Catholics and the War on Football

When it comes to football and its risks, writes Ken Briggs in National Catholic Reporter, Catholic scholars may be caught in a spiral of silence. Briggs finds that a sampling of these scholars, while believing “the medical hazards exposed by the research raise serious questions” about the wisdom of continuing the game, has chosen to soft-pedal them, fearing “stormy protests by fans and financial backers.”

Briggs is right that recent research shows players are at graver risk than anyone could have imagined. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, results from the brain’s repeated collision against the skull. A degenerative disease, it can lead to memory loss, excessive aggression and even suicidal depression. Studies of 2,500 former NFL players undertaken at UNC’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found “cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and depression rose proportionately with the number of concussions they had sustained.” Since 2008, Dr. Ann McKee, associate professor of neurology and pathology at Boston University’s School of Medicine, has examined the brains of seven retired NFL players and four college players and found all suffered from CTE.

In First Things, Owen Strachan writes that “the stories that fit this mold are startling.” They include Owen Thomas, the Penn team captain who hanged himself, as well as high-school players Douglas Morales and Brian Colvin, and 13-year-old Spencer Juarez. The CTE risks to boxers have been well known for decades. In fact, the death rate in the ring seems to be rising, with Daniel Aguillon, Bae Ki-Suk, Yo-Sam Choi and Luis Villalta all dying fight-related deaths in the past ten years. But then, at least here in the U.S., boxing isn’t the kind of sport a teen’s parents will drive in their X-Terra to watch him (or her) compete in. Football is turning into blood and Astroturf and death in a suburban afternoon.

Strachan, an instructor of Christian theology and Church history at Boyce College, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate school, does what Briggs wishes Catholic scholars would do. He comes right out and suggests that parents “take a step back from [football] and point youths to concentrate on less violent sports.” But his advice is the exactly kind of advice you’d expect from an intellectual who values logic and consistency above anything. It would surely encounter serious resistance from those further down on the brain chain, and for reasons irreducible to greed. The word “religion” comes from the Latin re-ligare, or “to re-bind.” How bound do we have to be, the faithful could be forgiven for asking. We’ve already agreed not to use condoms; now we don’t get to play football? Jiminy Christmas, can’t we have any fun at all?

It’s a fair question. With the advance of science comes a new awareness of the danger posed by all sorts of apparently harmless diversions, which creates an onus for more restrictions. On the Catholic Answers forum, someone named Murray 1105 writes about his new parish priest, a dynamic figure who encourages “stronger prayer and community and outreach.” But, because Father smokes cigarettes, writes Murray, some parishioners “are so bothered by this they want to switch parishes.” Murray’s own, relatively tolerant, view, that “it is no worse for him to have a weakness that is easily seen by public than one that is not,” marks him as another product of post-Paula Deen America.

For a view of a dystopia governed by the principle of “everything in moderation, except abstemiousness,” see The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart, Lisa and Maggie are packed off to spend a weekend with the Flanders family. There, they’re scandalized to discover that American Bible Christianity’s version of nachos involves cucumber slices and cottage cheese. Ayaan Hirsi Ali never indicted Islam so effectively on the best day of her life.

But the case against football is too strong to dismiss out of hand. For that reason, some states have passed laws preventing student athletes from taking the field fewer than 24 hours after sustaining a concussion. New York State’s Public High School Athletic Association recommended a “five-day weaning process,” according to which concussed student athletes, having obtained medical clearance, would be gradually eased back into play. It’s unclear, though, just how far these measures will reduce the incidence of CTE. As Briggs points out, concussions aren’t the only contributing factor; every hit plays its part. “One analogy cited by some sources is the cumulative effect of smoking: No single cigarette triggers lung disease,” he writes. “Another is the grim image of a death by a thousand cuts.”

Before any Catholic educators or ethicists decide to make a stand against football, they’d better think of something more exciting to offer in its place than tag team Taize prayer. The career of mixed martial-arts might be instructive. With the combatants wearing thin gloves and encouraged to grapple, maxillofacial and cranial pummeling lose the importance they have in boxing. At least to this casual fan, battles in the octagon make better watching than those in the ring. (There’s also the impression that MMA attracts a better class of people. A vulgarian Tank Abbot might have been; unlike Liston, Lyle and LaMotta, a felon he was not.)

Personally, I’d like to see lacrosse become the new football. Fast-paced and often high-scoring, it’s the only sport to have been named by a saint and martyr. With constant checking, it should satisfy anyone’s lust for violence, but leaves room on the field for fairly normal-sized players, who are likelier to blow out their shoulders and knees than their brains. I wonder what it would take to talk Tim Tebow into a little occupational re-orienting.

  • Thomas R

    Although I don’t like American football I doubt it’s going away or will be repressed. We’ve known the dangers of boxing for roughly a century, dangers I might go so far as to say we’d deem intolerable if it involved dogs or horses, but even if boxing is maybe not as big as in the 1930s it’s pretty far from dead. I would guess boxing is definitely far from dead among Catholics as in the lighter-weights, anyway, Hispanic or Filipino boxers are fairly common. I don’t want to make it sound like that automatically means they’re Catholics, but it seems probable that a plurality of them might be nominally Catholic.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd

    The average pro career is 3.5 years. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is age 57. The players get faster, larger, and more dangerous to one another every year.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    Didn’t I just read of a 12-year-old who died taking a lacrosse ball to the chest and another college lacrosse playing being tried for murdering his girlfriend. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  • Nancy Berube

    I was always grateful that my sons were too small for American football. Although I always found it an interesting sport to watch other women’s sons play but I wouldn’t regret its disappearance. My daughter played lacrosse in HS & at that time I heard of a college player dying of taking a ball to the chest. I tended to hold my breath through her games.