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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.
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."
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, 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.
Given the foregoing discussion, how should Christians think about football, whether at the amateur or professional level?
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.
Football is not impervious to the effects of the curse of Genesis 3. This game is subject to fallenness as all of life is. Perhaps this sounds basic, but remembering this simple truth will help us to distance ourselves from an uncritical approach to the game. We are those whose thoughts have been transformed in every respect, not just in terms of momentary conversion (Rom. 12:1-2). It should not escape our notice that football fanaticism often gets described as "worship." This doesn't mean it's disqualified for Christian consumption; it does mean we approach it thoughtfully and reflectively.
This will sound heretical to some, I know. It is not my intent to "wussify" children. As a father of two, however, I would have a hard time sending my son into a sport that is leaving 40-year-old men with dementia. There are other contact sports that can help produce character in our youth. The NFL's settlement may justifiably lead Christian parents to steer away from football. Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell have both suggested that football must drastically change or else be banned. Many parents, still believing firmly in the goodness of athletics and the cultivation of character, may leave the game behind.
A sizeable portion of evangelicals do not follow boxing or mixed-martial arts due, in part, to their violent nature. Many believers may not be ready to immediately swear off their college football team or favorite pro franchise, but the NFL's concussion settlement may cause an increasing number of believers to feel less comfortable with the violence of the game and to distance themselves from it until it is reformed and made safer. There is no reason it cannot be.
I myself feel conflicted about football. I don't want to be legalistic. I'm not a medical researcher. I don't have all the answers. Some conscionable, God-fearing Christians may strongly disagree with me. I know that football affords joy in a world in which it can be hard to find. I know that it brings people together. I know that common grace is just that: a form of grace.
But at the end of the day, the punishing nature of the game concerns me. I am not a wilting flower; I'm not a hulking lineman by anyone's standards, but I've snapped my Achilles tendon in two playing high-intensity sports, sprained my ankles countless times, and nearly lost my front teeth in a basketball game. I love sports, teamwork, and the physical nature of our society's most revered games.
Football, though, seems to ask too much of a good number of its players. It has left many of its stars hobbled. No one has to play it, true. Many of the Roman gladiators were also volunteers, though, and that didn't prevent Christians from speaking up then. At the time, gladiatorial violence was not only considered tolerable, but fun. Christians, at great personal cost, spoke up, and testified otherwise. The Greco-Roman world was never the same.
Might it be time for a similar moment of conscience for many evangelicals?
Owen Strachan is the author of the forthcoming Risky Gospel: Abandon Fear and Build Something Awesome (Thomas Nelson, Nov. 2013). A sports aficionado, he has written on football for The Atlantic and The Gospel Coalition. He teaches theology and history at Boyce College and is executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.