I was in fifth grade when I first witnessed a tragic football accident. I remember seeing a boy lying motionless on the 50-yard line, surrounded by the coaches, his parents, and eventually paramedics, who would carry him off on a stretcher. He would live, but for now he was lifeless. The boy had collided with another kid and hadn’t moved since the accident. The event is something that I have never forgotten.
I personally played football until eighth grade but quit in high school because of how much bigger, faster and stronger everyone was than me. I’m competitive like that. At the time I felt rather despondent that I wasn’t going to play again, but looking back I am grateful that I stopped. It seems that modern science has revealed that bumping heads repeatedly with another human being, even if both are wearing helmets, isn’t the best thing for the human brain. Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who inspired the movie Concussion, has performed studies that show how such activities affect the brain at the cellular level. He calls the effects Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which is a disease of the brain that causes “major depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts and actions, loss of intelligence, as well as dementia later in life,” (New York Times, “Don’t Let Kids Play Football”) the kind that allegedly led to the recent death of 27-year-old Tyler Sash, who overdosed on painkillers, and 43-year-old Junior Seau, who committed suicide.
I haven’t played contact football since eighth grade, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been involved with it. Until a few years ago I bled Cowboys blue and silver. Win or lose, I loved my Dallas Cowboys … even during the Quincy Carter era. Things are much different today. I haven’t watched an entire NFL game in a while, and the last one I watched was one of the recent Super Bowls, and that was because I attended a church-sponsored Super Bowl fellowship. It was an event I, as a pastor, encouraged our Sunday School classes to host because I thought it was a cultural event that could convince non-church folks that we are normal people who like normal things.
This year, however, our church won’t be encouraging Super Bowl fellowships. We aren’t necessarily discouraging them, but we aren’t endorsing them as a church.
As a Christian, I am growing increasingly uncomfortable in endorsing contact football. Of course I have no problem with football, but I am bothered with the way it is played in the NFL, which encourages a person to use his body like a human torpedo, bent on capsizing another human body into a downed submarine. Our minds and bodies belong to the Lord, and sanctioning the destruction of both in the name of football just seems unsettling.
I read a story the other day about an ex-NFL player named Antwaan Randle El who says he wishes he never played football in the NFL. Randle El had a successful career and was a widely reputable player during his days, yet, “If I could go back,” he says, “I wouldn’t [play].”
Randle El is only 36 years old but says that he has trouble walking up and down stairs. He also says that he has recurring mental lapses. “I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that.’ I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. I try to chalk it up as I’m busy … but I have to be on my knees praying about it, asking God to allow me to not have these issues and live a long life. I want to see my kids raised up. I want to see my grandkids.”
Randle El’s comments cause me to wonder, in our present Super Bowl season, if churches should encourage fellowship around an event that puts young men in such conditions, conditions that can rob a man of his mobility and threaten to make a widow and orphans of his wife and children.
I am not presently comfortable saying that a Christian cannot or should not watch the NFL, but I do think that the ongoing revelations of ex-NFL players’ deteriorating bodies and brains should cause pastors to stop and ask whether or not they should encourage their people to fellowship around an event that allows for such carnage, and perhaps even encourage Christians to wonder whether or not we should support football as it is currently played in the NFL.
Or maybe I’m just a bitter Dallas Cowboys fan feeling the effects of two depressing decades of football, and all of this is just my way of coping with another failed season.