I know this might amount to sacred cow-tipping, especially this time of year, but I’m troubled about football. I must admit, I had a great time attending an NFL game for the first time a few Sundays ago (the Titans vs. Patriots season opener here in Nashville). It was a beautiful day, and I was surrounded by exuberant people. It was enough to make me actually pay attention to football, which I admit is a rarity for me. But then, as fate (or the ‘providential’ mechanisms of Calvinist guilt perhaps) would have it, the mailman delivered the Sept. 19 issue of The Christian Century, with this cover story (picturing a Titans player, no less!):
The author, Benjamin Dueholm, explores some of the morally troubling aspects of football lately and, while admitting his own love of the game, wonders how to reconcile it with some aspects of his faith, such as the call to be caretakers and stewards of bodies. Dueholm writes,
“A study presented to the NFL Players’ Association found that one player in 20 suffered a concussion in 2010, while 63 percent of players were injured in some way. As Gregg Easterbrook of ESPN.com points out, if high school football players are suffering at the same rate—and it’s not known whether they are—that would mean 40,000 to 50,000 concussed children each year. And there is mounting evidence that the gravest harm to the brain comes not from major traumas but from chronic lower-level impact, a possibility that, if confirmed, could end the game of football as we know it.”
No doubt, the health impacts of football have huge ramifications not only for adults but also for the kids who are being encouraged to play football. I used to work down the hall from Dr. William Meehan at the hospital’s Sports Injury Prevention clinic; here’s a sobering piece he wrote last spring on children and concussions. There’s something really unsettling for me in knowing that, simultaneous to our ongoing efforts to treat, heal, maybe even cure kids from such a wide array of congenital and genetic maladies, communicable diseases, and accidental injuries, we’re also enculturating them into a society that doesn’t seem to be too bothered by the bodily damage incurred by a beloved sport. Talk about mixed messages. As I read about the potential long-term health effects for football players, I see more irony when I think back to those times when pro players would come and visit oncology patients. I mean, here were kids struggling to make it through harrowing treatment for an unpredictable health crisis, being cheered up by kind, bulky men whose very reason for being famous may also be the source of their own future (preventable) compromised health. Maybe in those visits they shared unspoken empathy about their chronically beaten-down bodies.
The revered place of football is just a lot more important in our culture than the human toll it takes. Even if we were to collectively grapple with the problematic aspects of football, I think the stakes are just too high. There’s too much money at stake, for one thing. Even apart from the money, though, football is too cherished, too integral to be set aside. Dueholm writes,
“…NFL football has arguably become the central liturgical act of American civic religion. The Super Bowl, its winter festival, commands more participation than a presidential inauguration, a midterm election or an Oscar broadcast. It opens with at least one sung anthem to the nation. Prime-time broadcasts are introduced with military images, and games often include recognition of the state’s military personnel and the sport’s emeritus legends. Football is not adorned with the statues of officiating divinities, but it is adorned with the symbols of commerce and power. It draws people together into groups of loyalty that cross boundaries of race, religion, class and even region, and it binds these competing groups into a common sabbath observance with its own distinctive rituals….
The spectacle of football has a useful and perhaps necessary role in American life, so Christians should critique it with some care. There are few enough public events and spaces at which a diverse nation can gather to participate in a comparatively low-stakes communal ritual—low stakes, that is, for everyone who is not playing the game.”
Dueholm’s not the first to look at football as civic religion, of course, but he is right to ask us to reconsider what price we’re willing to pay–or let others pay–for our entertaining pastime.