WHAT’S WRONG WITH AMERICA’S “GREATEST GAME”
Is Football Past Its Prime?

December 2017By Casey Chalk

Casey Chalk is a graduate student in theology at Christendom College and an editor of the ecumenical website Called to Communion (www.calledtocommunion.com).

I love football. I always have and always will. The romance began early — very early, if one were to believe my father, who claims my first word was “Redskin.” I remember the jubilation that filled our house when the Skins won Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams, the first African-American quarterback to play in a Super Bowl, led a team of replacements to a 42-10 victory over the Denver Broncos. By the time of the epic Redskins season that ended with a Super Bowl XXVI victory against the Buffalo Bills, I was eight years old, and I was all in. I vividly remember the first game of that season, my father and I fishing on the Potomac River, listening to the radio as the Redskins shut out the Detroit Lions 45-0. We were at RFK Stadium for Week 11, a 56-17 slamming of the Atlanta Falcons. My favorite Christmas gift that season was a #11 Mark Rypien uniform (another Super Bowl-winning Redskins QB), helmet and all. I wore that thing into the ground, quite literally, until it was irreparably green all over with grass stains.

Despite my appreciation for football — especially for my burgundy and gold — I have, over the years, come to feel ambivalent about the game, and that ambivalence is increasingly giving way to skepticism and disfavor. This disinclination for football has, in many respects, run concomitantly with my growth as a Christian, and now as a Catholic. Indeed, in many respects, my unease has been informed by beliefs that flowered out of my deepening relationship with Christ, and now with His Church. My father liked to say that the Redskins, who have yet to return to the greatness of that 1991 season, had broken his heart more than any woman ever could. I suppose I would say that my romance with football has been just as tumultuous.

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“Human personhood must be respected with a reverence that is religious. When we deal with each other, we should do so with the sense of awe that arises in the presence of something holy and sacred. For that is what human beings are: we are created in the image of God.” — U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All” (no. 28)

When I was a high-school freshman, one of the activities in the first few weeks of P.E. was flag football. My P.E. teacher was one of the coaches of the JV football team. He watched with interest as I outran and out-caught several of his players. He suggested I try out for the JV team as a cornerback. I talked to my father about it — surely such a huge football fan would be pleased. Yet my father was adamant: “Don’t play football. You’ll get injuries you’ll never recover from. You’re too small to ever make it beyond the bench of the varsity team, and you’ll have wasted your athleticism.” He reminded me of multiple members of our extended family who had played high-school football and suffered lifelong injuries. I listened to my father and played other sports.

Even when I was a kid, I knew that the risk of serious injury inherent in football separated it from other sports. Quarterback Joe Theismann’s 1985 career-ending injury at the hands of Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor is the stuff of legend among us Redskins fans. If only that were the worst of it.

Some will be familiar with the story of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who, in 2012, killed his girlfriend and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium, where he committed suicide in front of the Chiefs general manager and head coach. America soon learned that the 25-year-old Belcher had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease directly related to the heavy hits, both concussive and subconcussive, he received playing football over the years.

Belcher was only the first big name. Perennial All-Pro San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, another CTE victim, killed himself the same year. A couple years prior to his suicide, Seau’s behavior had become increasingly erratic. He was given to drinking and gambling and frittered away most of the $50 million he had earned during his playing career. He was arrested on domestic-violence charges and drove his car off a cliff. He was 43 years old when he took his own life.

These suicides coincided with growing interest in the research of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist whose story was dramatized in the movie Concussion (2015), and Boston University neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, who discovered epidemic levels of CTE among deceased football players. These players typically experienced forgetfulness, depression, anxiety, aggression, and, eventually, progressive dementia. Many of them committed suicide. McKee and her colleagues examined the brains of 202 deceased former football players at both the professional and amateur levels and found — astonishingly — that nearly 88 percent exhibited signs of CTE.

It has become increasingly clear that football, at least the way it is currently played, is very, very bad for your health. If any other activity — one not so popular or lucrative — resulted in this kind of physical and mental damage, we would probably agree quite readily that it does not affirm the dignity of the human person, “imprinted with God’s image,” to quote Pope St. John Paul II (Centesimus Annus). It is a dispensable recreational activity, one that diminishes the intrinsic worth of its participants, whose bodies, brains, and even lives are considered expendable.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., in an article earlier this year at TheCatholicThing.org, seemed to dismiss the growing medical evidence that there are grave health risks involved in playing football. “The prospect of a risk-free sport or a risk-free life is not always a happy one,” he argues. “The only way not to be injured in some way is not to do anything, and that may not work either” (Aug. 29). True, but we are not talking about merely trying to avoid “risks” or “injuries.” Players get injured all the time in other sports — baseball, basketball, tennis, you name it. Yet rarely are the injuries of such a nature that they cause serious brain damage that can lead ultimately to madness and suicide. Football is unequivocally in a league of its own.

Rachel Lu, a Catholic philosopher writing at TheFederalist.com, also seems to downplay CTE and its effects, calling it a “degenerative brain disease that could blight [football players’] later years” (Aug. 7). If only! Research has proven that CTE is not a malady akin to some old knee injury that gets progressively worse with age. It is a disease that has killed young men, even high schoolers, in the prime of their lives, and just from playing football. A sport that causes such deleterious physical, emotional, and mental effects — sometimes beginning in adolescence — is incommensurate with the Catholic conception of man as made in the image of God.

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“On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are to refrain from engaging in work or activities that hinder the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body…. Sunday is traditionally consecrated by Christian piety to good works and humble service of the sick, the infirm, and the elderly. Christians will also sanctify Sunday by devoting time and care to their families and relatives, often difficult to do on other days of the week. Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2185-2186)

For several years, I attended a Presbyterian (PCA) congregation whose pastor was an avid football fan. He was a big guy who had played lineman at Wake Forest University. He adored the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he refused to watch them on Sundays due to his religious commitments, both as the leader of a congregation and a Christian determined to honor the Sabbath. His personal sacrifice spoke to me as a young Christian.

There was a time — at least I’m told — when football existed peaceably alongside Americans’ Sunday religious observances. Watching football was a leisure activity for the afternoon and evening. Oh, how times have changed! There is a scene in Concussion in which a doctor declares, “The NFL owns a day of the week, the same day the Church used to own. Now, it’s theirs.” Many Americans now spend most of their waking hours on Sundays watching pregame shows, flipping between games, and indulging in postgame analysis.

Professional football has surpassed baseball as our nation’s pre-eminent spectator sport. Its growth over the past 30 years is one of the notable changes in American culture. In addition to three separate time slots on Sundays (early games, afternoon games, and a primetime night game), the NFL now schedules games every Monday and Thursday night throughout the season (and on Saturdays during the playoffs). Super Bowl Sunday is the closest thing we have to an unofficial national holiday. The league also owns its own cable TV channel, The NFL Network, which broadcasts football-related content 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Like the NFL on Sundays, college football dominates the airwaves on Saturdays. A fan can now “consume” college football from the early morning until late at night. And for those who just can’t get enough, there’s local high-school football on Friday nights.

Yet Rachel Lu, in her defense of football, derides another writer for accusing Americans of being “obsessed” with the sport and spending “considerable portions of their lives glued to TV sets.” Lu, alluding to a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt, calls this author a “mollycoddle.” But Lu’s sparring partner has a good point: A 2011 survey found that 40 percent of Americans watch at least six hours of football a week, if not much more. We should add to that number the hours spent playing “fantasy football,” which has captured the fancy of more than 30 million Americans. The average fantasy-football participant spends eight hours a week and more than $200 a season forming leagues, building teams, drafting players, tracking stats, and projecting next week’s lineup. What percentage of Americans spends that much time in church, reading the Bible, performing works of mercy, or praying?

During football season, I inevitably witness scores of my coworkers on casual Fridays sporting the jerseys of their favorite players. Fans invest quite a bit in football paraphernalia, even displaying their team’s flags on their vehicles. Can we imagine adherents of various faith traditions proudly sporting their denomination’s symbols in public?

For many, football is religion, and sports teams the gods. Football is now the dominant social-identity marker in the lives of ordinary Americans. Some of the paraphernalia — like the Steelers’ “Terrible Towel” — even seems to be a new form of religious icon or relic. Professional football stadiums are, meanwhile, the new cathedrals of our cities, often the most memorable landmarks in urban landscapes. Municipalities and their taxpayers cough up hundreds of millions of dollars to afford these monstrosities, many named after corporate American monoliths: FedEx Field, AT&T Stadium, Gillette Stadium, etc.

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“We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading…. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” — Evangelii Gaudium (no. 53)

“Whatever insults human dignity…where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury.” — Gaudium et Spes (no. 27)

American football, at all levels — high school, college, and professional — generates significant and progressively more income. Professionals, at least, reap the harvest. This August, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford signed a five-year contract worth $135 million, making him the highest-paid player in the history of the game. (NFL contracts, however, are generally lower in value and shorter in duration than those of MLB and the NBA.) Apart from the salaries of professionals, one could argue that football serves other important economic and social sectors. Many young men, including a significant percentage from lower-income brackets, earn a bachelor’s degree while playing collegiate football. Moreover, as Lu observes, “ordinary boys, especially from hard-luck backgrounds, [find] a lifeline to order and discipline in their football team…. The experience of playing football teaches kids about work, discipline, and being part of a team.”

Yet one of the biggest scandals in sports is the fact that college athletes are not paid and are routinely punished whenever they earn income that is related to their NCAA affiliation. This despite the fact that typical Division I athletes devote more than 40 hours a week to their sport, which forces them to miss class time, often significant amounts. Given such circumstances, it is difficult for student athletes to earn a degree in a competitive field, especially if their upbringing has poorly prepared them for university course loads. The offense is more egregious where college football players are concerned because they generate greater wealth for their schools than other collegiate athletes while assuming far more personal risk.

Forbes has noted that the NCAA earns about $11 billion in annual revenue from college sports — most of it coming, of course, from football. This is more than the estimated total league revenues of either the NBA or NHL. The University of Texas, which has by far the most profitable Division I football program in the nation, drew in over $121 million in revenue in 2014-2015, while retaining over $91 million in profit. Yet only a relatively small percentage of this money goes to players, indirectly, through scholarships and other education-related benefits. Meanwhile, the average salary of a Bowl Championship Series-eligible football coach is more than $2 million a year. The reality is that college football benefits a select group of individuals, while the sacrifices of many others — sacrifices of their bodies, their time, and sometimes even their lives — go largely disregarded. The solution isn’t necessarily to pay college football players salaries commensurate with the revenue they attract. The point is that there remains a significant imbalance between what athletes give (and risk) and the compensation they receive.

The objectification of these players is also evident in the NFL. Consider the fantasy-sports craze noted above, in which fans imagine they “own” professional players and focus their attention less on the beauties of the sport or allegiance to their favorite team than on the individual success (or failure) of “their” players. To add insult to injury, the owners of these make-believe teams quickly discard those players whose performances don’t measure up, whom they regard as “trash” and “washed up.”

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What about the argument that football plays an important role in the maturation of American males, keeping them off the streets and involved in a productive, virtue-building activity? Organized sports are hailed for teaching the values of perseverance, discipline, teamwork, grace in defeat, and humility in victory. Lu believes that football is uniquely suited to this because the team sizes are naturally large and so many players can therefore be involved. “Even basketball has less potential in this regard,” she argues, “because the teams are so much smaller.” A simple evaluation of the numbers at the collegiate level — since this is where athletic prowess is most saliently united to academic and professional opportunities — validates Lu’s assessment, but with some important caveats.

There are currently 129 Division I football teams, each with 100 or more players, meaning that there are around 12,900 young men playing college football (though a smaller number, 85 per team, are permitted to benefit from a scholarship). There are 347 Division I basketball teams, each with about 15 players, for an estimated total of 5,200 players. That is a big difference. Yet Lu is comparing one popular American sport with another single sport — and one of the smallest, at that.

The NCAA supports 23 different sports programs in Divisions I, II, and III, including baseball, soccer, and track-and-field, the latter teams of which usually number between 30 to 40 players. Many of these teams could certainly absorb talented athletes fleeing football for activities less dangerous to their well-being and livelihood, especially if there were broad public support for those sports and larger team sizes. There’s no doubt that this would require a significant, unprecedented societal shift away from America’s unspoken addiction. Yet it would not be the first time in our nation’s history in which a groundswell of public opinion recognized a grave injustice and pressed for action to remedy it. There are currently 95 colleges that compete at the Division I level — many with prolific athletic programs — that have no football team. If those programs can succeed, offering athletic scholarships to young men and women who don’t play football, it means other schools can too. The University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, for example, dropped football in 1995 but still funds 18 sports at the Division I level.

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Many defend football on the grounds of tradition. Is it not a uniquely American sport? Does not football at all levels have a glorious legacy, evoking memories of all kinds of shared experiences? Even within American cultural Catholicism, love of football runs deep: Notre Dame has one of the richest histories of any college football program, dating back to the days of Knute Rockne and the “Four Horsemen.” Surely, we shouldn’t abandon such a wonderful American heritage!

Indeed, this is one of the qualities of football that drew me in as a young boy — stories of glory on the gridiron from yesteryear. The game has always been beautiful and inspiring. Think of the incredible combination of speed and power of Jim Brown running off left tackle, the sheer poetry in motion of Odell Beckham Jr. leaping to make a one-handed touchdown reception, or brilliant strategists from Vince Lombardi to Bill Belichick. Who didn’t love hearing Howard Cosell wax eloquent during some of the greatest Monday Night Football games of the 1970s, or John Madden’s enthusiastic “booms!” and “whaps!” of more recent vintage?

Yet football is not America’s only great sport tradition. Baseball is older, possesses far deeper American traditions, and has weathered multiple serious crises: the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, the steroids era of the 2000s, and various labor stoppages, to name just a few. Basketball was invented in America in 1891, fewer than 30 years after football. Lacrosse, which is growing in popularity, is the original American sport, with archaeological evidence that American Indians played some form of the game as early as 1100. Surely, these and others could preserve the great traditions of American athletic excellence.

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I don’t detest football or wish it would die. As explained above, I love the game. But football has metastasized into something like a malignant tumor in American culture. It is wreaking terrible physical and emotional damage on players, an inevitable result of a sharp increase in their size and strength at all levels. And it has usurped the devotion we fans once reserved for religion. Millions of Americans have abandoned consecrated spaces for domed basilicas, traded pews for living-room sofas, as spectacle has replaced liturgy as the rite of Sundays.

More than anything, I wish to see the game evolve into something better, becoming, to paraphrase Catholic apologist Matthew Kelly, a better version of itself. It can once again join the ranks of those sports that allow for healthy competition, enable growth in virtue, and serve as a welcome outlet for masculine energies. Football needs, in a sense, a Reformation. Otherwise, it’s just one more aspect of American life that has degenerated into an idol, one in which we should be wary of showing even cautionary interest. Until the NFL, NCAA, and the other powers that be make overdue changes to the game, that will be the extent of my engagement with football. Hail to the Redskins? For now, I’ll have to bail.



DOSSIER: America





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