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I shouldn’t have been surprised—but I still was—when I started hearing people claiming the National Football League is “rigged.” We are less than a week away from American’s annual celebration of commercialism, Roman numerals, and socially acceptable violence known as the Super Bowl. I know all the reasons I should break up with football, but find I can’t look away.
For a while, it appeared my team, the Detroit Lions, might be the NFL’s answer to the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Alas, that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Lions weren’t supposed to make it anyway, according to the conspiracy theorists. The NFL had long ago decided the Super Bowl would be between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens. Apparently, this was clear from looking at the colors chosen for this year’s Super Bowl logo. (It didn’t take much imagination to come up with this matchup, since those had been the best teams all season.) Then a funny thing happened. The Ravens lost the conference championship to the Kansas City Chiefs.
But the good thing about saying it’s rigged is you’re never really proven wrong. In retrospect, according to the theorists, there were plenty of reasons why the Chiefs were nefariously chosen over the Ravens, most of which had to do with Taylor Swift. Once the Chiefs won, the NFL conspiracy theories turned partisan, because Taylor Swift is “woke,” and, worse yet, because her boyfriend Travis Kelce, who plays for the Chiefs, has done commercials supporting vaccines. Apparently, the NFL has rigged the Super Bowl so Taylor Swift can command her “Swifties” to vote for Joe Biden. (Seems like the rigged NFL could have had something grander in mind, but there we are.)
Before the partisan conspiracies, I didn’t understand what motivation the NFL would have for rigging its games. Why would San Francisco be a more compelling storyline than Detroit rising from the ashes? Nor did I see how they can pull it off in the midst of competition. How could a pass that miraculously bounced off a Detroit defender’s helmet into the arms of a San Francisco wide receiver be staged? That freak play wasn’t evidence of a conspiracy; it was evidence of Divine punishment!
Like any conspiracy theory—from fake moon landings to vaccination myths to stolen elections—it all breaks down in the light of day. In each of these cases, hundreds, if not thousands, of co-conspirators not only have to agree to do something illicit, they have to then keep their mouths shut the rest of their lives.
I remember Charles Colson talking about Watergate (an actual conspiracy): “Here were the 10 most powerful men in the United States. With all that power, we couldn’t contain a lie for two weeks.” Colson used that illustration as apologia for the validity of the resurrection—it had to be fact, not a conspiracy hatched by the disciples. If it were a lie, someone would have cracked. Colson thought the likely candidate was Peter, whom he likened to John Dean.
I don’t know if readers of the Reformed Journal are aware, but the kingpin if the NFL is rigged, football commissioner Roger Goodell, is a faithful member of a Reformed Church in America congregation. Goodell has quite a travel schedule but most Sunday mornings he’s taking Communion at the 8:30 service before heading to a stadium someplace. I talked to his pastor the other day, who called it surreal to serve Goodell communion in the morning and then see him on TV at a game in another city later that day. That doesn’t sound like the behavior of someone willfully pulling the wool over the eyes of millions of hapless saps, but what do I know.
The real question is not “Is the NFL rigged?” but “What possesses someone to readily believe conspiracy theories?” Belief in conspiracies does not stem from a lack of intellectual capacity, Instead, it comes from deep emotional needs.
The world is more complicated than ever. Simplicity is an emotionally appealing response to complexity. Along with that, conspiracies give answers to things that are seemingly random or out of control (and much more serious than footballs bouncing off helmets.)
The climate is out of control.
Artificial intelligence is out of control.
Viruses like Covid are out of control.
The southern border is out of control.
The population rise of non-white people is out of control.
It is more comforting to believe there are reasons these things happen. It is more comforting to believe China is behind climate change—or rather that China is behind the hoax of climate change—rather than lay it at our own feet and face it head on. That route not only demands changes of behavior, it also may lead to despair. Better to blame someone else and not change a bit.
The need for simple explanations to life’s mysteries is nothing new. Jesus once encountered a blind man and his disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They wanted a clear explanation. Why had this happened? They didn’t want blindness to be random or out of control. It had to be someone’s fault. Jesus told them that neither the blind man nor his parents had sinned and caused his blindness. And then he said something remarkable: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” He followed that by making a little mud and putting it on the eyes of the blind man and healing him. He didn’t offer an explanation, he healed the man “while it was day.”
We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.
Let’s shine all the light we can on every conspiracy theory. They whither in the light. And let’s embrace the complexity of life.
“Here is the world,” Frederick Buechner wrote, “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”