The Issue: Over a century ago, Charles Sheldon’s best-selling novel In His Steps convinced a generation of Christians that Jesus would oppose prizefighting because of the sport’s violence. Today, some evangelicals are wondering if football has become so violent that it should be abandoned by Christian fans.
Position #1: In a recent article for Christianity Today, Owen Strachan argues that the physical harm caused by football should lead Christians to reconsider the game’s violence:
Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don’t acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.
Position #2: In a reply to Strachan and other football critics at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins respond by saying that, “Laziness and intentional underachievement, along with a safety-centric worldview are enemies to the advancement of the gospel.”
Football represents one of the only major American institutions still standing that is exclusively for males and speaks unashamedly about manliness and toughness. Boys are drawn to demanding physical competition against other boys, assertive male leadership, and a cause that demands sacrifice and calculated risk. These are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood.
Courage and calculated risk-taking are causalities of our contemporary safety-centric worldview. Sadly, evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety. Boys, who are virtually bubble wrapped by their parents to ride bikes in the front yard and do not participate in things like football because they might get hurt, will have a difficult time finding Paul remotely intelligible when he asserts, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:13).
Scoring the Debate: Prince and Scroggins correctly note that “courage and calculated risk-taking” are necessary for the advancement of the gospel and that in many ways sports like football can help train men for such work. While we need to be careful about confusing biblical masculinity with a culturally conditioned, hyper-macho view of manhood, there is a definitely a need for the development and cultivation of physical stamina and courage. Football has often proven useful for just such training.
However, our bodies are not our own. As Paul reminds us, they were bought with a price. We are called to responsibly steward our bodies and glorify God with them, which is why we cannot dismiss the concerns about violence. As Strachan says, “If a game is associated with violence, that should be of note to believers. Following Christ means avoiding unnecessary violence, no matter what macho culture and John Wayne manhood might say (Luke 22:36).”
Reducing unnecessary violence in play and entertainment—and sports is ultimately a form of either play or entertainment—should be a reasonable compromise for those of us who love the game. If the original Rough Rider—Teddy Roosevelt—could propose changes to football that reduced its brutality (and made the sport better) then we armchair quarterbacks should be able to support modifications that strike a balance between vicious violence and safety-centric softness.