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Is football violence worth the cost?

A question for my fellow football fans: How much brain damage would you be willing to endure to watch NFL games?

Would you watch the same amount of football if every game increased your chances contracting palsy, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease? If not, then you might want to consider why you are willing to allow others to take such risk for your entertainment.

A new study has found that 110 of 111 deceased former National Football League (NFL) players had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or permanent brain damage as a result of repeated blunt force injuries to the head. More broadly, as Katherine Ellen Foley notes, the study found 177 of 202 deceased players who played at any level (including college and semi-professional) for an average 15 years (ranging from roughly 10 to 20 years) also had evidence of CTE.

A team of researchers led by Boston University and the Veteran’s Association in Boston conducted the study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As Foley points out, there is a chance that the study is biased since it relied on the player’s bodies being donated by families who suspected there was a link between football and brain injury. Also, the establishment of a correlation between CTE and football players does not mean that playing football caused the brain damage.

Still, this is the latest in a growing body of evidence that the repeated blows to the head that many football players endure are causing long-term irreparable harm to their bodies. At what point should this be a concern for the Christian football fan?

Four years ago, in an article for Christianity Today, Owen Strachan argued that the physical harm caused by football should lead Christians to reconsider the game's violence:

Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don't acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.

At the time, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins wrote a reply to Strachan and other football critics here on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins in which they said, “Laziness and intentional underachievement, along with a safety-centric worldview are enemies to the advancement of the gospel.”

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).

Prince and Scroggins correctly note that “courage and calculated risk-taking” are necessary for the advancement of the gospel and that in many ways sports like football can help train men for such work. While we need to be careful about confusing biblical masculinity with a culturally conditioned, hyper-macho view of manhood, there is a definitely a need for the development and cultivation of physical stamina and courage. Football has often proven useful for just such training.

However, our bodies are not our own. As Paul reminds us, they were bought with a price. We are called to responsibly steward our bodies and glorify God with them, which is why we cannot dismiss the concerns about violence. As Strachan says, “If a game is associated with violence, that should be of note to believers. Following Christ means avoiding unnecessary violence, no matter what macho culture and John Wayne manhood might say (Luke 22:36).”

Reducing unnecessary violence in play and entertainment—and sports is ultimately a form of either play or entertainment—should be a reasonable compromise for those of us who love the game.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, football was such a brutal sport that many players died due to the injuries they received on the field. Between 11 and 20 deaths resulted directly from a football injury during the 1905 season alone. As David Dayen notes, that would be the equivalent today of  95 on-field deaths. Public opinion was turning against the sport to such an extent that the New York Times op-ed on “Two Curable Evils,” listing football alongside lynching.

In an attempt to save the game, then-president Theodore Roosevelt stepped in by inviting the coaches of three biggest college programs—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House for a private meeting and encouraged them to make the game safer. In response to Roosevelt’s request, Harvard coach Bill Reid helped to organize the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In January 1906, representatives of 62 Colleges and Universities meet to appoint a rules committee for college football. In an attempt to “open” the game, the IAAUS made 19 changes, including doubling the yardage needed for a first down from five yards to 10; creating a neutral zone between the two sides of the line of scrimmage; requiring six men on the line; and establishing the forward pass.

If the original Rough Rider could propose changes to football that reduced its brutality—and made the sport better—we armchair quarterbacks should be able to support modifications that strike a balance between vicious violence and safety-centric softness.  

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