Our Shaken Faith in Football
In a society that has seen common political and ideological ground evaporate in recent decades, football—as with other sports—provides a place for people of wildly different backgrounds to come together. The game, in other words, serves a profound communal and civic function. We want diversions and entertainment in our society. James K. A. Smith has noted our instinctual need for "cultural liturgies," activities whose regular rhythms and accessible nature lend form and coherence and vitality to our lives. Few things more represent a kind of "secular liturgy" than a football game—cue the nacho cheese sauce, throw on your team's jersey, fire up the flat-screen, and enjoy a game for a few hours, talking and laughing and jumping out of your seat together.
Football's Physical Toll
Football, though, is physically brutal, and therefore raises concerns for Christians, who of all people have the most stake in human flourishing based on the imago dei, the likeness of man to God (Gen. 1:26-27). The game asks a great deal of those who play it, not just in the pros. In terms of concussions alone, taking a shot to the head can leave athletes dazed for days, even weeks. Concussions are the scariest part of the game, and researchers freely confess that they have much to learn about them. It is quite clear that concussions are under-reported and under-diagnosed in youth sports, and despite the millions of small children in football leagues across the country, there are almost no studies of the effects of youth football on the human brain.
What precious little research exists is not encouraging. Doctors at Boston University recently found evidence of CTE in the brain of a deceased 18-year-old football player, the youngest brain they have studied. Surely, many former football players go on to live healthy, happy lives, but the deaths of multiple amateur athletes from brain trauma must at least be a part of the conversation about football.
We should mention a second, and related, concern here. Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don't acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.
Should Christians Support Football?
Given the foregoing discussion, how should Christians think about football, whether at the amateur or professional level?
Christians should be informed about the nature of football.
There is no place in the Christian life for ignoring reality. The gospel opens our eyes to hard truths about ourselves and our world. If a game is associated with violence, that should be of note to believers. Following Christ means avoiding unnecessary violence, no matter what macho culture and John Wayne manhood might say (Luke 22:36). It also means seeking the good of our neighbor, and remembering that the imago dei calls us to be a kingdom of ethical prophets who desire that all humanity might thrive.