It has become fashionable among some to denounce football as barbaric and gladiatorial. Author Malcolm Gladwell has repeatedly called for colleges to drop their college football teams and has asserted that it is barbarism akin to dog fighting. Professor of law at Northeastern University, Roger I. Abrams, asks regarding football, “Should we accept this gladiatorial combat as our national pastime?” Such critics must be watching a different game than the one so many of us enjoy each weekend in the fall.
A recognition of dignity
Baseball is my favorite sport, but football certainly holds a special place in my affections. I was raised in Alabama, the buckle of the SEC football belt. In the southeast, football has taken on a mythic quality. Football Saturdays are not just games; they are cultural events similar to a massive family reunion. The pageantry and rootedness of cheering for the local school you identify with is a contemporary reflection of southern agrarian rootedness. Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt contends that in the post-reconstruction era “football offered southern men a chance to assert their masculinity and the South’s physical supremacy short of actually taking up arms” (Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives).
Far from being an example of barbaric gladiatorial culture, I think the beautiful and awe-inspiring controlled aggression of football is an example of the value of humanity. Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has written extensively on the reasons for the spread of Christianity. Stark explains, “Perhaps, above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death. . . . Finally, what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward” (The Rise of Christianity).
In an interview with Touchstone magazine, Stark was asked to explain what he meant by his assertion that “what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.” He responded by explaining Christianity’s influence in restoring humanity by condemning the bloodthirsty gladiatorial culture of the era:
If you look at the Roman world, you have to question whether half the people had any humanity. Going to the arena to enjoy watching people tortured and killed doesn’t strike me as healthy. I’m a big football fan, and I see that, when some player gets hurt, they bring out an ambulance and the doctors take twenty minutes to get him off the field. They don’t want people hurt out there. But these people did. They’d shout, “Shake him! Jump up and down on him!”
It was a new idea. Among the pagans, you get the sense that no one took care of anyone else except in the tribal way. It’s what we’re seeing today in the Balkans—you take care of your brothers, and you kill everybody else. Christianity told the Greco-Roman world that the definition of “brother” has got to be a lot broader. There are some things you owe to any living human being.
A rejection of gratuitous violence
Modern American football is not a contemporary expression of a gladiatorial culture thirsty for gratuitous violence—it is the repudiation of it. Football is a potentially violent sport, but the point of football is not violence or injury of the opponent. As Herm Edwards has said, “You play to win the game.” Football games are won with power and finesse. It is a physically demanding game that will certainly result in occasional injuries, some of which will be serious, but over the years football has been willing to reform in countless ways that have made it safer while not destroying the essence of the manly game. Football also penalizes those who corrupt the game by intentionally attempting to injure an opponent.
As a former high school football coach, I witnessed players injured on the field and have consistently seen players on the opposing team show concern and even gather and pray for the injured athlete. Now as a father watching my own son play high school football, I have observed the same recognition of humanity on the football field. I have been in Bryant-Denny stadium with 90,000 rabid Alabama football fans and have heard the frenzied crowd fall immediately silent when a player was on the field injured. Comparing modern American football to barbaric gladiatorial culture is misguided at best and outright deceitful at worst.
A noble game
Amos Alonzo Stagg was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football and a devoted Christian who was initially headed for the pastorate. He coached football at a time when the game was far more brutal than today’s version of the game. Stagg said, “To me, the coaching profession is one of the noblest and most far-reaching in building manhood . . . Winning isn’t worthwhile unless one has something finer and nobler behind it.” Collin Hansen writes that Stagg placed “athletics within the eternal narrative of Christ and his church” and that he had a “vision for football's ability to impart virtue to its participants.” Hansen explains, “Stagg saw in every missed field goal a test of faith, in every tussle at the line of scrimmage the fire of character maturation."
Stark, a sociologist, and Stagg, a football coach, both have seen and celebrated the humanity of the rugged game of football, and you should too. Football has always had its critics. In the early portion of the 20th century, president Theodore Roosevelt referred to such people as mollycoddles. Do not allow 21st century mollycoddles to steal your enjoyment of the pageantry and excitement of football this season. Be inspired by the honed physical gifts and determination of those who participate in a disciplined, majestic sport that fuses ballet-like choreography with brute power and force. Ask yourself, what parallels you can glean to help you think about your own spiritual life or the discipleship of your children. And thank God for the humanity of football.