Woodrow Wilson High's Edwin Lopez (#1) stands while most of his teammates and coaches kneel during the national anthem before their game against Highland High School on Sept. 10, 2016, in Camden, N.J. Photo courtesy of Yong Kim/Philly.com

Is America losing its religion of football?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column originally appeared in Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings in your inbox on Mondays and Thursdays. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.


The Monday Sightings is back, after a hiatus occasioned not by any lack of topics or scenes on which to focus but by the academic calendar at the University of Chicago, from which post we do our scanning, skimming, and probing. Surveying the places where “religion” and “public life” come into confluence should not have been difficult in a season of catastrophes—hurricanes and politics and more—but we chose to coast past Labor Day by reflecting on a religio-politico-ethical phenomenon which raises itself to prominence early each September: Football, “American style.”

During the quiet Labor Day season our clippings basket and online column reservoir fattened with stories headlined like these: “Loving and leaving the game of football,” “As worries rise, participation falls,” “Turning His Back on Football,” “‘I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain’,” “Death of NFL inevitable as middle class opts out,” and more. These accounts prompted a digital visit to similar stories from years past, some appropriately accompanied by question marks: “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?” and “What Would Jesus Think About Football?”—both from 2014. The latter and longer of these, by Patrick Sauer for VICE Sports, was headed by a kitschy painting of Jesus holding a football. Sauer profiled an array of insiders (to football and religion) who represented a fair collection of approaches and views.

Why, though, should coverage of and commentary on a game compete with catastrophic natural disasters for media space, popular interest, and, yes, sermon topics? Critics and defenders of the sport and business of football, from the grade school level to the National Football League’s market-religious status, agreed that science and media interests have converged to appeal to the public conscience. Some comments were sensational, including this by Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a condition related to concussions—who told hearers at the New York Press Club that allowing children under 18 to play football “is the definition of child abuse.” News reports told of CTE-afflicted veterans of the NFL having committed suicide.

Regularly cited was a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association on a study of the brains of 111 deceased former NFL players. Finding? “110 had the degenerative brain disease [CTE].” Let it be noted that the sports commentators who have been roused by this issue are not anti-sports (or anti-billion-dollar businesses). Most of them recognize the positive role that athletics can play in character formation and physical prowess, and many of those who now oppose the violent sport display signs of ambiguity and regret. Realists are aware of how hard it would be to introduce radical change to professional sports, given their market value.

Who stands apart from the debate, the questioning, the confusion? The author of this column still cherishes his own score chart of the 1941 Rose Bowl, when he was a 13-year-old in the midst of the Great Depression and then World War II, and our Nebraska Cornhuskers brought home name and fame, those things which were absent from our lives and newspapers each year until the time when we could turn our radio dials to college football. In high school the only letter available to little me was awarded for my announcing games on local radio. The memories are vivid; the agonies of conscience thus grow stronger. The question “What Would Jesus Think About Football?” sounds silly and is inaptly posed. But, then again …

Comments

  1. Way too much politics has entered the NFL and its ratings have suffered.

  2. It’s only a game! diversion! Fun to watch! Escape from the intensity of socio-political conundrums that plague us daily. Humans will always attempt to do dangerous and athletically challenging activities. Knowing the risk helps to temper the danger and harm and should help improve protections and safety. But choosing between watching football and a political debate, or the aftermath of an earthquake, or participate in rescuing from hurricanes need not be competing choices. In fact the muli-billion revenue stream is generated by people who do it all.

    I’m not so sure that claiming that it develops integrity, bravery, cooperation etc. is a valuable claim since almost everything one does in life can develop those qualities, but there are people who seem to be born with natural skills that fit well, if not better, in the venue. I don’t know if I would miss it if it was discontinued, but I surely enjoy it while it’s still available. What makes anything wrong or evil is what humans do with it.

  3. Life is not without risk whatever the endeavor. In this age of instant information, no one from this point forward can honestly declare that they were unaware of the particular risk of this game.

  4. Running a piece of dead animal skin across some grass into a particular spot on that grass has no real relevance to anything. Way too much energy and money is poured into this 20th century version of the ancient gladiatorial games. And we give way to much credence to the views of people playing this sport as if they are somehow qualified to provide leadership on anything.

  5. Good riddance. One of the least appealing, irrational sports on the globe. I’ve wondered at times if its most faithful adherents, commentators, journalists etc (many former players) got the sense knocked out of them, playing it too much… In many ways it’s uniquely brain-dead among sports; from the way it’s run at the top (socialist, non-free market cabel) to the “amateur” exploiting-education dollars (free dev leagues for the NFL) at the lower levels. And the authoritarian/plantation feel of the game itself where the players just follow preset plays that a handful of (mostly) white guys on the sidelines have come up with and orchestrate throughout the game… You cannot find a sport anywhere that has that feature… none. Baseball (again american) comes close, but there is no sport/game where a person on the sidelines dictates all the decision making of the players. americans seem to miss this serious flaw… And I haven’t even gotten to what TV does with this game… that’s another huge stinking kettle of worms. May the anti-american football rising continue and may the NFL/NCAA continue to fail/fall. Hallelujah!

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