Is Football Immoral?

Normal-v-CTE-brain-courtesy-Ann-McKeeWord came this week that Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, a star in the National Football League for 20 years who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest several months ago, did indeed have CTE, the degenerative brain disease that leads to significant neurological problems for its victims.

Seau is the highest-profile NFL player to have had the disease, but by no means has he been the only one. In fact, of 19 brains donated by the families of former NFL players to be studied, 18 have shown evidence of CTE. Seau’s case is also troubling in another aspect: He never once was diagnosed with a concussion, implying that the routine, subconcussive hits that take place in a football game are no less damaging when compiled over years of play.

This increasing knowledge of football’s detrimental, even deadly effects for its players could have profound consequences for the sport, even leading to its demise – either in a natural way as proposed in this Grantland piece, or because the game is forced to change its rules to such an extent that it simply isn’t the same game that has become the runaway favorite for Americans.

Frankly, this wouldn’t trouble me in the least. There is little doubt in my mind that the net effects of football in our society are negative – whether that’s the perverse incentives that lead coaches to be paid more than high school superintendents and college presidents or the glorification of aggression and violence for which millions tune in every Sunday. When history and science classes are routinely given to coaches who care nothing for the subject but need to teach so as to justify their salaries, something is decidedly wrong with the way we prioritize athletics – football, in particular – versus academics.

But the latest revelations lead me to a new question: Is football immoral? More practical for us, is supporting football immoral?

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, the answer is, “Probably not.” As a friend of mine has pointed out, the dangers for players are well known, and they are not coerced into signing any contract. Further, they are well compensated for the risks they undertake in playing the sport. As my friend also acknowledged, this can only be said of the past couple of years, as the NFL before then had pretty brazenly ignored or covered up the growing evidence that the very nature of the game was detrimental for the mental health of its players. Lawsuits will hopefully rectify that glaring outrage.

On the other hand, this seems to sidestep the point of my question. Because the morality of an event is more than simply determining whether the participants are aware of the risks they are assuming. To take this to an extreme, consider such popular dystopic novels as The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King or The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. In each of them, the participants know the risks of participating, yet no one would question the immorality of an event or sport in which a man is hunted to the death nationwide on live television, or teenagers walk until only one has survived, or teenagers are placed in an arena to fight each other until the sole survivor is crowned champion. Collins’ story is perhaps the furthest afield, as the participants are forced to “play;” nevertheless, it seems we can in fact find a line somewhere across which the very existence or support of the event is immoral, regardless of the agency or knowledge of the participants.

Has football reached that point? I don’t know. I do know we are far too comfortable feeding billions of dollars to an engine that pits first children, then grown men, against each other in violent brutality, the results of which leave those players physically and mentally damaged to the point of early, horrific deaths. As Walter Brueggemann said during his visit to our campus in September, “Football is the liturgy of militant consumerism.” What does that say about us as a society? More to the point of this blog, what does it say about us as Christians when we support such events?

It has been one of the great tensions throughout church history, this one between the popular entertainment of the culture and Paul’s call to be different from the culture. Philippians 4:8 – “think on these things” – is often used to provide spiritual justification for plain old censorship, yet the verse surely has application somewhere.

John Chrysostom struggled in vain to encourage the members of his church in Antioch to stop attending the Roman circuses. He saw them as morally questionable, taking away time and money from the better uses to which they could be put. In the subsequent centuries, Christians have railed against everything from rock music to R-rated (or even PG13-rated) movies under the guise of, “Whatever is true … noble … right … pure … admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think on these things.” The result of such railings tends to be the alienation of young people from the church and a judgmental sectarianism that isolates Christians from doing any good whatsoever in the world.

As a fan of metal music, I am sensitive to this struggle. I grew up with Philippians 4:8 ringing in my ears – at least, whenever Metallica or Megadeth weren’t. And I see now, in a way I couldn’t then, how the lyrics of certain bands affected my view of the world, and especially the tenor my internal dialogue. I eventually ditched all of my CDs by artists that didn’t explicitly identify as Christian and for several years listened only to music with Christian lyrics. Thanks to the wonder of Spotify, I’ve relaxed that standard, but I’m more careful about the message I’m willing to absorb while I listen to music.

All of that to say: I am in no position to dictate what is appropriate for others to watch, listen to or otherwise support – whether that’s music or movies or football. The truth is there’s a wide area of gray, and each person is affected differently when he or she consumes varying degrees of profanity, sexuality or violence. But I would like to see more of a discussion about the priority we place on a sport that is more violent and damaging to its participants than any other.

5 thoughts on “Is Football Immoral?”

  1. I’m a martial arts instructor. These days I teach aikido which is a more peaceful art focused on breaking the cycle of violence, partly because I got tired of the violence and war mentality behind the combat art I focused on in the past. I still do self awareness workshops (self defense is misleading so I won’t call them that) and law enforcement training but I’m not participating in the beat downs in the park anymore.

    Also all the news about brain injuries has me a little concerned about my full contact past and even all the falls I take in aikido. My instructor and I are fairly unique in (and, frankly, occasionally made fun of for) how we teach students to protect themselves and their bodies for the long haul. But, I think that philosophy goes well with the idea of good stewardship, even of our bodies. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. Right now I feel like I’m in the right place (I reach sooo many people I would never meet otherwise) but I will say that I’m making contingency plans–getting a group fitness instructor certification and working towards personal training.

  2. I’ve begun to question my own views on football with these brain injuries and I have loved football. I guess boxing is the same, I stopped enjoying boxing 30 years ago due to this issue.

    Honestly, even if we didn’t have the brain issue here, the other problems football presents with knees and shoulders makes it at the very least questionable.

    1. honestly, there’s potential injuries in life everyday. From the choices we make, anyone can become the recipient of a stroke or heart attack. Football, it seems to me, is one of those choices people have to make and understand the effects. Looking at Junior Seau’s case specifically, it shows how important knowledge, personal awareness and counseling was in helping him with the issue. I heard on the radio he got good at hiding failing to remember names — saying hey, buddy, to many people– and this shows how he need to know precisely what he was dealing with in terms of brain injury from football

  3. “League of Denial” was published only last year. Since that time, I have considered watching football (implicitly supporting it) an immoral act for me.

    I believe that emphasis on concussions is a diversion;even the NFL is facing that issue. To me, the real issue is CTE and the way it happens: by 1000 to 1500 sub-concussive hits a season. The brain deteriorates years after a player stops playing. This allows the NFL and college athletic departments to deny that they football had anything to do with the personality changes and dementia that develop in later years.

    Not all of us who played football suffer the way John Mackey, Mike Webster, or Junior Seau did. Nonetheless, I believe we all have some form of it. Yet, Dr. Ann McKee’s opinion that most NFL players have CTE and it’s only a question of degree is frightening. Of the 46 brains of former players she examined, 45 had CTE. You don’t get that kind of data in everyday medical research. I believe it’s overwhelming, so watching football or celebrating Super Bowl Sunday is, to me, immoral behavior.

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