Rick Reilly manages, by accident every once in a while, to dig deep and strike sportswriter gold! He wrote a thought-provoking article, published at ESPN recently, that expressed his growing angst at being a football fan. As stories of the long terms effects of the violence of the game pile one on top of the other, civilized human beings, and especially Christians, are going to have to ask this question:
Does the brutality of football make it immoral?
You can follow the link above to read the entire article, but let me cull some clips that make his point most clearly. After talking about his love for the game, for the sounds and sights of hard-hitting football, he says this:
Now I hear that sound and wonder how soon it will be before they can’t remember where they parked, their sons’ middle names, or where their families went last summer on vacation.
I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to.
I watch Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck take a brutal lick now and I think of former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, who told a Washington radio show the other day he can’t remember most of his daughter’s soccer games. “That’s a little bit scary to me,” Favre said. “… That put a little fear in me.” He’s 44 years old.
I watch New England tight end Rob Gronkowski get up from wreck after wreck, and I think of former Colts tight end Ben Utecht, who said the other day he couldn’t remember being at a friend’s wedding until the friend showed him the photo album. See, you were a groomsmen. And you sang, remember? He’s 32 years old.
I watch Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson fling himself into crashing whirlpools of men and I think of former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, who said he sometimes finds himself driving on a highway and can’t remember where he’s going. “I’m just hoping and praying I can find a way to cut it off at the pass,” Dorsett said recently. He’s 59 years old.
I see too much sorrow and ugliness now to love football like I used to.
I read the filthy and racist transcript of voice mails between one Miami Dolphin and another and am told bullying is “part of the culture.” Or lack thereof. I read about players like the late Chiefs LB Jovan Belcher, twisted inside his violent life, and yet not one NFL team has a full-time psychiatrist on staff.
I read the suicide obits of former Bears defensive back Dave Duerson, age 50, and former Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, 43, and I can’t help but notice Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson is 95, San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos 90, and Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford 88. Good for them. They were lucky enough to get in on the luxury box side of the business, not the pine box.
Now, the guilt gnaws at me a little as I watch.
I covered former Broncos defensive end Karl Mecklenburg. Now he takes a photo of the front of his hotel in the morning so he can find his way back at night. I covered former Dolphins wide receiver Mark Duper. Now he has constant ringing in his ears. I covered former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and used to giggle at the way he’d score a touchdown and then joyously butt heads with teammates at 10 miles an hour. Now he has two teammates who have committed suicide and admits he’s thought of it himself.
He concludes the piece with an evocative illustration drawn from history.
In Caesar’s day, they filled the 50,000-seat Roman Coliseum to watch gladiators compete. These gladiators trained at special schools. They knew the risk. The glory and the money was worth it to them. If the gladiators weren’t dead at the end of the fight, the emperor looked to the crowd to help him decide: Had the losing fighter fought hard enough to please the people? If he hadn’t, the emperor would give a thumbs down, and the victor would immediately stick his sword into the neck of his opponent.
We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It’s just that now, the sword comes later.
This article certainly made me think. Is there something inherently immoral about our passion and love for this game? Are football players gladiators, killing one another for their own riches and glory, and for our entertainment? Are we the bloodthirsty crowds demanding to see bones broken and blood spilled? Are we enablers; encouraging the public murder or suicide of our heroes in pads and helmets?
I realize that this will be considered some form of latent liberalism; Baptists do not question the morality of football, we revel in it! Especially those of us who are conservative, Bible-believing and Scripture-honoring complementarians – we like our sports manly, bloody, brutal! The very act of questioning the morality of football will be seen as unpatriotic, ungodly and perhaps part of a communist plot.
And I am not saying that football is immoral. Not yet anyway. I’m just asking if we shouldn’t consider what Rick Reilly was saying. I would not (I hope) stand on the street corner and watch two men beat each other to a pulp. If I could not intervene myself, I’d dial 911 and get some help. But Fridays (high school), Saturdays (college) and Sundays and Mondays (NFL) we watch similar brutality and we cheer! When a Jadeveon Clowney (pictured above) separates a Michigan player from his senses, he becomes a hero.
- Is that okay? Would Jesus cheer for football or would he chide the fanaticism of his own followers after the kickoff?
- As the evidence piles up of the horrific effects of football on the brains and bodies of those who play it, doesn’t it at least require us to reexamine our love-affair with the sport?
- Do not the reports of suicides and dementia and dysfunction at the least require us to ask some tough questions?
- Does the fact that many (including black players) are excusing Richie Incognito for using the n-word to insult a black teammate, because “that is football culture” make us wonder if football culture and Christian sanctification are inimical?
- Most people will admit that corruption is rampant in NCAA football. But we Christians just don’t care much, do we? As long as our team wins, its no big deal.
Saturday, I will watch the Hawkeyes try to become bowl eligible. Sunday, I will cheer as Peyton Manning performs his magic. But I will also be wondering as I do if I am enabling men to destroy their own lives by participating in all this. Most of us as little boys dreamed of playing in the NFL or for our favorite college team. For many, their days on the high school football team are a glorious memory that carries them through life’s drudgery and difficulties. Let’s face it, we love our football – to a level that could easily be labeled idolatrous for many of us.
But we do not (yet) encourage or assist suicide or self-destructive behavior. When someone engages in such, authorities step in. We prevent self-destruction when we can. If the long-term effects of participation in football are anywhere near what people are now claiming them to be, is it not strange that we not only do not intervene in this instance of self-destruction, but we actually cheer rabidly while it goes on? Just how many lives need to be destroyed before we begin to question the morality of our national obsession?
Again, I’m raising questions not making proclamations here. But I think it is time that we at least began to ask some of these questions. I am not a pacifist – sometimes moral people are called on to stand against evil, even with guns and bombs. But does defeating your conference rival or winning the Super Bowl justify the brutality and violence that football has become?
I can tell you this. All four of my kids participated in sports in high school, but I am glad none of them played football. My second son is a big guy – taller than me. I always thought he would have been a force as an interior lineman. But he chose to do other things. I’ll admit that at the time I was a little disappointed. Now that he is a seminary student, raising the two cutest grandsons in world history, I’m actually glad he stayed off the gridiron. And I will try, as best I can, to encourage my grandsons to pursue other forms of competition. Play baseball, boys. Run cross country. Learn some good post moves and a jump shot. But your brain is more important than any glory you can win on the football team.
I wrote this last night, but this morning I saw an interview with Tony Dorsett (mentioned in Reilly’s article), one of my favorites from my younger days. He has been diagnosed with CTE (the brain disease so many football players get – with such devastating consequences) and watching him tremble and talk with a faraway look in his eyes was sad and disturbing.
I’m not ready to make a judgment or to turn off the game, but I think it’s time to start asking some tough questions.
What say you?