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On Football, Warrior Culture, and Manhood

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

Troy Aikman was the alpha male of alpha males. He was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He won Super Bowls. He dated supermodels. He was tough, fearless, and smart: an American warrior, made for football, which he played with extreme skill.

But in one particular moment on January 23, 1994, Aikman couldn’t remember where he was or why he was there.

During the third quarter of the NFC championship game, Aikman suffered a concussion when a defensive tackle from the San Francisco 49ers brought him down. His agent, Leigh Steinberg, visited him and answered Aikman’s numerous questions about his injury and the game. The two celebrated that the Cowboys were Super Bowl-bound.

Five minutes later, Aikman asked all the same questions. Steinberg gave the same answers. Ten minutes later, Aikman asked them again. Steinberg later related to PBS that this exchange “terrified him to see how tender the bond was between sentient consciousness and potential dementia and confusion.” Sharing this anecdote, the super-agent with a reputation for iron-willed negotiation was shaken, years after the fact.

Questioning Warrior Culture

Warriors like Troy Aikman are no stranger to such moments. The classic response to an experience like Aikman’s? “Shake it off, bro!” Many of us who played contact sports are used to this kind of exhortation. You take a massive hit, you get your bell rung, and you get up like nothing happened. You may not be a superstar quarterback, but you’re no less a warrior. If a teammate fails to meet the warrior code, you let him hear it.

This culture has been passed down for decades in America. It’s helped to shape and define our understanding of manhood. We want to sack the quarterback, win the game, and stand before an adoring hometown crowd as homecoming king. Warriors persevere, warriors hit, and warriors win.

Recently, however, something strange has bubbled up in American culture. A number of voices have begun to question warrior culture and its brand of manhood. These aren’t stereotypical wimps, either; they’re football-loving journalists, men who have devoted their lives to the game and its heroes. After the news broke that Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito had bullied a teammate, Brian Phillips of Grantland penned a scorching piece that denounced “faux-macho alpha-pansy nonsense.” Phillips argued that all who supported such behavior “should be ashamed of himself, and that’s it, and it’s not a complicated story.” On a website that goes to great lengths to make gridiron athletes into cultural icons, more than 100,000 people “liked” this essay on Facebook.

Rick Reilly of ESPN, dean of American sportswriters, concurred with Phillips. He confessed “shame” at his support for football and its violence: “I realize the NFL handed over $765 million in a lawsuit settlement to cover the more than 4,500 players who say playing in their league damaged their brains, but that blood money doesn’t assuage my small sense of shame—it only thickens it.” Reilly likened football players to Roman gladiators and avowed that today, “We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It’s just that now, the sword comes later.” Reilly’s piece was “liked” 9,000 times on Facebook.

In these essays, we see that something has shifted in America. The very nature of manhood has been questioned. This, I submit, is to the good.

Pre-eminently Spiritual

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m as American as they come. I played three sports growing up. I relished contact sports (though my high school did not have a football team). During competition, I’ve sprained my ankles more times than I can count, nearly lost my two front teeth, and snapped my Achilles tendon in half. I was not a contact-averse player in my heyday. No less than any other red-blooded American male, I grew up wanting to be a warrior.

But as I’ve expressed before for First Things and Christianity Today, I have acquired some ethical unease of late with high-contact sports and the culture they promote. For this reason, I don’t read the above essays as signs of the masculine apocalypse. It’s not that I want guys to start dancing around in My Little Pony costumes. I am the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, so this subject deeply concerns me. But unlike many trends today that undermine biblical manhood, I see the growing unease with warrior culture as an encouraging shift in our culture’s definition of masculinity.

To be sure, Christians can readily and gladly affirm some elements of warrior culture. These include doing hard things, self-sacrificing, persevering, cultivating toughness, demonstrating courage under fire, and taking on physical challenges. The very nature of biblical leadership requires such traits. The apostles showed tremendous bravery in their ministries. The God-man they preached about, Jesus Christ, embraced a physical challenge in dying on the cross. Yet he did not yield to his tormentors or ask that his agony be ended in order to spare his life. His agony meant our deliverance, and his example inspires our forbearance.

There’s more. Godly men who need a shot in the arm hear David’s words to Solomon ring in our ears: “Be strong, and show yourself a man!” (1 Kings 2:2). (See also 1 Corinthians 16:13.) We add to this witness texts like Hebrews 11, which is not merely a “hall of faith” but a monument to Christian endurance of persecution and hardship.

But make no mistake: warrior culture and godly manhood are not one and the same. Too often, we act as if they are. We see a football player roar after drilling a hapless wide receiver and say to our buddy, “That dude is a BEAST!” Later, we go to church and hear from a hipster-looking missionary to a closed country. He doesn’t have broad shoulders, wears thick-rimmed glasses, and tells the church in Q&A that he loves reading and walks in nature. And we’re tempted to ask to see his man card.

Why can’t we see that the missionary better exhibits godly manhood? It’s not that the football player is unmanly; many of us want to train our sons to be tough and courageous and even physically adept. But mature manhood for a Christian cannot be sacking quarterbacks, dunking basketballs, scoring soccer goals, or drawing stares from pretty women who yearn for their own athletic superhero. Mature manhood is actually spelled out for us in Scripture. Think about the qualifications for an elder:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7)

Texts like this show us that the Bible’s definition of manliness is not un-physical but pre-eminently spiritual. Sure, godly men will hold doors, protect women and children, carry in groceries, and make physical repairs in our church’s buildings. But let’s not kid ourselves—Jesus Christ, not Tony Romo, is the true man. The apostle Paul, not Dwayne Wade, embodies biblical manhood.

The mustache-wearing barista in Brooklyn who favors bespoke ties and plays no sports but faithfully leads his community group and witnesses to his coworkers is much manlier than our favorite BEAST athlete who doesn’t know Christ. The guy who doesn’t enjoy weightlifting but who spiritually shepherds his family is far closer to the pin than the dude who catches game-winning touchdowns but never cracks open the Scripture with his kids.

I’ll be happy if my son plays sports. If managed carefully and approached with wisdom, sports can be a blessing. I am not anti-football or any other sport mentioned here; in my Christianity Today piece, I made clear that I like football and don’t want it ended. I hope my son knows above all that elders are not called by Paul to have a lantern jaw and an impressive wingspan. They’re called to pursue Christ with every fiber of their being, and to sacrifice themselves to lead others to do the same.

Risky Gospel

Many great leaders of the Christian faith were not known for athletic prowess. Jonathan Edwards was more bookish than beastly. John Calvin had a sensitive stomach and was slight of build. With his girth, C. H. Spurgeon wouldn’t exactly have burned up the 40-yard dash.

As I say in my new book Risky Gospel, we need the bigger vision of faith held by these men. I want more risk for the sake of the gospel, not less, whether overseas or in our neighborhood. But as I argue, this primarily means building godly families, strengthening churches, and seeking lost sinners. It means setting your face like a flint to be a witness for Jesus though Satan opposes you and your coworkers snark about you. That, more than a buzzer-beater or open-field-tackle, requires courage.

Too many of us modern men have allowed our definition of manhood to skew cultural, not biblical. Though kings and priests in Christ’s kingdom, we’re a little bit like Troy Aikman in 1994: we know we’re a part of something great, but we can’t quite remember what it is.