Football in a Fallen World (and why as of now I still support it)

In case you were wondering what the most recent deep theological  or ethical issue I have been wrestling with is, because let’s face it, who isn’t?, it has nothing to do with predestination or just war theory. My most recent theological and ethical pondering have been about America’s favorite sport: football.

The discovery that deceased NFL Hall of Famers Kenny Stabler and Frank Gifford suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head, and the release of the movie Concussion have sparked continued conversations about player safety in football at all levels. Recently former Steelers and Redskins receiver Antwaan Randell El, who at the age of  36 may already  be experiencing memory loss has said that if he could go back he would have chosen to play baseball over football, though he has since stated that the story has been blown out of proportion. Everyone from Obama (if he had one) to Lebron have questioned whether they would let their sons play football. I have even seen the NFL compared to the tobacco industry.  I both love football – especially college – and am interested in the brain, so I decided to write a little bit about this issue that is plaguing the game. Though I have never played competitive football, college football is one of my favorite things in the world.  When I think of hobbies of mine, college sports and Christian Hip Hop music are the only two that come to mind. There is nothing I enjoy more – save March Madness (true story: I actually have had multiple nightmares that I have missed March Madness) – than a fall Saturday watching football.  Adding the fact that I am now a student at Ohio State  and can get student priced tickets next year, I am even more excited about college football than ever. If the sport were to go away there would be a huge hole in my heart .I might cry.

Owen Strachan wrote a piece for Christianity  Today a while back where he raises the question if Christians should give up their football fandom. Anthony Bradley, my favorite modern theologian and a Clemson graduate and die hard fan has also written a piece.  More recently Derek Rishmawy, Matthew Lee Anderson and Alistair Roberts have discussed the same topic on their podcast Mere Fidelity. Christians who believe we should stop supporting football are certainly in a  small minority. Chick-fil-a certainly does not have a problem with football. Every other commercial during a college football game is seemingly a Chick-fil-a commercial and this most recent Super Bowl, I watched the first half with friends from Cru and the second half with friends from my church. So is it time for Christians to give up on football? My quick answer is not yet.I will dive into this further later, but I think there are two opposite and equally wrong answers. First the idea that football is not fallen and that there are not necessary changes to rules that should and must be made to enhance the safety of its players. Second is the idea that we should just throw the whole sport away all together. I think as Christians, and even for conscientious non-Christians, we should be thoughtful and concerned about the risks of the sport, while acknowledging the beauty and benefits of the game. We also must acknowledge that neurosciences research about football is at best in its early stages and that medical opinion on the specific affects of repeated concussions and hits to the head have on the head is up in the air, but there is  certainly reason to believe that degenerative brain damage can come with the sport.

The movie Concussion shown only one side of the data about football and head injuries and has been criticized (if you read one article I have linked to, read this one) for over-dramatizing the story and twisting the facts and the research suggesting exponentially higher levels of CTE in former football players compared to the general population is not conclusive. While there certainly are studies that point to this, there are also studies that suggest that this is not the case. A New Orleans doctor conducted a longitudinal study of high school football players that found that there was no correlation between playing football and cognitive decline. Another medical researcher at Stanford University, Ed Riley has written that:

”the Mayo Clinic found that the risk of high school football players developing degenerative neurological diseases later in life is no greater than if they had been in the band, glee club or choir.”

And because the Mayo Clinic is famous and sounds reputable, I will quote the results of the study that researched former high school football players:

“Our findings suggest that high school students who played American football from 1946 to 1956 did not have an increased risk of later developing dementia, PD, or ALS compared with non–football-playing high school males, despite poorer equipment and less regard for concussions compared with today and no rules prohibiting head-first tackling (spearing).”

Other studies have shown similar results among former NFL players.

Ed Riley is a parent, who has as on who plays high school football. He compares his fear when his son is playing football to that of when he is driving a car. He writes:

“When I sit in the stands, I worry when my 160-pound son lines up on the front line of the kick return team, but that is only slightly less than I worry when I sit in the passenger seat as he merges onto the highway. Adolescence is a scary time for parents.”

He states that football is as safe as any other sport his child could play.

It is important to note that the a likely cause of the heightened discussion around CTE and concussions related to football is due to the fact that football is the sport that the most research has been done on and the NFL is by far the most popular sports league in America. It is by no means the only sport with head injury issues.  A study of 100 top professional cyclists found that 95 of them had experienced concussions due to the sport. Cycling also accounts for nearly twice as many hospital visits per year for concussions.  Research has found CTE in soccer, hockey, NASCAR, rugby, snowboarding, and extreme sports. It has long been known that CTE like diseases were present in boxers.The disease has even been found in former Cincinnati Reds outfielder, Ryan Freel, who tragically committed suicide in 2012. There has also been research that suggests that wrestling has the highest rate of concussions for any college sport. Oh and for the record horseback riding comprises the highest percentage of sports related head injuries of any sport at 11.7%. The collegiate sport with the highest concussion rate is reportedly wrestling. Recently concussions have even become a concern in cheerleadingfigure skating  and synchronized swimming – yes , you read that right.  According to the sports medicine director at The University of Georgia, cheerleaders actually experienced more concussions than football players at UGA over a four year period. So to say that head injuries are only a problem in football is completely baseless assertion. It certainly gets the most attention, but I think exclusively focusing on football is unfair. I am unsure that there is a certain line that football has crossed  that other sports have not to deem it too dangerous.

Another crucial issue is the lack of consensus around what defines a concussion and CTE. There is no universally accepted definition of either, and no well representative studies have been done to establish an estimated rate of CTE in former football players.  If CTE is truly found in 79% of those who have played football at the high school level or up and 96% of those who have played in the NFL, which I find very hard to believe, are all cases of CTE even serious? Clearly in the case of MIke Webster and Junior Seau, there were severe symptoms, but if the rates are truly that high, most cases must mot be of the severe variety. The vast majority of former football players I know personally and as public figures do not display any cognitive decline or impairment.

Another issue that has been reported is that NFL players live on average nearly 20 years less on average than the general population. Wherever this stat comes from, it is false. Studies actual indicate that former NFL players live longer than the general populatio and even show that the suicide rate of former NFL players are lower than the general populations. Suicide is a huge issue of concern for me, but if we really want to attack a port that has 75% increase of suicide in former athletes we should be looking at cricket. There is also evidence that former NFL players who have played five or more years have lower mortality rates than MLB players who have played five or more years. Nate Silver has compiled some very interesting actuarial data looking at mortality rates in former professional athletes and the general population.

Also let’s remember that although both Kenny Stabler and Frank Gifford were diagnosed with CTE posthumously, neither of them died from the disease. Stabler died from colon cancer and Gifford died from natural cause. Even as Gifford knew he was suffering the effects if brain damage, he continued to support the NFL and proposes continuing to research how to improve player safety rather than abolishing the league. Another point to make is that even though Gifford did develop CTE, he enjoyed a long post football career as an announcer and actor.

The issue of immediate deaths due to playing football, as on average twelve high school players die as a direct result of playing  football per year, but statistics show that football is not any more dangerous than any other sports. While 0.81 out of 100,000 children playing football will die as a result of the game, 0.76 out of 100,000 children playing basketball will die as a result of the game and .0.80 out of every 100,000 children playing lacrosse will die as a result of the game.

Another point to mention, that has been brought up by one of the neurosurgeons represented in Concussion, Dr. Julian Bailes, is that the dangers of youth and even high school football do not compare to the dangers of major college football and the NFL. The risk of head injuries dramatically increase as the speed and the size o the players increase. Only a tiny fraction of football players will ever play at the college or professional level, where CTE is a greater risk.

Strachan in his article also compares football to gladiator fighting in ancient Rome. I think that this is a completely misplaced comparison.Peyton Manning said:

How do I justify football in the context of “love your enemy?” I say to kids, well, football is most definitely a “collision sport,” and I can’t deny it jars your teeth and at the extreme can break your bones. But I’ve never seen it as a “violent game,” there are rules to prevent that, and I know I don’t have to hate anybody on the other side to play as hard as I can within the rules. I think you’d have to get inside my head to appreciate it, but I do love football. And, yes, I’d play it for nothing if that was the only way, even now when I’m no longer a child. I find no contradiction in football and my faith.

While being a gladiator, and even other modern combat sports, was and are based upon the destruction of the person you are competing against, football is based upon trying to score as many points as possible and preventing the other team from scoring points. So I see no problem with football appearing gladiator-like in nature.

Owen Strachan also criticizes the portrait of masculinity of the “warrior culture” of American football. He writes:

“But make no mistake: warrior culture and godly manhood are not one and the same. Too often, we act as if they are. We see a football player roar after drilling a hapless wide receiver and say to our buddy, “That dude is a BEAST!” Later, we go to church and hear from a hipster-looking missionary to a closed country. He doesn’t have broad shoulders, wears thick-rimmed glasses, and tells the church in Q&A that he loves reading and walks in nature. And we’re tempted to ask to see his man card.”

Associating someone as biblicaly masculine.due to being a “beast” as an athlete is problem, but that does not mean that there is a problem with great athletes, which Strachan certainly points out, but it seems that he has an opposition to great athletes.

There is also the problem of non head related injuries such as  broken bones and injuries to muscles. To me this does not seem like a good reason at all for Christians to stop following or playing football.  In sports there are injuries. Broken legs and torn ACLs suck, but considering football  ethically wrong for a high rate of injuries, even if it is higher than other sports, is to me preposterous. This may sound ridiculous to some  but I would continue to watch football if watching it came with the same injury risks of broken bones and torn ligaments as playing it.

The hosts of the Mere Fidelity podcast bring up a couple of other issues. They raise the issue of the corruption of the NFL and the problems with the NCAA. The do however rightly point out that FIFA is far more corrupt than the NFL. An estimated 12 people will die in preponderate for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, for every game played during the respective tournament, due to the  slave labor like conditions of its migrant workers. And for the record companies such as Apple, Nike, Target, Starbucks, WalMart and Levis, companies I support with my money, all have business practices that are comparable to or worse than the NFL.In a capitalistic society, as pastor Erik Raymond has pointed out, it is impossible to boycott every company or organization that has some seemingly unethical practices.   I also share concerns with the NCAA and would love to see a way that it functions is changed, but as of now that is definitely not enough to watch college football, and in order to be consistent you would have to give up college basketball as well. Overall I believe college athletics provide many great opportunities for many athletes, and while there are issues, the good far outweighs the bad.

Another concern is broke former NFL players. While this is a concern and I believe that the NFL should do more to encourage its players to be financially responsible, this is a problem across all professional sports.

It is now time to point out the positives of football that must not be ignored when examining whether Christians should support football. While many of these can apply to all sports, they certainly apply to football. In a culture that is increasingly sexualized, I believe sports are by far the aspect of pop culture that is the least sexualized. There certainly are elements that are, but music, movies, and television are for more sexualized. Sports are the purest form of common grace culture that Christians can engage in with non Christians. Sports also provide a far greater sense of comrade than any other sort of entertainment, and I think football in general does so the most. While basketball and baseball do offer the same type of fan interaction, in America football as the most popular sport and does so on all levels – high school, college, and professional – far more than they any other sport. Football has brought people together across racial lines. Perhaps my favorite story about Marin Luther King involves football. After being denied visit to King in jail, a man attempting to visit King noticed a Georgia football mug on the desk of the man who refused him entrance. It turned out that they were both Georgia football fans, and after discussing Georgia football for a while, the man was let in. Sports provide an excellent outlet for middle school and high school kids. Football is still by far the most participated in of all high school sports with one million high schoolers playing annually. It by far has the largest roster of any sport allowing the greatest number of people to participate..Taking away football will likely result in many kids participating in things far more dangerous than football.

When I look back at my childhood some of the fondest memories I have are watching football with my dad and my Granddad, whether that was on TV or at a Virginia Tech game. I can still remember sitting on my grandmas screened in porch watching  the 2002 BCS championship where Ohio State beat Miami in double overtime on a TV not much bigger than my computer screen.  Watching Virginia Tech beat undefeated and #2 ranked Miami at night in Lane Stadium  was an amazing experience.

My last reason for supporting football is that the sport was in the same place in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt outlawed the sport after 18 players died that season. Rules were changed and safety was improved and football never turned back. Various other safety measures have been taken along the way. Researchers are continuing to look for ways to make football safer including rules changes and safer helmets. Perhaps switching to only Rugby style wrap tackles would help protect cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers, the three groups of players who experience the most concussions, by eliminating the use of their heads as a weapon. These tackling techniques are already being implemented by the University of Washington and the Seattle Seahawks.   There are millions of dollars of research being done studying the safety of the sport.A Seattle based start up VICIS is working on a helmet that they believe would reduce the chance of concussions. The company is working with former players such as Jerry Rice, Roger Staubach, and Tony Dorsett, who himself is experiencing CTE like symptoms.  Their helmets will be tested by the University of Washington football team this fall. There is also research being done on collars that increases  the volume of blood in the brain thereby reducing the brain’s ability to move around within the skull.  Research is also being done on magnetic helmets that would reduce the impact of helmet to helmet contact. There are also unconventional organizations such as one created by Joe Namath that are doininnovative work with oxygen chambers.. Continuing to enforce targeting penalties and increasing the severity of commuting one along with changing other rules in order to reduce the use of the head as a weapon should help.

I have not seen any Christian who is a current or ex football player or coach say that football is unethical or that it is time to give the sport up.Christian and New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson, who I have the utmost respect for told Fox Business Network that the NFL is improving on dealing with head injuries and that while he will not pressure his sons to play football, he will allow them to. I would love to see players Justin Forsett, Matt Hassleback, and Kirk Cousins, and coaches Dabo Swinne and Tony Dungey comment on this issue as well. I would also be interested to hear from pastor Derwin Gray, former BYU player (for the record, he is not  Mormon!) or pastor Leonce Crump, who won a National Championship with the Oklahoma Stoners in 2000.

While this could change in the future,  for now I will be continuing to watch football and spending many hours on Saturdays both watching football on my television and at The Horseshoe.

Go Bucks!



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