Church will be canceled Sunday night because we all of have something more important to do: watch the Super Bowl. That will be especially true here in Charlotte, in the heart of Panthers Nation. We will don black and blue and sit in front of the glowing altars in our living rooms and worship the men wearing those colors.
The game between the Panthers and Denver Broncos will be the biggest event all year, judging by TV ratings history. The outcome, and whatever leads up to it, will consume us all day and into the next. We will talk of little else for days.
Of course, football dominates conversations year-round, no matter what else is happening. Only a few weeks ago, on the third Sunday in January, churches celebrated life. We called it “Sanctity of Human Life Sunday.” We challenged people to see that being pro-life is more than caring for the unborn. Being pro-life is a worldview. It means valuing the dignity of the image of God in man, woman and child. It means valuing life in its fullness for others. We preached it. We affirmed it. We prayed it.
And then we all left so we wouldn’t miss kickoff.
On that Sanctity of Life Sunday I began to wonder, what happens if our understanding of the sanctity of life gets in the way of our football?
Football and the Human Body?
Often, reason gets cast aside for our loves and desires. At the moment of kickoff, we tend to suspend, or willfully forget, our understanding of the dignity of human life. This is convenient for us, because we need to forget that the NFL admitted in Federal Court documents in 2014 that one in three of those players on that field would retire and develop some type of brain injury. The lasting physical effects of playing football are indisputable, even for players who never go pro.
The science behind this issue is not new. The boxing world has known since 1928 that repeated blows to the head were dangerous. And yet, the NFL’s position for years was that repeated blows to the head were not dangerous. However, the issue is not just concussive hits, it’s also sub-concussive hits. And it is worth noting that this year, concussions in NFL games have risen 58 percent with an increase in helmet-to-helmet hits.
Due to the work of McKee at Boston University and Bennet Omalu (subject of the recently released movie Concussion), we are learning about more and more athletes diagnosed with CTE—Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition marked by “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia.” The downside is that right now it can only be diagnosed posthumously. This means a player has to play a sport that causes brain injury, and then he has to die from that brain injury, in order for us to study the disease.
At church that Sunday, we joked about God taking an interest in the games on that day, after talking about the interest He takes in the weak, the disabled, the poor, the beaten, the outcast. Does He take an interest in the game? Of course, but perhaps not for the team-based ways we tend to think.
Football and the Christian Conscience
Obviously, the comparison between pro-life and pro-football is going to get pushback. It will get pushback because football can be an idol in our country. And this idol is powerful for Christians and non-Christians alike.
But Christians should know better.
I have been attempting to have these conversations within Christian circles for weeks now. In my 11 years of ministry, no other topic has brought more mockery and frivolous joking. I think people joke about it because deep down, they feel the violence of the game presents problems, and rather than deal with those problems, they turn to humor.
And so there I sat, on Sanctity of Life Sunday, wondering how we can say we honor life and yet cheer for a game that destroys it in men.
Where is the Christian voice in all this discussion? That voice can be heard crying out against a bad call, that their home team got robbed, that we’ll get them next year. We really need to ask ourselves: Can we enjoy the big game, even if it means in 30 years these players won’t be able to remember the plays that brought us so much joy?
is a writer who lives in Davidson, North Carolina.