I love sports. And when it comes to football, I suppose I should admit up front that I’m a Patriots fan. So bitter though I am, I will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday as I always do, because I love football. I love the spectacle. I love the uncertainty. I love the strategy. I love the story lines. It’s enjoyable.
I hadn’t always known why I love football. It was just engrained in me I guess. Growing up in Massachusetts, you simply were a Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins fan. No questions asked. No philosophical inquiry. It was part of your identity. And with a fervent fan as a father, the fandom was only that much more a part of my childhood.
So it was with that sort of innocent, pure, unreflective love of sport that I read this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story.
The cover, dripping with baptismal imagery, features Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis half-submersed in water with his hands clenched in prayer below the words “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?”
I flipped forward and got to the story, titled “In The Fields of the Lord” by Mark Oppenheimer, itself not actually about what the editors suggested on the cover.
Three thousand and five hundred words later, I didn’t quite know why I was some strange combination of angry and depressed, but I was.
The piece was ostensibly about the dominant Christian culture in sports. The author interviewed players and dealt extensively with organizations that minister to athletes and provide pastors and priests as chaplains to professional teams.
“But what if, instead of bringing a Christian culture to sports, these evangelists allowed the coarseness, idolatry and materialism of sports to infect players’ faith?” the author wonders aloud toward the beginning of the piece. “Church and pro football both revolve around Sunday, and 50 years into our national experiment of mixing the two, it is not clear that faith has won the day. In fact, some Christian athletes and coaches are starting to recognize that football, at least as it is currently played, may be bad for one’s soul.”
Can’t be, I thought. Doesn’t seem possible. I mean, sure — there are all kinds of idolatry and sex in the product that is professional football that ought not be there, but surely football itself is not bad for my soul? This accusation against the sport seems to be aimed at its “accidents” or incidentals and not its essence or substance.
Quoting an anonymous former athlete and chaplain from a Division I university, the author gives the reader one option as to how football could change: “’Football needs to go to flag football, where you don’t hurt someone…. With helmets, you can’t see [the opponents’] eyes; there’s no soul-to-soul contact. So you keep them anonymous, and it helps inflict pain on people.’”
And what about us fans? “Here’s the catch,” the author, “Jesus’ message is not exactly neutral toward winners and losers. The Bible is clear that he preferred the loser. The Bible is filled with passages that extol the weak over the strong and the poor at the expense of the rich.”
Was I being un-Christian by rooting for my team? Should I have elevated and praised Wes Welker when he dropped that pass in Super Bowl XLVI, instead of being frustrated, because, after all, Christ “is not exactly neutral toward winners and losers”?
The article had my mind running in a thousand different directions. Surely this article was wrong, but why? Surely football was not tarnishing the state of my soul, but how to prove it?
So I set out to find the answers that I inherently understood, but couldn’t quite articulate.
First of all, it’s worth noting that Oppenheimer is not all wrong. There are areas in which he is obviously and irrefutably correct.
As I mentioned already, the idol worship, the material obsession, the exploitation of sex – all of these are dents on football’s helmet. As Christians, we cannot kid ourselves into justifying these things harmless to our souls.
For the athletes as well, these facets of the product, the scandal of the would-be Bounty Gate, and the culture of steroids all pose serious problems that ought to concern us.
As Pope John Paul II said in his address to the Italian Sports Centre in 2004:
In our time, organized sport sometimes seems conditioned by the logic of profit, of the spectacular, of doping, exasperated rivalry and episodes of violence. It is also your task to proclaim and to witness to the humanizing power of the Gospel with regard to the practise of sport, which if lived in accordance with the Christian outlook, becomes a "generative principle" of profound human relations and encourages the building of a more serene and supportive world.
And, as the Catechism warns in Section 2289:
If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships.
But this is not the full story.
We must be careful not to confuse a preferential option for the poor with a preferential option for sloth, laziness, and intentional underachievement. In this, and in many other ways, Oppenheimer’s understanding of Christianity, and perhaps even of sports in general, clearly does not match much of Christianity’s view throughout the ages.
Our Christianity calls us toward excellence. It calls us to holiness. It calls us to self-sacrifice and self-mastery. It calls us to “Be perfect…as [our] heavenly Father is perfect.”
Excellence is a good. Victory, won cleanly and honorably for a good cause, is an indication of excellence and is itself a good.
And in football, part of reaching excellence and achieving victory is becoming a prime physical specimen.
Like the Catechism says, we cannot sacrifice everything else for the “cult of the body,” but there is nothing wrong with extolling physical excellence and striving for victory on the football field.
Just because we celebrate winners in sports, just because we want players on our team to be at their prime and defeat their opponents, does not mean that we marginalize or undervalue the weak or the physically challenged in life.
We are not social Darwinists. Life need not imitate all aspects of football.
Just because we want athletes to be strong, that doesn’t mean we need to marginalize or undervalue the weak in life.
Although I want Vince Wilfork to be 6’2’’, 325lbs. and run people over on the line, that doesn’t mean that I think Grandma is useless and has no value. Grandma is not a Pro-Bowl defenseman.
We are all called to excellence, but not all the same excellences.
I also want my college professors to be exceedingly brilliant. That doesn’t mean I discriminate against the less-intellectually gifted and somehow want them to be marginalized in society.
And what about violence?
If there was – and this remains to be seen – any grain of truth to the New Orleans’ Saints bounty program in which players were allegedly rewarded financially for injuring opponents, then yes, of course that’s bad. Awful in fact. And while it looks like this did not happen with the Saints, surely it’s happened before in the history of football.
Players and fans should not want to see their opponents physically injured. That’s not the point of the game. One team does not need to be incapacitated in order for the other to emerge victorious.
Merriam Webster defines violence as an “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse.”
That’s not what the overwhelming majority of hits in football are about.
Football, like hockey and basketball, is a contact sport. Contact is defined as a “union or junction of surfaces.”
I struggle to find anything un-Christian about contact per se. Violence itself isn’t even necessarily un-Christian unless it has malicious intent.
And the Magnificent
But “You’re wrong” is not a sufficient defense for why sports matter and why sports can and should not only be acceptable objects for Christian attention but worthy and even necessary objects for Christians.
Many argue that sports are beneficial as a diversion, a moment of frivolity in our chaotic lives that allows some joy and some time to recharge our batteries.
And, of course, we should not let mere entertainment get in the way of the finer things in life. Oppenheimer seems to make this point when he notes that: “Tickets for Sunday's Super Bowl are fetching well over $2,000 on StubHub. How would Jesus spend that kind of money?”
But what if sports are one of the fine things in life?
What if they’re not just diversions?
In a lovely essay called “On the Seriousness of Sports,” Father James Schall argues that:
…the closest the average man ever gets to contemplation in the Greek sense is watching a good, significant sporting event….by this, I do not [argue or imply], as many do, that sports are a form of idolatry, that the game or the players are some form of divinities, even though the origin of games was often clearly related to worship. Perhaps the closes we get to the sense of what this might have meant is when at the East-West Shrine Game, eighty thousand fans stand silently at Stanford Stadium while the flag is being raised or the “Star Spangled Banner” is played….I take it as a simple fact of experience that the attraction of the game to so many ordinary people, in so many cultures, over so long a period of time reveals something extraordinarily important about us.
“As youngsters,” he continues, “I think, we get our first inklings of justice after our encounters with our own brothers and sisters, playing ball, getting angry that little Jimmy Smith with the new glove for his birthday really did not catch that ball on the fly, but scooped it up and lied about it.”
Sports teach us about the importance of rules, the meaning of justice, the challenge of teamwork and the beauty of human relationships, the necessity of self-sacrifice for greatness, a feeling – however impoverished – of joy, and so much more.
Pope Benedict XVI put it ever so eloquently in his address to the Italian Olympic athletes this summer:
You competed in the field of athletics and of technical skill — but eventually — in the area of human qualities, displaying your gifts and talents, acquired with great commitment, rigorous preparation, consistent training and the awareness of your own limits. Far from the spotlight, you followed a strict regimen and several of you saw your merit recognized: I believe that you won 28 medals at London, and eight of them gold! However, you athletes are not only required to compete and win. Every sporting activity, whether amateur or professional, requires integrity in competition, respect for one’s body, a sense of solidarity and unselfishness, and then joy, pleasure and celebration. All this presupposes a path of authentic human maturation, made up of self-denial, tenacity, patience and — above all — humility, which receives no applause but is the secret of victory.
“Sports, in fact,” he continued, “are an instructive and cultural good, able to reveal man to himself and bring him closer to understanding his life’s profound worth…. The Church is interested in sports because she has man — the whole man — at heart, and she realizes that games effect education, on the formation of the person, on relationships and on spirituality.”
Can sports become too much? Can they take up too much time, pay obscene salaries, involve too much sex, too much materialism, and too much violence? Like many other things in life, yes they can. And in modern times they often do.
But (1) just because athletes are often rich doesn’t mean they can’t be charitable, (2) cheerleaders are a non-essential piece of the football puzzle, and (3) this is not MMA or the WWE.
There is some bad in football, but there is also so much good, as described by Schall and the Holy Father. And – and this is critical – the bad is largely incidental and unnecessary while the good is the very core of the sport itself.
A “Precious” Opportunity
There was another bit about the Sports Illustrated story that had me scratching my head.
The author introduces Shirl James Hoffman of the American Kinesiology Association who “wants Christians to reclaim their heritage as sports skeptics.”
And, with a somewhat nostalgic tone, the author reflects on the culture 50 years ago, when this coming of football and Christianity (the Tim Tebows, the prayer circles, the team chaplains) would’ve seemed “absurd.”
“Christianity was peaceful, charitable, and pious,” he says. “Sport was bloody, ruthless, impious.”
The implication seems to be that sports are still this way today.
Also, earlier on I quoted from a section of the article in which, speaking of organizations that seek to minister to athletes and provide pastors and priests to professional teams, the author wonders: “But what if, instead of bringing a Christian culture to sports, these evangelists allowed the coarseness, idolatry and materialism of sports to infect players’ faith?”
But this is unconvincing.
Surely, Christianity authentically practiced and taught would not allow for idolatry and materialism.
It’s a message that these athletes, perhaps more than most, need to hear.
Yes, it is true that minus some serious and unlikely reform, the stars will continue to receive massive salaries and endorsement deals and be loved and idolized by adoring fans, but what if they use their wealth and their influence for good?
Football is quickly becoming our nation’s past time and is arguably the dominant force in American television and culture.
Think of the witness power of a Christian athlete.
We’ve seen it time and again. Tim Tebow, Kurt Warner, even Vince Lombardi. And it’s not just football. Think of Mike Sweeney, Mike Piazza, Jeff Suppan, and so many more.
Are these men perfect? Surely not. But can they be uplifting and inspiring? Absolutely.
The Holy Father made this very point to the Italian Olympians:
Therefore I am thinking of you, dear athletes, as champion-witnesses, with a mission to accomplish: may you be good models to imitate for all who admire you. Yet, you too, dear directors, coaches and trainers — the various workers in sports — are called to be witnesses to a good humanity, co-workers with families and formative institutions for the education of the young, teachers of a sports routine that should be ever loyal and transparent … Then thinking about the commitment to the New Evangelization, the world of sports can also be considered a modern “courtyard of the Gentiles”, that is, a precious opportunity for meeting that is open to all, believers and non-believers alike, where there is the experience of joy and also the effort to converse with people of a different culture, language and religious affiliation.
Just because it will be difficult doesn’t mean it should not be tried.
Is football a tremendous opportunity for scandal? Yes. But, as the Pope says, sports also present a “precious opportunity” for the New Evangelization.
The State of Football’s Soul
Obviously some change needs to occur, but sports are valuable and meaningful things. And, as the most popular sport in our nation, football has that much more value and meaning in the American ethos.
While there is bad in modern sports as they’re currently practiced, there is also much good, and we should be working to make football ever-better and ever-more Christian. But we should also enjoy football for all the things it teaches us about ourselves, our culture, and even God.
We should be cautious, but we need not feel guilty.
God may or may not care who wins the Super Bowl (that’s a discussion for another time), but we certainly do – and that is okay.
So, how about it? Are you ready for some football?
~ Matt St. John