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Our Shaken Faith in Football
Image: Bill Kostroun / AP

There is nothing quite like a hit over the middle in a football game. A ballet-graceful wide receiver at full extension grabs a tightly thrown pass only to be smacked down like a rag doll by a heat-seeking safety. The play encompasses what makes football irresistible to many Americans: grace, precision, and the crushing of bone.

The National Football League has made billions from these kinds of plays, but recently took a hard hit of its own. Facing concussion-related lawsuits from more than 4,500 former players, the NFL reached a tentative $765-million settlement just days before the season's start. Most of the money will go directly to players and medical exams; a little bit, at most $10 million, will go to research.

Private research has largely led to this massive payout on the part of the NFL (still much less than could have been levied in a courtroom). Doctors like Bennett Omalu chased hunches on their own after regular working hours were over, slicing into the brains of deceased athletes to discover an unsettling reality: the hits an average football player takes add up. Over the years, as the brain is jostled by contact, it thuds into the skull, creating "tau" in the brain and initiating the disease known now as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The effects of CTE can include loss of memory, early onset of Alzheimer's Disease, unpredictable, possibly violent behavior, and sudden death from even light contact.

This is a problem that the gridiron lingo so familiar to coaches and TV commentators cannot solve. You can be heroically tough for years, but you can't, in the end, "shake off" the hits. They accumulate over months, and years, and decades, one practice and game at a time. Not just the big ones, either—according to research done out of the University of North Carolina, it's actually the little hits that may be worse for the brain than the "blow-ups."

In many places in the country, Christians have embraced football. Some of the sport's most ardent proponents are evangelicals who have used the game in laudable ways to preach the gospel. This very magazine celebrated football not long ago (though it sounded a different note a few years later). If the NFL is effectively admitting that the game of football causes physical harm to the tune of nearly a billion dollars, does it behoove Christians to reconsider the game's violence?

I think it does. Let's briefly consider a few positive and negative aspects of football in order to try and get some moral clarity on a tough issue.

Football's Common Ground

There's a reason why so many love football. It's a lot of fun to play. It draws us in with its intoxicating mix of physicality and artfulness, the bodily creativity its players express. As a team sport, football calls forth the sacrificial effort of 11 men on the field (and many more on the sidelines). Football players must be in excellent shape and disciplined for a greater goal. In a culture that's losing its grasp on any meaningful definition of character, football speaks a throwback language. It calls for determination, courage, teamwork, preparation, and self-sacrifice. Many of these virtues, we note, line up nicely with biblical character (1 Cor. 9:27, for example). To lose football would be to see one of the primary laboratories for maturity (in young men particularly) disappear. It would change America, which has been warmly defined as fundamentally "football and apple pie."

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Our Shaken Faith in Football