PBS documentary that enough time has passed; we know now), Christians will be left with the choice I’ve had to make: will I watch people hurt themselves lifelong for my entertainment?

Will I? Will we? Will you? What do you say? I write with more of a tone of questioning than of arguing because I’m still not completely sure what to think. I won’t sin against my conscience, but at this point I don’t want to be the judge of other people’s consciences on this issue. It’s hard for me to be objective about football. I humbly ask both of you readers to offer your opinions.

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  1. Duncan Johnson

    I wonder if any of the church fathers ever wrestled with similar questions about the gladiatorial games. I don’t know of any passages about it in their writings (but I really don’t know their writings well either).

    Here’s something interesting I found in Ben Witherington III’s “A Week in the Life of Corinth” that is interesting:

    While the Greeks had long had various sorts of biannual and quadrennial games (e.g., the famous Olympic games), the addition of blood sports, of mortal combat between men, was a more recent development as a form of entertainment, rising to great popularity with the growth of the Roman Empire. It does appear this was first an Etruscan sport passed on to the Romans, and not a sport that originated in the East. More clearly, the games reached their peak between the first century B.c. and the second century A.D. Surprisingly, these sorts of contests persisted not only throughout the social and economic crises of the declining Roman state but even after Christianity became the official religion in the fourth century A.D. The first Christian emperors continued to sponsor such entertainments until the late fifth century A.D., when the last known gladiator games took place.

    Ben Witherington III. A Week in the Life of Corinth (Kindle Locations 202-206). Kindle Edition.

    I wonder why the “Christian emperors” didn’t put a kibosh to the games earlier. My guess would run along a couple lines:

    1. The Christian emperors were frequently nominal rather than genuine Christians
    2. Perhaps ancient Christians had mixed emotions about the whole thing similar to the angst in this post.

    Maybe a search of the Fathers would turn up something else interesting, or even helpful, but I haven’t gotten to that yet.

  2. Evan Duke

    Football can be alot of fun, to be sure, and, as a side note, one idea I heard pertaining to the concussion crisis is to get rid of helmets (sounds like the wrong idea, but when you think about it logically, you can understand why I think it is the most sensible idea.)

    The real issue I think you are grappling with, here, has nothing to do with Football being the problem, but how to convey that we shouldn’t be mastered by it. Hey, I enjoy watching football, and every once in a while, I like to sack out and watch a game. However, the typical decision about whether or not I watch it has to do primarily with expediency; do I have the time, are there pressing issues to deal with? (I play some role in Seven different organizations outside of church, so this typically helps make things crystal clear as to whether or not it is a good idea to watch sports!)

    The second thing, is making sure it doesn’t become an obsession. When I was growing up, it was the Baltimore Orioles this, the Baltimore Orioles that. Today, I enjoy following sports still, but I don’t eat, drink and breathe it like back then. Frankly, enjoying sports is totally different than being obsessed by it. An obsessed fan will always be disappointed, because at some point, the team will lose. Occasionally they might win the championship, but invariably, there will be some letdown at some point, making the obsessed fan very unhappy.

    Obviously, stuff like this takes time. Personally, I wouldn’t put up barriers to enjoying it, but I would encourage him to realize that there is a time and a place for everything, and that there are times you can enjoy football, and times that something higher calls. It may take a while, but eventually, it will click!

  3. Duncan Johnson

    I had another thought re my previous comment comparing this to gladiatorial games.

    One key dissimilarity with gladiatorial games is that football players don’t battle to the death as part of the game.

    And while I acknowledge that difference, I’m not sure it matters. The ethical question posed by “subsidizing harm” doesn’t only occur when people die from entertainment-related injuries, I would think.