Is football too violent for Christians?

As Americans feel the chill of a fall breeze, thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, Christmas and football. There is no doubt football has become America’s sporting obsession. Football games are huge events where fans dress up, chant, cheer and tailgate. Even though a football team only has a handful of home games each season, the atmosphere and pageantry of football attracts countless people who are fans of the spectacle more than the nuances of the zone read, Tampa 2 or the wing-bone offense. No other game combines brute force and elegant choreography the way football does.

But there are those who question the acceptability of a physically combative sport like football. They consider the game barbaric or a blood sport. Author Malcolm Gladwell, who is calling for the abolition of college football, refers to football as the human version of dog fighting. President Obama was recently quoted as saying, “I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you, if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.” Our friend and colleague, Owen Strachan, recently wrote an article, “Our Shaken Faith in Football,” addressing the question, “Should Christian fans step away from such a physically devastating, violent sport?”

The question of whether football is too violent to be deemed ethically acceptable is not a new one. In 1905, the game was far more violent and brutal than today – 18 men died on the college football field, which led then Harvard president Charles Eliot to describe the game as having “barbarous ethics” worse than “cockfighting” and to call for the abolition of football on college campuses. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt described such an attitude as foolish and stated his concern about producing “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men.” Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports” and asserted he had no intention of allowing Eliot to “emasculate football.” He committed himself to doing everything he could to save football. His efforts resulted in a few changes that rescued the manly game he loved.

Roosevelt had been a football fan since he was an 18-year-old Harvard freshman and witnessed his first game in 1876 against rival Yale. He was a war hero in the 1880s and 1890s and led the Rough Riders to military victory in Cuba. While recruiting men for the Rough Riders, he looked for those who had been cowboys, ranchers and football players. In a speech urging men to live a strenuous life he said, “In short, in life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!” In “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” John J. Miller writes, “In Roosevelt’s estimation, the foes of football were wrongheaded idealists who simply refused to accept the risks that are attached to virtually any human endeavor. They threatened to feminize an entire generation.”

Roosevelt’s willingness to listen to concerns, but his ultimate defense of a brand of football far more brutish and violent than today, is instructive for the contemporary conversation about the ethics of the combat sport. We should always be willing to reform the game in ways that reduce risk but do not destroy the very character of the physical and manly sport. The National Football League recently reached a $765 million settlement with 4,500 former players seeking damages from the NFL for concealing the long-term damages of concussion related injuries. Research shows that repeated hits to the head are linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that can result in mood disorders and dementia. The NFL certainly does have an ethical responsibility to inform players embarking on a professional football career of the existing data and potential dangers related to a career in the game.

Nevertheless, it is wrongheaded to use data from NFL football players who have made the game their career at the highest level and attribute it to everyone who plays football. An estimated 3.9 million people participate in playing football in America each year and of that number only 68,000 participate on the college level and 1,696 are on NFL rosters. More than 95 percent of the people who participate in tackle football are under 18 years of age. It is nonsensical to use data related to career NFL football players and use the findings to cast a dark shadow on football in general. There is a qualitative difference between playing youth football and the National Football League. However, despite the logical difference, many American parents are keeping their children out of youth football; according to an annual survey by the national Federation of State high school associations, more than 25,000 fewer kids played football in the US in 2012 than only four years before. This is tragic.

Recent studies published in the medical journal, “Mayo Clinic Proceedings,” concluded, “Long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathological structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries…[and] excessive exercise significantly increases mortality.” In other words, new research suggests that long-term running at extreme levels may damage one’s health and has a relationship to heart disease and premature death. If this research were taken to argue that youth physical fitness programs which emphasized running were dangerous and should be avoided because of potential heart problems, that would be an illogical and wrongheaded overreaching application of the data. It is akin to arguing that health concerns about repeated head trauma of college and professional football players means that youth football is dangerous and should be avoided.

A March 2012 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that NFL players are living longer than men in the general population. They had a much lower rate of cancer-related deaths, and the risk of dying from heart disease or suicide was also lower than that of the general population. The primary area of concern was that NFL players had a greater risk of death involving neurodegenerative causes than that of the general population (still less than one percent of the players studied). As Daniel Flynn has notes in his book, “War on Football,” “On the whole, people who play football are going to walk away from the game healthier than the people who sit in the stands and watch it.”

As we normally reckon safety, football is a safe activity and it is getting safer. In the 1960s there was an average of about 25 football related deaths a season. The average now is around four. Every death is tragic and the death of a young person bears a unique pain, but the risk of experiencing a football related fatality is remarkably low. To provide some perspective, in 2011, there were twice as many cyclists treated for head injuries than football players and 91 cycling fatalities under 20 years of age as compared to four on the football field.

In the September 5, 2011, edition of the Houston Chronicle, Dr. Gary Brock, who specializes in pediatric surgery asserts, “We see more catastrophic injuries among cheerleaders than among any group of athletes…The risk per hour of activity is seven times greater than with other participatory sports…I tell parents that it’s safer to send their children to Pop Warner (football), than to the playground.”

As Christians, we believe that it is our responsibility to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor 10:5). This means that followers of Jesus are right to question their participation in any activity, including football. Football is a rough, physically demanding sport that involves the strategic and deliberate use of force to gain territory and reach the goal line. Every football game consists of a series of controlled violent physical encounters between opposing teams resembling a small-scale pre-modern war. Thus, it is not surprising that football contains a great deal of terminology borrowed from the battlefield and protective equipment resembling military armor. Victory on the battlefield and the football field both require a great deal of teamwork, trust, self-sacrifice, suffering, as well as, physical and mental courage.

While the Bible does not mention modern sports like football, it has much to say about warfare and Kingdom, and it draws a relationship between sport and war. Sporting contests are artificially constructed mini-battles, whether they are wrestling or boxing matches (both specifically mentioned in the Bible), or baseball and football. And the lessons learned agonizing and striving in one can readily prove instructive for the other (Heb 12:1-4, 1 Cor 9:24-27, Eph 6:12, Phil 3:13-14). In fact, the primary images in the Bible describing the struggle of living as God’s people are: soldier, athlete and farmer (2 Tim 2:4-7). Each calling is difficult and physically demanding, requiring a man to train and sacrifice his body. The use of sports imagery in the Scripture is instructive and overwhelmingly positive in drawing a link between sports, war and ministry in the Kingdom of Christ. It is also not surprising that just as warfare tactics have changed from the ancient world to the modern world, so also have sports shifted from a focus on individual sports to a focus on team sports.

The obvious link between sports and warfare explains why Gen. Douglas MacArthur carved, “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, Will bear the fruits of victory,” on the stone passageway leading to the West Point gym. The rugged, physically demanding, purposeful aggression of football is an asset, not a liability. A football game consists of a series of battles that have a beginning and an end. There are tactics in the battle that are dependent on knowing a team’s strength and the other team’s weaknesses. Football rewards specialized individual skill as long as it is subordinated to the greater goal of team victory. The sport provides a consistent and valuable metaphor for contemporary churches that need to remember that the Great Commission is not a public relations campaign, but rather a war cry that demands self-sacrifice.

There are inevitable risks tied to every human endeavor and we are right to count the cost, but we must also be concerned about the moral, therapeutic deism that equates Christianity with being a nice guy and views God as a benevolent being who helps us be nice guys. Laziness and intentional underachievement, along with a safety-centric worldview are enemies to the advancement of the gospel. Likewise, there is a price to pay on the football field for laziness and lack of focus.

Football represents one of the only major American institutions still standing that is exclusively for males and speaks unashamedly about manliness and toughness. Boys are drawn to demanding physical competition against other boys, assertive male leadership, and a cause that demands sacrifice and calculated risk. These are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood.

Courage and calculated risk-taking are causalities of our contemporary safety-centric worldview. Sadly, evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety. Boys, who are virtually bubble wrapped by their parents to ride bikes in the front yard and do not participate in things like football because they might get hurt, will have a difficult time finding Paul remotely intelligible when he asserts, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:13).

Anthony Esolen has noted that football uniquely stirs the passions and intellectual interest of boys and men because it speaks the sacrificial language of men in a way the contemporary church often misses. He writes, “If it is said that women are more spiritual than men because more of them are to be found in churchly places, I’m not buying. I’ll take the sacramentality of football over the spirituality of uplifting chatter any day. A true man, and there are many still, struggling to be both true and man, would sooner have his right arm wither than the change loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet he leaves the church. Why? Sin, of course; but in fact the Pittsburgh Steelers present themselves as more worthy of loyalty than does a church that demands nothing” (Touchstone, “What Sports Illustrates”).

We are certainly not defending everything that surrounds our modern American infatuation with football. We are sickened by the predatory cheating culture that surrounds major college athletics. We are also deeply troubled by professing Christians for whom the metaphor of sport becomes more important to them then the reality to which it points. We applaud attempts to reform football that do not destroy the essence of the manly game and support the penalization of those who corrupt the game by intentionally attempting to injure an opponent. We are saddened every time a player gets injured on the football field, but no more so than when one is injured in a cycling or skateboarding accident.

Nevertheless, we believe that Roosevelt was wise when he recruited men who had played football for his Rough Riders military unit. We also believe that a few more ministers of the gospel who have served in the military, played football or farmed would strengthen the church. We need to be reminded that we do not just surrender our brains to Christ, we surrender our very selves, including our bodies. If football did not exist in modern America, some Christian man would need to invent it. Our Christian worldview and ethics demand the proving ground of football or at least something like it.

The church is in desperate need of some Christian Rough Riders who are willing to serve the church self-sacrificially and enter spiritual battle, no matter the cost. The modern church has too many mollycoddles instead of vigorous men, and our mission demands the latter.

David E. Prince is the pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church. He is also an assistant professor of Christian Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Jimmy Scroggins is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach.

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