A recent slew of football deaths have shaken many who follow the game. Research is increasingly suggesting that there may well be definable links between the blunt trauma of football and the early deaths of players. This body of evidence raises weighty questions on a seemingly quotidian matter. Should we support football? Evidence increasingly suggests that the violence of the modern game tests the limits of the biblically informed conscience.
Cases like that of Nathan Stiles (reported by ESPN’s Outside the Lines series) drive such discussion. An A student, beloved by his church congregation, Nathan eluded tacklers like an avatar in a video game. In his final football game in September 2010, he covered the last thirty yards alone, leaving his would-be tacklers behind, a hero to his team and Kansas town. That night, he lay in a hospital bed, lost to the world. By the next morning, he had passed away, the homecoming king dead from a bleeding brain.
Should we play football? This question should not be as weighty as it may sound. Football is a game. Yet the sport, as sports will do, has cast a spell on many. Over 1 million secondary students and 3 million youth play football. At the university level, schools pour money into football programs, with some coaches earning salaries topping four million dollars. The 2010 Super Bowl was watched by 106 million people, the highest viewing audience recorded in this country.
What’s wrong with all this? Football, after all, has many—and manly—benefits. As Teddy Roosevelt argued a century ago, it breeds toughness and courage. It builds a team spirit, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater good: the welfare of the team. It is great fun to play. On a societal level, there are few mass engagements today that do as much to unite diverse folks in common cause. On a spiritual level, it can afford opportunities for meaningful connection and witness.
Stories questioning the safety of football have appeared in such leading publications as the New York Times (with Alan Schwarz covering the issue in depth), NPR, GQ, and The Atlantic, though the issue has struggled to penetrate the broader national consciousness. When one takes a moment to confront the issue and examine the data, one quickly sees that the problem is far more serious than many think.
One memorable study by the University of North Carolina and reported by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker traced the impact of helmet-to-helmet collisions in one practice on a lineman. The researchers found over the course of two practices this player suffered from a 63-g hit, a 64-g hit, an 80-g hit, and a 98-g hit. To simulate a 98-g hit, one could drive one’s car into a concrete wall going twenty-five miles per hour. The force felt by hitting the windshield without protection is akin to the impact of this hit.
Even with today’s enhanced helmets and careful staff monitoring, it seems that full-contact football exacts a brutal cost, one that boils down most ominously to an acronym: CTE. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the disease caused by repeated collision between brain and skull. We can’t see it, obviously, but doctors identify it when they spot an excess of gray matter in a certain area of the brain. Once CTE was most commonly seen in soldiers; now doctors are regularly spotting it in the brains of deceased athletes. When the brain is abused over and over again, it sometimes ceases to function well—and in some cases, ceases to function.
The stories that fit this mold are startling. Owen Thomas, the much-loved captain of University of Pennsylvania’s football team, suffered from CTE and hanged himself in April 2010. Brian Colvin, a high-school player from South Carolina, died walking back to the huddle after a routine play in 2010. Douglas Morales of New Jersey died in 2008 from bleeding in the brain suffered from football contact. In May 2010, Dylan Steigers passed away during a scrimmage at Eastern Oregon University from the same fate—bleeding in the brain. Spencer Juarez of Hollywood, just thirteen years old, passed away in 2009 from “massive cerebral edema due to blunt head trauma” according to the L.A. Times. Former Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters, was a father of three and a popular coach who battled depression and finally killed himself at age forty-three in 2006. Researchers have found evidence of CTE in his brain. These names are just a few of the more than 50 players that have died football-related deaths since 1997. The same trail of bodies is surely not found in track, golf, or tennis.
Football injures many more than it kills. The number of reported concussions suffered in football each year is estimated at 100,000, a number that experts suspect is considerably lower than the number of actual concussions. This is to say nothing of injuries to other parts of the body which have left many relatively young former players with ailments common among people two to three decades older. The glory of the game is great, but so is the toll.
Many of us believe that a just life in this world may mean that we pay a price for worthy causes. But is this cause worthy? While acknowledging that we cannot safety-proof the lives of our children and that no one can resist the pull of Providence, we must question a sport which on a regular basis calls its players to pay the ultimate cost for their participation. Young boys walk onto a field full of dreams and drop dead an hour later, shedding this life like they once shed tacklers.
Americans love toughness. We applaud the ones who get hit and get back up. As we watch from home or stadium, a wide receiver catches a pass over the middle and gets hit so hard his head nearly touches his back. When he returns to his feet, shaken and off-kilter, the crowd cheers and normalcy resumes.
Perhaps we are being blindsided as well. Our love for the game and respect for its players may well prevent us from recognizing the realities of football and other high-contact sports. While we would not wish to indict the uninformed and slander the well-intentioned, we must ask ourselves if we need a new ethical normal, one that takes honest stock of the physical cost of football.
Life is hard, and physical exertion is a part of recreation and play, but surely there are limits to our toleration of violence that is not absolutely necessary. We would not allow our children to bruise one another with two-by-fours until they fall, bleeding, to the ground. While recognizing that not every child suffers the gravest consequences of contact sports, we ought to question why we allow football to damage and even kill our children or dismiss the question because they’re not our children.
No one enjoys legalism, but if the costs of football outweigh its benefits—and they well may—it may be best for many to take a step back from it and point youths to concentrate on less violent sports. Perhaps we should go so far as to consider legislation regarding the physical safety of football players on such matters as concussions. Ideas will vary as to what such a measure might look like. However, such a tangible measure, borne of respect for human dignity and concern for the public good, would help greatly in stimulating the American conscience on a matter that presently struggles to hold its attention.
Such action has a strong theoretical foundation. In a very different situation, our Lord urged Peter to resist needless violence (John 18:11). Christians have continued this tradition throughout history and have applied the biblical conscience to a variety of causes, including recreation. Whether one considers the cessation of the gladiatorial games in the days of the early church, the ending of savage bestial games in Wilberforce’s day, or the banning of dueling in the nineteenth century, Christians have often led the culture in critical analysis of its pastimes.
Having thought carefully and well, Christians today must emulate their Lord in standing up for the frail dignity of humanity, whether the unborn child, the victim of religious persecution, or the homecoming king—the boy who in his death, as in his final touchdown run, passed alone into his rest, uncaught, with no foe left to pursue.
Owen Strachan is Instructor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College and a graduate of Bowdoin College.