Unnecessary roughness: moral hazards of football

The Christian Century explores the question of football and morality of violence:

…. You don’t have to be a cynic to sense in the NFL’s handling of the bounty scandal a deeper anxiety about football’s precarious place in American life. While resisting the claims of the many lawsuits, the league has instituted concussion detection and treatment guidelines, along with a payout program for players with brain disease. And the NFL has donated a million dollars for brain trauma research to the Boston institute where Duerson’s disease was posthumously detected. Football is cresting a 50-year climb to the peak of the American sports world. NFL and college football viewership outpaces all rivals, and youth league participation starts earlier and reaches farther than ever before. It is an inconvenient time—and for a lifelong fan like myself, a painful one—to be asking whether the whole enterprise is morally compromised beyond hope of repair.

An analogy is sometimes made between football and gladiatorial combat—typically by those who defend and romanticize the game. It’s an analogy that should provoke reflection by Christians. The ancient Christian critique of the Roman spectacles—which included gladiatorial combat, athletic contests and drama—focused on three things: the physical harm to the contestants, the moral harm to the spectators, and the pagan cultic ritual that surrounded the shows. Reading such critiques today raises analogous questions for Christians who participate in the modern football industry.

The classic Christian treatment of the ancient spectacles is Tertullian’s De spectaculis. It is a critique comprehensive enough to foreshadow virtually all future accusations of Christian prudery. Tertullian is aghast at the cauliflowered ears and heavy scars of the boxer, which he describes as a defilement of the image of God, as well as at the whole variety of changes and enhancements visited upon the human body for the sake of contest, drama or violence. As a means of punishment, the combat punished the wrongly accused along with the guilty, and the gladiators purchased to administer such justice were made “victims of the public pleasure.”


… I find it hard to accept that the time may have come for Christians to exercise what remains of our culture-shaping power by turning away from a game whose dangers are grave even as their extent is not fully known. As Tertullian wrote, no one dilutes poison with gall. It is by definition difficult to turn away from an entertainment—as history shows, even entertainments that come to shock the conscience of a later age. Christians, too, need pastimes and diversions. The question is which ones honor the image of God and the call to justice and equity.

Read it all here.

What do you think?

Past Posts