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*This is part 2 of a three-part series. Part 1 utilized a salient real-world example to demonstrate the theological dangers brought about by the tendency for athletic performance to supersede Christian, moral excellence within the context of sports. Part 2 expands upon the bodily consequences of a misaligned allegiance to sports, which subvert the holistic well-being of participants, thus warping the imago Dei in both the enactors of recipients of physical injustice. Part 3 offers theological insights into how orthodoxy and orthopraxy related to the body might shape a more robust Christian approach to sports.

 Do Not Conform To: The Embodied Consequences of Misguided Ends

Research shows how the biomechanics of cut blocks increase the likelihood of injuries, not unlike the horse collar tackle, which was eventually banned. Cut and chop blocking became signature techniques for teams like the Houston Oilers, 49ers, and Broncos. With this technique, bodies are conscripted, instructed, and disciplined to make commitments and perform actions that can effectively hurt other bodies. Athletes’ bodies are trained and made ready physically, morally, and spiritually to intentionally enact specific moves that can prey upon the vulnerability of others.

And when hurt, these bodies suffer not only in the game but also after the game, because bodies are inescapably connected to provinces outside the game where friends and family live and work. The field of physical suffering can also include mental and emotional pain with matters related to grief, anxiety, agony, doubt, and stress about whether a player will return to play and the future backside costs of living with chronic pain, diminishing the quality of life in mind, body, and spirit.

A Washington Post online survey of more than 500 retired NFL players “found that nearly nine in 10 reported suffering from aches and pains on a daily basis, and they overwhelmingly—91 percent—connect nearly all their pains to football.”1 Because sports are more than a game, bodies do not live in isolation, as if what happens in sports stays in sports between team members and co-contestants. To the contrary, what happens in sports extends to other spheres of life; for as embodied selves we take who we are—healthy and unhealthy—everywhere we live, relate, and work.

To compound the problem of bodies in football that goes beyond cut blocks, since this can be eliminated with a mere rule change and chop blocks were banned by the NFL in 2016, and aims at more besetting problems intrinsic to the design of football, scholars note how football as a combat-collision sport presents a perfect storm of well-documented traumatic brain injuries and other neuro-degenerative disorders (e.g., chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), post-concussion syndrome, Alzheimer’s) and physical health issues that can have long-term cognitive and emotional consequences. Medical research specifies that football leads all sports in the rate of concussions along with the even greater concern of repeated sub-concussive hits. It’s the cumulative exposure of many little and big hits across a player’s seasons of competition that can cause lasting alterations to the brain’s integrity. Furthermore, most of the public either forget or are unaware that authorities at football’s inception in the 19th century expressed similar medical concerns about football’s bodily risks. One observer wrote, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, how the sport of football singularly “brings the whole bodies of players into violent collision…the violent personal concussion of 22 vigorous, highly trained young men is not only permissible, but is a large part of the game.”2 And another as far away as San Francisco noted how “The head or skull of a contestant is quite frequently called into service, as butting during scrimmages is not uncommon.3

Additionally, to add another layer to our pang of conscience, youth, who comprise over 90% of football players, are unable to give informed consent and they are even more vulnerable to brain trauma since their brains and skulls are still developing. Children have much larger heads in comparison to the rest of their bodies with weaker neck muscles. Weaker neck muscles create the bobble-head effect as heads bounce and rotate more in reaction to tackles, hits, and blocks. Studies point out how in a practice or game children can experience the forces of a head blow that are comparable to the hits college football players suffer. Dr. Chris Nowinski, former Harvard football player-turned-neuroscientist and co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, noted that “Exposure data shows children as young as 9 are getting hit in the head more than 500 times in one season of youth tackle football.” He further postulates that such a fact “should not feel normal to us. Think of the last time, outside of sports, you allowed your child to get hit hard in the head 25 times in a day.”4

Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, public health professor, explores the history of youth football in her 2019 book No Game for Boys to Play, the title from the conclusion of a 1907 Journal of the American Medical Association. The potency of her argument is how she excavates and unearths the multiple, competing narratives that have given meaning to football and how each football hit unlocks specific ideologies and cultural values like masculinity and patriotism. A Christian interpretation could easily name all of this as extra conformity ailments or patterns and the pressures of this age that the apostle Paul warns against as negative forms of how we comport our bodies in this world (12:2).   

These concerns about the connection between playing football and brain damage are why college and professional football players such as Chris Borland, Husain Abdullah, Branson Bragg, and Joshua Perry retired early from the game. They weighed the risks and put the health of their bodies first. Other former NFL players like Fran Tarkenton, Bart Scott, Jermichael Finley, Rashean Mathis, Adrian Peterson, Mike Ditka, Brett Favre, and Terry Bradshaw have said they would not let their own children play football.

The bodily risks of playing football have gone from the most visible serious injuries that require orthopedic, arthroscopic, and arthritic surgeries to the silent epidemic of damage done to the brain. Knees, hips, and shoulders can heal and eventually be replaced if need be; but the brain, as an irreplaceable organ, cannot be treated as an inconsequential, expendable part, as if the dings to heads in football are equivalent to Wile E. Coyote getting walloped with an anvil or frying pan on the crown of his head, leaving him momentarily dazed and “seeing stars.”

The head games in football are a matter of one’s total well-being since these injuries involve real people with family, jobs, and future plans at stake and not fictional cartoon characters (or athletes in Madden NFL video games) who eternally rebound from their head trauma. Brains are central to cognitive and emotional intelligence, socialization, spiritual and moral formation, and to flourishing and finding personal fulfillment as responsible citizens in communities as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters in families, as disciples of Christ in churches and as “salt and light” in our vocations. Damaged brains can never be undone and can affect living in significant, meaningful ways, unlike other damaged body parts.  

This illness of conformity is not limited to male bodies in football. Laura Fleshman focuses our attention on how female bodies face their own set of bodily conformity ailments. In her book Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World, she laments how coaching strategies and sports media often betray and objectify women’s bodies. In an interview in The Guardian, she says, “We have to stop comparing them [women] to a male standard, stop expecting them to progress like men do, stop erasing the parts of their body that are feminine.”5 She argues that sports are dominated by the ideals of male bodies organized around male-gendered physiology and performances. Fleshman demonstrates how this gendered messaging burdens the lived experience of female bodies and creates toxic environments between athletes and their coaches. She explains how such a worldview can foster bodily identities for which women inhospitably encounter their bodies as foes rather than friends, resulting in body shaming, obsessing about and being dissatisfied with their weight, leading to eating disorders. The motley twisted forms of body-harming practices that are rife in sports can turn our body parts to doing wrong as profane weapons of injustice, against ourselves and others, contradicting them as holy offerings that are pleasing to God.

{Published previously in Christian Ethics Today 33.3 (Summer 2023): 21-26.}

Footnotes

  1. Sally Jenkins, Rick Maese and Scott Clement, “Do no Harm: Retired NFL Players Endure a Lifetime of Hurt,”  Washington Post, May 16, 2013.
  2. “Football Apologies: The Game is a Dangerous and Demoralizing One,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 30, 1894.
  3. M. J. Geary, “Seen by a Novice,” San Francisco Call, Dec. 4, 1892, 8.
  4. Chris Nowinski, “Youth Tackle Football will be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from now,” Vox, April 3, 2019.
  5. Matthew Hall, “Lauren Fleshman: ‘There is a Betrayals of Women’s Bodies in the Sports System’,” The Guardian, Mar. 7, 2023.

John B. White

Baylor University
John B. White, Practical Theology, Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary

One Comment

  • Dwight Brautigam says:

    This series is misleadingly titled. It’s really about American football, not sports in general. American football is low hanging fruit. From the title I was expecting something much deeper and thoughtful about competitiveness, time spent, etc. “Here’s Why American Football Should Concern Christians” would have been closer to the mark. One sport, not “sports.”

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