Why Football Is (or Can Be) Good for the Soul

Why Football Is (or Can Be) Good for the Soul February 12, 2013

Mark Oppenheimer’s recent cover article on faith and football for Sports Illustrated is a sterling example of agenda journalism. Whether or not the author had an agenda when he accepted the assignment, he clearly had one by the time he started writing: not representing in a deep and nuanced way the faith lives of football players but assembling a thin, one-sided argument that football corrodes the souls of athletes and fans alike.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a thesis, but it is wrong is when moral/spiritual judgments are presented as objective reporting, and when the piece goes so far out of its way to cherry-pick supporting evidence and cast aside the rest.

The essence of Oppenheimer’s argument (see Hugh Hewitt’s excellent interview) is that “football is bad for the soul” and the evangelical ministries that have apparently conquered the NFL have not so much Christianized football culture as they have absorbed anti-Christian footballish values into their ministries.  It’s an interesting enough thesis, if not exactly novel.  Whenever there is a case of a Christian ministry (think of Jesuits going into China, for instance) permeating and seeking to redeem and communicate through a particular culture, the question is whether the Christian ministry is changing the culture or the culture is changing the Christian ministry, or (more often) a bit of both.

Oppenheimer is a debater and the story is a carefully crafted bit of rhetoric. He began by saying (note the loaded verbiage) that some Christian athletes and coaches “are starting to recognize that football, at least as it is currently played, may be bad for the soul.” The “may be” eventually drops out, as football is later “quite likely to corrupt a player’s Christian values,” and by the end we’re simply informed that “Football corrupts its fans too.”

My training is in a different kind of philosophy, which believes you ought to represent the opposing viewpoint fairly — indeed, if possible, better than your opponent can. So let’s begin by noting that there are two logical requirements for this kind of argument: first, there must be a fundamental tension between the values or beliefs of the ministry and the the values or beliefs in the culture it seeks to address, and second, there must be evidence that the culture is flowing into (“infecting”) the Christian ministry, not (or not only) the ministry into the culture.

First, however, it’s not at all clear that there’s a fundamental tension between Christianity and football “culture.” When the Jesuits entered China, they found a whole moral-religious universe already present that did, in fact, contrast at many points with Christian teaching. But football developed recently in the largely (though certainly not perfectly) Christian culture of the United States. Moreover, football is merely a sport, not an entire national culture with its own moral, philosophical and religious views. Yet Oppenheimer claims that the tensions are found in the following ways:

  • (1) Football culture glorifies physical aggression and violence while Christian teachings glorify meekness and peace.
  • (2) Football culture accepts rule-breaking, if you can avoid detection, while Christian teachings demand honesty.
  • (3) Football culture glorifies the winner while Christian teachings glorify the loser.
  • (4) Football culture glorifies fame and wealth, while Christian teachings view fame and wealth as spiritually dangerous temptations.
  • (5) Football culture is “ruthless” while Christian teachings praise being “charitable.”

When you eliminate all the loaded language and rhetorical manipulation, it’s a fair enough argument.  Is it compelling?

Not in my view. Oppenheimer spends the most time on (1), but it doesn’t take the most nuanced thinker to recognize that violence (a) that remains within the bounds of the agreed-upon rules, (b) in the context of a voluntary leisure activity, (c) where every participant fully understands that violence is a part of the game (i.e., we’re not talking about one synchronized swimmer body-slamming another), is profoundly different from stabbing someone in a back alley. We can be injured doing almost any kind of leisure activity. When a football player steps on the field, he knowingly and willingly takes on a higher probability of injury. If Player 1 fairly tackles Player 2, and the latter ends up getting injured, Player 1 has done nothing immoral or unChristian. He may well feel bad about it, because it’s unfortunate, but he shouldn’t feel guilty. This does not mean, as Oppenheimer alleges, that athletics ministries view sports as “self-contained moral universes” where the standard rules do not apply. Then Ten Commandments still apply, with the sole exception that a certain amount of deception and trickery is an accepted part of the game, in the same way that you bluff in cards. Maybe that should be reconsidered (in Hewitt’s interview, Oppenheimer raises the interesting question of whether Christian athletes should correct referees when they make erroneous calls that benefit their teams), but the general point remains that Christian athletes are expected to conduct themselves — even on the football field — in a manner worthy of their calling.

Oppenheimer cites a single study — from a woman whose research excavates a problem she offers to solve if you pay her enough money — to support his contention that football corrupts moral reasoning.  It does so, according to this woman, by dehumanizing other players.  But for one thing, anyone who knows the scholarship industry knows that you can find a study to support just about anything.  And for another, a study Oppenheimer does not mention puts it better, in my view, when it says that different sports operate according to different “implicit moral contracts.” So for instance: Within the context of football, it is okay for you to tackle me as hard as you can, within the rules, as it is for me to do to you; it’s okay for you to try to intimidate and discourage me, as it is for me to do to you. This is not to say that there are no moral considerations but just that morality is applied in a context-specific way, within certain bounds. It’s okay to deceive an opponent, and most Christian athletes will not speak up if a referee makes a bad call in their favor, but it’s not okay to lie about the use of performance-enhancing drugs or, say, to poison the opposing team, even if you can get away with it. For Christian athletes, faith is always supreme, but athletes who play big-time football accept a kind of social contract that allows some behavior, as part of the game, that would not normally be allowed outside the game. I don’t see anything nefarious about this – and Christian ministries often help athletes understand that the aggression that’s permissible on the playing field is not permissible outside it.

As for the other supposed tensions, that football glorifies the ruthless self-aggrandizing victor while Christianity glorifies the humble, loving “loser,” David Brooks made a more nuanced version of the argument a year ago and I didn’t find it terribly compelling at the time. There’s certainly a culture of athletic celebrity that focuses on arrogance and acquisition and self-aggrandizement (think of Deion Sanders here), but that’s the culture of American celebrity-worship in general, and the spiritual dangers of wealth and fame are common to people who succeed in many different spheres. It’s far from the experience of the great majority of athletes, who have to make extraordinary sacrifices and work extremely hard, who have to deny themselves and humble themselves and learn to work together with others.

When the Scriptures teach that God loves the humble and the contrite, that God cares for the poor and the oppressed, that God uses the foolish and weak to confound the ‘wise’ and the ‘strong,’ the implication is not that we should never strive for success in the pursuits to which God calls us. They do teach us that winning is not the most important thing — and Christian athletes almost universally will affirm that. They also teach us that we should care for the poor and the oppressed, and not place too much value on what the world considers ‘strong’ and ‘wise.’ Most Christian athletes will attest that they had to learn how to fail, learn how to understand their own weakness and rely upon the strength of God, before God could make much use of them. That’s the end of the story that Oppenheimer starts but never finishes: the one who is humble shall be lifted up. This does not mean that every athlete who humbles himself will achieve victory. But it does mean that athletes experience the ‘death’ of defeat and humiliation before they can experience the ‘rebirth’ of victory through God’s grace. The Apostle Paul uses sports metaphors of striving for the prize, striving to be first, but we understand that the way to spiritual greatness comes through humility and service.

There are two things that are profoundly missing from Oppenheimer’s piece. The first is any serious account whatsoever of all the spiritual positives that can be gained through sports like football. Many young men who might fall into negative patterns of behavior otherwise learn what hard work means on the football field. They learn what it means to respect authority and obey directions; they learn to work with others and serve the interests of their teammates and their team; they learn how to harness their courage and soldier on in the face of fear and pressure; they learn how to win gracefully; they learn how to lose with dignity and learn from their mistakes; they form deep friendships that often form circles of mutual accountability and support; they form relationships with father figures who can guide them through difficult decisions in life.

What’s also missing is an account of the effects of Christian faith and ministries in the lives of football players. This is the second point, that there’s no compelling argument here that football culture is “infecting” Christian faith, apart from some extreme anecdotes and cherry-picked quotations.  More importantly, where are the stories running in the opposition direction, showing how these Christian ministries shape the culture of the game? Where are the stories (and they’re countless) of athletes who were heading down the path of ruin before Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Athletes in Action found them and showed them a different way? I spoke at an FCA gathering in Dallas, and it was a bunch of football players and athletes from other sports sitting and standing in an indoor football practice field, having a serious conversation about suffering and struggling and finding the love of God in the midst of it all. There’s no discussion in the article, apart from a fleeting reference to Steve Largent, about devout Christians who become mentors and examples for scores of young men who find themselves on their teams over the years. Neither is there any mention of the great good that many Christian football players do with the wealth and the “platform” their success affords them. What of the tens of millions of dollars that Christian football players pour every year into service projects? What of the hundreds of Christian football players who encourage children to spurn drugs and violence? Or what of Tim Tebow, who does undeniably amazing work with his philanthropy?

In the last analysis, I do think the influence goes both directions, to some extent. Christians should — and most do — challenge some aspects of the culture of the sport. There is a kind of football fanaticism, and an ends-justifies-the-means attitude sometimes on the field, that goes too far. But Christian football players come in all varieties. The sport itself is largely neutral. It can be used in positive or negative ways. My passion is to help athletes find in their athletic experience, as I did, valuable opportunities for spiritual growth. That’s where ministries like FCA and AIA come in. And even if the influence flows from the culture of football into the culture of American Christianity, that’s not always bad. American Christian culture, as I’m sure Oppenheimer would agree, is far from infallible. It’s arguably the case that American Christianity had been growing too languid, too milquetoast, and the evangelical engagement with sports has allowed us to recapture some parts of the Christian tradition that had been underemphasized.

After all, the Bible tells the story of Jesus refusing to open his mouth when accused, and teaching his followers to turn the other cheek — but it also tells the stories of Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Samson and David, and the apostles and disciples of the early church, whose lives required extraordinary courage and perseverance, who found an unshakable strength in their trust in God, who strove with every bone, muscle and tendon to fulfill the mission to which God called them. These stories too belong to the storehouse of our faith. For many Christians today, sports is one of the primary ways in which we participate in these stories, engaging in living object lessons on keeping courage in the face of overwhelming odds, or keeping hope in the face of defeat, and keeping humble in the achievement of victory.

When asked by Hewitt why he (an expert neither on Christianity, not to mention evangelicalism, nor on sports, not to mention football) was asked to write the piece, the 38-year-old Oppenheimer answered, “I assume it has something to do with the fact that I’m a really, really respected writer on religion.” I’m not sure he did himself any favors with this piece.

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