Why Football Violence is Different from a Car Crash

There has been a great deal of conversation in the intellectuosphere about football violence.  I blogged about it a little while back if you want some links by which to think and reflect on the topic.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a Martin Marty blog (an odd thing to write) from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion (based at the University of Chicago).  It’s on the moral dilemma posed by the roughness of football.  Marty, one of the most eminent church historians of recent days, calls attention to a new piece in the Christian Century.  Here’s what he says with his characteristic diplomacy:

The Christian Century writer, to be fair, does not overstate the case or pretend that we match exactly the scene to which the ancient Christian moralists reacted. He sees some positive values in the civic ritual functions of Superbowl-type activities. He acknowledges that many professional athletes appear to be genuinely serious about their Christian faith or other moral norm-setters. … No doubt, after preaching yesterday, Dueholm watched a televised game, showing that he is ready to be converted from such activity and thought, as did others and this sighter, but evidently “not yet.”

Read Dueholm’s essay here. I’m encouraged to see CC give attention to this issue.

It’s interesting to see Marty take note of the effects of football without committing to moral distance from its violent culture.  I suspect that this is where many evangelicals are: increasingly aware of the damage football causes yet still awed by the spectacle of skill and combat it provides.  I wonder what will happen if we see a player die in a major college or professional game–is that the crisis that will stir us to take unnecessary violence seriously?  Will that be our “Telemachus event?

By the way, for those who would note that, say, driving a car is inherently dangerous, here is the distinction I would draw between everyday risks like car-driving and football.  Many Americans know that driving a car (or getting on a plane) is potentially dangerous.  We know it’s a potentially deadly affair.  But I don’t think that many Americans know–even now–just how dangerous recent research shows football can be.

Important here is this central fact: it appears that it is not only the big hits that are problematic, but the little ones.  There’s no corollary on this point between football and car-driving.  In other words, you know when driving  you might get into a car crash, and so you’re aware of that major danger.  But when playing football, many folks don’t know–have no clue–that the little hits matter.  It’s not just getting “blown up” and immediately concussed.  It’s bumping helmets time after time after time that can be deadly.

That is why I think this is such an important issue for Christians who want to be ethical in their devotion to Christ.  It is qualitatively different from other risky endeavors we undertake on a daily basis.  There are hidden risks we can’t see in football, it appears.  If you know the risks and choose to play, that’s your decision. Unlike driving a car or rock-climbing or flying on a plane, I don’t think many Americans–or Christians–know the potential dangers of football.

  • Chris Pascarella

    I think common sense tells us that repeatedly hitting your head is a bad thing. But I also think that the America’s supposed fascination with the violence of football is overrated. As the league has taken measures to make the game safer, the NFL has actually become MORE popular. In addition, the most popular jersey sales are not of tough defensive players, but of players who do not hit, or like being hit.

    The NFL, unlike major league baseball, has adapted and changed to new technologies and playing conditions. It may take a while to change the NFL’s tackling culture, but I believe they are headed in the right direction.


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