The ‘Big Game’ (is that copyrighted?) is this Sunday. Most of my neighbors seem excited that the Carolina Panthers might win a championship. Though I suspect if the Panthers win that Carolinians will go back to focusing on ACC basketball and college football recruiting season.
A year ago around the time of Super Bowl 49 I had an existential crisis of sorts when I read Against Football by Steve Almond. The book was flawed at points, but it gave me a different filter to view the game that bonded me to my dad. I also watched PBS’ documentary League of Denial which was even more persuasive than Almond’s book. Almost every source I go to on this subject of the dangers of football seem to flash in neon lights “Abandon ship!”
I still watched football this past season, though not as much as usual or with as much passion. My church is doing a party for the game this Sunday. However, what worries me is how flippant Christians are when they are asked whether our commitment to this sport should be reevaluated.
To aid my own thinking and the thinking of others, I’ve outlined three means of ethical evaluation that are in the Christian tradition to evaluate the game of football.
What does the Bible say? That seems to be a simple question, but even those with an exegetical approach to Christian ethics know it aint that easy. John Frame, John Jefferson Davis, Wayne Grudem, and others espouse a “The Bible tells us so” approach. The most sophisticated form seems to be that of Frame with his perspectivalist hermeneutic.
According to Frame, we must ask three questions: What does the Bible teach? (Normative) What contextual factors should be considered? (situational) What personal factors must be considered? (existential)
Regarding the normative question, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address whether football is immoral or not. Athletic competition seems to be, in general, a positive calling according to Scripture (2 Tim 2:5; Phil 3:14; 1 Cor 9:24-25; Heb 12:1; 1 Tim 4:8). Though, we should not necessarily believe that the Bible affirms every sport as a holy vocation as not all vocations are holy (e.g. prostitution). It is possible some sports by their nature are inherently sinful.
There are civil laws and principles about the protection of human life, though we can’t go much further as the Bible doesn’t get into things like whether the mere risk of injury makes a sport sinful. Running gives the risk of injury, but the Scripture passages above affirm running as a sport.
The situational perspective may shed light on issues like youth sports, brain injuries, etc. It’s possible that tackle football might be better suited for high school age and above but not for those younger due to the increased space between a youth’s brain and cranium, increasing likeliness of head trauma. So, the situational perspective might bring reform to youth football as well as to particular rules in the game of football.
The existential perspective is one which we have seen recently in former players (e.g. Antwaan Randle El, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland). The concern for being present with future family members while risking one’s health for a particular job is one that must be weighed and prayed through. There are a number of dangerous jobs (firemen, policemen, etc) that don’t seem inherently sinful, but it may be sinful for an individual to take on one of those jobs if there is a lack of faith and peace about it. A young family might be a good reason to retire early or to find a different career for a football player.
Overall, there seems to be no definitive case against football from the traditional, evangelical method of Christian ethics. The goal for a football player is to apply 1 Corinthians 10:31 and bring glory to God in their calling.
The narratival method is not a singular way of determining Christian ethics but is rather a family of perspectives. Whether it is William J Webb’s “Redemptive-Movement” model or Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Theology as Theodrama” analogy or N.T. Wright’s 5 story act proposal, the basic idea is that the Bible is first and foremost a story with a plot, characters, and a telos.
Without getting into the nuances and differences of the theologians cited above, the basic thrust of the narratival method is that we are called to plot our place in the Plot of redemptive history. Currently, we dwell in between Christ’s two advents. The world is fallen, but the new creation has dawned in Christ and is growing brighter and brighter as the old creation grows dimmer the closer we arrive to the consummation. This isn’t a postmillennial optimism, but it is an optimism none the less. The reality of putting away childish things (1 Cor 13:11-12), seeing swords beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4), and wiping away tears from our eyes (Revelation 7:16-17) since the new creation is both already (2 Cor 5:17) but not yet (Revelation 21-22).
From the narratival ethic, it may be that football is not inherently sinful, but it doesn’t ‘fit’ with God’s vision of human flourishing and where he is taking us in the story. The sadness and brokenness inherent in football, and probably the sport itself, needs to evaporate over time as the coming of Jesus gets closer. It’s hard to imagine such violence in God’s new creational paradigm.
This third and final perspective is made known by Al Wolters and his Dutch Reformed tradition where there is a high view of the original creation and its abiding validity for today. Walters wrote the well-received book Creation Regained where he introduces concepts such as “structure” and “direction” as helpful guides for Christian ethics. According to Wolters, the Bible teaches that the structure or normatively of God’s good creation continues to abide while the direction of that structure is what is corrupted. Other Reformed theologians use the term common grace to communicate this truth.
Yet, there is debate as to whether the ‘structure’ in football is athletic performance itself or whether football has a basic skeleton which is the structure. In other words, is football as a sport able to be ‘redeemed’ if it is redirected (i.e. making the game safer, increasing technology for protecting players, eliminating materialism and corruption from the game, etc), or is athletic competition to be redeemed if we eliminate corrupt, violent sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts, football, etc?
In the end, none of these three methods of deciphering a Christian ethical stance on football is sufficient to give us confidence. All three are useful and may illuminate the issue at hand for us to examine with Scripture and the tradition of the church.
Personally, I am conflicted. I’ve done enough reading to make me wonder whether our society thirty to forty years from now will look back on our football culture an think we were barbaric for endangering the lives of millions of young people. Yet, it is possible the science and technology aspects will come back and make football a safe sport (or that head trauma from football isn’t as serious as previously thought). I can easily see the game becoming more safe to the extent that a typical NFL game will look more like the Pro Bowl and less like an AFC North rivalry game.
Even aside from the safety issue, there is enough reason for Christians to at least be wary of football and less enthusiastic about it than our neighbors. The disruption of the Sabbath, the idolatry of youth sports leagues (just see the documentary Trophy Kids), rugged greed, etc. should make the church more aware of how the liturgy of American sports are doing more to shape Christians than the historic liturgy of the church (cf. James K.A. Smith).