In the South, we ring in the fall not with the first blush of red on our leaves, nor the first cool breeze, but the start of football season.
The first week in September is sacred here, bookended by the kickoffs of both college and professional football. There’s something undeniably magical about this time of year, as Americans across the country—and across social strata, religions, political affiliations, income levels, and ages—gear up to root for their favorite teams. Americans love football. I love football.
Though many women grow up watching football, I married into it. I quickly recognized that I could either be miserable for six months out of the year, nag my husband every weekend, and whine about the “wasted” hours, or I could join in this thing that brings him great joy. It has brought us closer together and given us a common passion, something that I treasure every time football season begins and we draft our fantasy football teams together. (More women are not only watching the sport, but following it closely: 6.4 million women played fantasy football last year, nearly 15 times more than just a few years before.)
But almost every time my husband and I watch a game, we inevitably cringe. This is football after all; someone on the field is bound to get hurt. We’re forced to reconcile that guilty stir of conscience with our love of the game.
With each season (and seemingly each new study on the effects of football injuries and concussions), the public debate over this beloved American pastime reemerges. Last year, Southern Baptist leaders Owen Strachan and David Prince and Jimmy Scroggins took sides to argue Christians’ role in the sport, whether or not we should be involved at all. Both are good reading for the start of this football season.
The concern over the future of football is not mere speculation by us on the sidelines. Even sports outlets like Grantland and football hall-of-famers talking to ESPN have wondered how long the violent sport has left. Yet, football remains America’s pastime. And though it may change significantly in my lifetime, I don’t believe it’s going anywhere.
I believe that as Christian fans, we can acknowledge and mourn the fall manifested in football, while still finding God’s redemptive work and light within it. As Andy Crouch writes in Culture Making, “If we are known mostly for our ability to poke holes in every human project, we will probably not be known as people who bear the hope and mercy of God.”
Rather than poking holes in football and calling for a Christian boycott of the sport, we can celebrate that God works in football, a broken institution, the same way he works in the rest of the broken institutions in which we participate. We can be thankful to God for the platform for testimony that football has given men like Kurt Warner, Tony Dungy, and Tim Tebow. We can also celebrate that the human body is magnificent, a testimony to a creative and powerful God.
The inherent dangers of the sport should not and cannot be taken lightly—but all athletic endeavors come with risk, and thankfully every level from the NFL to peewee football leagues are taking large strides toward improving safety. They are developing better equipment, technology, and practices. They are ushering a better, safer football game onto fields across the country.
And yet, American kids are more likely to be watching the game on the couch or playing Madden on the Xbox than running around playing pickup games. With many schools reducing physical education requirements, only one in four young teenagers (between ages 12 and 15) get the recommended one hour of exercise a day, according to federal health statistics. In a culture that is rapidly becoming more sedentary, we can be grateful for athletic heroes who encourage kids to get out there and play. The NFL’s Play 60 program promotes daily physical activity to young fans. Such campaigns are immensely valuable and something we as Christians should consider promoting as well.
All parents—Christians or not—have to figure out if we’ll encourage our own children to play football, and we know that each year more of us hesitate to put our kids in youth leagues. It makes sense to proceed with caution. But especially given how few kids will end up going pro, we can weigh the decision with the positive impacts of playing team sports: learning how to win and lose with grace, respecting coaches, teamwork, good sportsmanship, and the benefits of exercise. We can also take practical steps, such as ensuring that our kids know the warning signs of injury, and that their coaches are certified through USA Football’s Heads Up program.
I have hope in the experts shaping the next generation of players for an even better football experience for them and for the fans. I believe in the power of this sport, and I believe that it has a valuable place in our culture. We can see its impact pulsing through American stadiums, sports bars, and living rooms.
I can’t think of another institution that provides the instant camaraderie (or fierce rivalry) as football loyalties. I also just enjoy watching it—it’s fun! The pageantry, tradition, and on-field drama give us unique entertainment in a way that only unscripted and live sports can.
My husband and I have lived in 3 states in the past 4 football seasons, and in each one football has provided us an instant access to a group of friends who love to spend the weekends camped out around a television together. Football is a means to community. It gives us a chance to practice hospitality, and often an excuse to model humility and grace when our team loses. It gives us the opportunity to highlight or point out poor examples of good sportsmanship and teamwork to our children. And hopefully, it gives us the chance to celebrate victory together.
Few things captivate us as a culture quite the way a tied football game does, or a player bouncing back from injury, or the unlikely hero catching the game-winning pass. In what area of life do we retain the element of suspense quite like a well-played football game? We love the miracle play, the Hail Mary, and the underdog. The narrative that plays out across our screen every weekend is a story we all know and love. We can lean into it, celebrate it, open our doors and call over all the neighbors. We can cheer, be disappointed, be inspired, and celebrate together. And that is a gift to all of us.
Melanie Rainer works as the director of content at Creative Trust. She and her husband Price live in Louisville, Kentucky, where they spend fall weekends cheering for their beloved Alabama Crimson Tide and the Tennessee Titans.