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Unnecessary roughness: moral hazards of football

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?


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Ann Fontaine

Barbara Crafton comments on Lance Armstrong and doping.

Weiwen Ng

Or, I’m a cyclist, and professional cycling was doped to the gills from 1990 to the mid 2000s. I suspect that numerous pro cyclists still dope, but the magnitude of the doping seems to have gone down with better testing. It’s not just about physical violence, the extent of doping in sports is another moral issue for Christians, and trust me, cycling is not the only sport which has doping problems. Ours may be more visible but baseball and football in the US have their problems as well.

Bill Dilworth

The difference between our modern violent sports and the gladiatorial games, of course, is that officially the modern intent is not to maim or kill one’s opponent. The call for Christians to abandon football and other sports will undoubtedly be only very partial, given their popularity and the fact that, since abusus non tollit usum, you could make an argument that further reform will solve the problems. Add to that the incredible amounts of money involved and the prospects of ending these sports outright don’t look good.

I think that the matter has been made more complicated by the stance of many cultural elites that watching violence (simulated violence, at least) does no moral harm. Efforts to reign back violence in the arts and media only seem to meet with much support among conservatives, it seems, and that not uniformly.

[Full disclosure: I find almost all sports too boring to watch, and have a low threshold for even simulated violence (a pox on Quintin Tarantino, AFAIC). There is one very violent sport that I rather like, though: Spanish-style bullfighting. For reasons of morality, I do not attend or keep track of it, though.]


I am conflicted by it all. I played football in high school and saw more than a few kids who were headed for juvenile court direct their testosterone and anger into football rather than crime. I can honestly say that football saved them.

That said, it is a violent sport. I played decades ago and still have aches and pains from it, from just the high school level. When I had the opportunity to join the athletic training team at Mizzou as a student-trainer, I had the opportunity to watch Big Time College ball as close-up as you could without suiting up. These guys were monsters, physically. I looked like the stick figure on the Wimpy Kid books next to these guys. What they could do to someone when they hit them at 20 mph was astonishing. Crunching bones; exploding spleens.

I am increasingly reticent about the whole thing. We have become a violent people. We should admit it. We look to violence for entertainment – it our movies, our books, our music, our sports. Even our justice system. As the author Robin Meyers has said, we think there is such a thing as “redemptive violence”. Violence metes out justice and saves us, redeems us. This is not the spirit of Christ.

If we profess to be Christians, we should renounce all forms of violence, even the fake violence of entertainment and the controlled violence of sport. But not only renounce it, but denounce it. Are we ready to publically challenge American football? Particularly when it has saved so many young people from their own self-destructive behavior?

Kevin McGrane

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