The problem of football is football. Which is to say, it [NFL football] is consciously merchandising violence.
— George Will, Fox News Sunday, September 21, 2014
I have been an avid sports fan from the age of nine. Prior to that my interest was presidential politics—I was the only fourth grader in my class who could name all of the candidates running for the presidency in 1968. But once a childhood friend introduced me to athletics everything else took second place. Sports became my religion.
If I wasn't playing, I was watching televised games or collecting cards or discussing statistics. To my parents' regret, school studies didn't derail my passion for sports. I relished the competition and physicality offered in sports.
As an adult, sports are no longer a religion for me; nevertheless, I remain a genuine fan, happy to watch a good game and discuss a team's potential with friends. (The Dodgers and the Lakers are particular favorites.) I have even enjoyed practicing the martial arts with a church friend who is a seventh-degree black belt. During these sessions I experienced a rush when I delivered or received a hit.
I say all this to demonstrate that, while most people see me as a quiet, reflective, and easygoing person, the physical activity that comes with contact sports is just as thrilling for me as it is for many others. Engaging in contact sports and watching such contact in sporting events on television tends to appeal to my inner tribal instinct.
But this raises a difficult question: Is it appropriate for people, Christians in particular, to derive pleasure from watching or participating in sports violence, especially when such forceful contact results in injury?
NFL football has drawn criticism for the growing amount of medical evidence that NFL players are seriously prone to post-career brain illnesses. For example, CBS's Face the Nation program reported on September 21, 2014, that the "NFL says 28 percent of players develop debilitating brain conditions."
Growing up I was a passionate Dallas Cowboys football fan; so I was distressed to hear recently that Cowboys' Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett has been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease caused by repetitive brain trauma. The 2015 movie Concussion takes on this challenging problem that the NFL is now wrestling with.
Should this type of information cause us to reevaluate the reasons we enjoy sports so much?
The Concerns with Football
I'll admit that my own bout with a life-threatening brain illness has sharpened my sensitivity to such reports. Let me start by acknowledging that there are many good things connected to American football. This sport has helped many young men grow in strength, maturity, and responsibility. Working hard and together as a team toward a common goal pays dividends for life. Football has also made it possible for many players to receive a college education. I also acknowledge that the NFL is seriously seeking to improve players' protective equipment, for example, developing new helmets that can limit injuries to the brain.
And yet, to engage in voluntary sports that could damage the brain is highly risky. As I know from personal experience, when the brain is not working properly, either through disease or injury, a person's whole life is thrown into turmoil. While it is not the goal of football to hurt players, it is nevertheless a game of overwhelming force. Concussions, the root cause of brain injuries reported among retired players, are a common occurrence. Sadly, the incredibly destructive effects of concussions are often not genuinely felt or discovered until years later. So, are football fans receiving pleasure and excitement from watching a game that involves future permanent mental impairment for an increasing number of players?
Some fans may say that they enjoy football for the amazing athletic ability of the players, not for the physical contact. It is indeed impressive to see a 6-foot-5-inch, 350-pound lineman sprint a 40-yard dash. But imagine how it feels to be in that player's path. A full-force collision with a man who possesses such bulk, strength, and speed can lead to serious injury. It seems the tremendous athletic ability of these world-class athletes increases the risk. And although much of this article (as well as the public discussion) has focused on American football (arguably the most popular sport in America at this time), this critique rightfully extends to other sports that involve intense levels of physical contact, such as boxing, mixed martial arts, hockey, and rugby.
Having expressed these concerns, I'm back to considering how they should impact Christian sports fans like myself and how they should influence our enjoyment of the game.
Should Christians Enjoy Sports Violence?
It is not my intention to tell Christians what sports they should or shouldn't watch. I think decisions like that are matters of individual conscience before God in the spirit of Romans 14. In fact, as with many of the issues that fall under the Romans 14 category, there may not be one right answer concerning sports violence. And I certainly don't want to make people feel unnecessary guilt for enjoying what is often a helpful distraction from the stresses of life. Rather, I simply would like to encourage Christians to ask themselves honestly whether it is possible that they are deriving pleasure from violence in sports.
This question is not a new one. Ancient Christians discussed whether it was ever morally acceptable to attend the gladiator matches in Rome. In an article entitled "Murderous Games: Gladiatorial Contests in Ancient Rome," author Keith Hopkins notes,
St Augustine in his Confessions tells the story of a Christian who was reluctantly forced along to the amphitheatre by a party of friends; at first, he kept his eyes shut, but when he heard the crowd roar, he opened them, and became converted by the sight of blood into an eager devotee of gladiatorial shows.1
Now, I don't think football or any other modern sport should be equated with the gladiator matches of ancient Rome in which, on some occasions, contestants were killed. But the story relayed in Augustine's Confessions does illustrate that athletic violence can have an appeal, even for Christian believers. So if you, like me, are a sports fan and you plan to watch the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, I'd encourage you to begin by asking yourself what you enjoy most about the game. What is it specifically about the game that gives you pleasure? Where does the excitement come from? What gives you a rush? Would you enjoy the sport just as much if the game were less physical?
For me personally, I have begun asking such questions of myself and the answers have led to some adjustments in my sports-watching habits. I hope this article will encourage further critical thinking about such important topics among my fellow sports-loving believers.
Listen to my RTB colleagues and I discuss this topic, particularly as it relates to football, on this Straight Thinking episode: "Christians Deriving Pleasure from Watching Violent Sports."