Would Jesus love football?

October 10, 2011

The only good thing about the end of summer is that it's the beginning of the college foot­ball season. Once more college football is delivering thrills and surprises, with the rankings changing dramatically on a weekly basis, teams appearing out of nowhere to vie for the no. 1 ranking, and under­dogs ceremoniously (college football is nothing if not ceremonious) knocking off highly favored teams. I love just about everything about the game, from the on-field heroics to the off-field pageantry.

But I make the qualification: just about everything about the game. I don't love everything. There's plenty to be cynical about when ostensibly amateur players get recruited as if they were professionals. Even a straight arrow like Ohio State coach Jim Tressel turns out to have run a fairly smarmy program. Yet it's not primarily the financially shady elements that make me ambivalent about my favorite sport. It's the sometimes dangerous levels of violence.

I played football in high school, the eight-man version practiced in rural areas of states such as Oklahoma, where I grew up. I was an offensive lineman, and one day in practice our coach decided we needed to im­prove our goal-line play. To challenge the first-string players, he bunched 15 reserves across from us on the one-yard line. I snapped the ball to the quarterback, delivered my block, then straightened up on my knees. It was then that a defender (my cousin, as it happened) pivoted and launched himself at the ball carrier. His heel came up under my faceguard and smashed my nose. Subsequent surgery removed about half of the cartilage from my broken, clogged snout. The flat nose that I have sported ever since is not my natural nose but a product of football.

Current concerns about football concentrate on the prevalence of head injuries, especially the concussions and subconcussions that players routinely sustain. Medical science has found that "getting your bell rung" is more serious than once was thought. Long-lasting and sometimes severe brain injuries are the result of all that bell-ringing.

The concern about football violence is not new. A campaign to ban college football arose after 18 players died on the field in 1905. That famously rugged outdoorsman, Presi­dent Teddy Roosevelt, convened panels to reform the sport. The next year the forward pass was introduced, transforming the game from what writer Ben McGrath called "militarized or corporatized rugby" to a kind of "contact ballet."

Further rule changes have tried to lessen the physical dangers to players. (It may not be long before linemen squat like sumo wrestlers rather than stand in three-point stances.) Equipment changes, such as the introduction of faceguards to helmets, have also helped reduce in­juries. But no rule or equipment changes will eliminate all the violence from a sport that is based on knocking people down. I will have to live with ambivalence about the game.

My fellow followers of the Prince of Peace who love the bucolic game of baseball can rest easier than football fans. Baseball players get hurt, but violence is not a key component of their game. In football, several players are banging heads and risking at least subconcussions on every play.

Would Jesus have played or loved football? I am honestly not sure. But I am sure that true fans do not watch the game primarily to see spectacular hits or the mangling of bodies. What's exciting is the long pass, the almost impossible fingertip catch, the stealthy interception. Con­sider especially the long run or kickoff return, when the runner's ability to dodge tackles provides the frisson. At such moments it's clear that what fans really love is not the collision but the avoidance of a collision. As McGrath puts it, "Averted danger is the essence of football." I'll keep watching football not be­cause of the game's violence, but because of its instances of (barely) avoided violence. That's what gives the game its beauty and its thrills.


Yes he would

I'm thinking that Jesus would like football if he were alive today. As with all societies we adapt to what surrounds us. Perhaps we wouldn't have cheaters if he were around.


Jesus loves people, therefore I think he loves those who coach and play football. I certainly thinks he loves me the wife of a football coach and sons who played and one who is a coach. Thank goodness there are Christian coaches and players who do the right thing and continue to coach and play with integrity. If it weren't for the Christians ivolved who knows what the game would be like? God honors those who honor him, no matter what they do.

Mary E. Morgan

I share your concern

I know exactly what you mean, Rodney. I LOVE college football. Even three days after witnessing the evil Oklahoma Sooners completely demolish the virtuous Texas Longhorns - live - I still LOVE college football.

But I sometimes wonder if this thing I love is also a blood sport. There is no amount of excitement that can justify the toll that football (sometimes) takes on the body and mind. I agree that the "sumo" stance would be a good starting point. I would also like to see the equipment modified so that the helmet and shoulder pads become unified and impact to the head can all be absorbed by the shoulders.

And if those changes can't make the game safer, I'm all for changing the rules to make it so, and NOTHING should be off the table, including number of downs, number of players, expulsions -even lifetime - for helmet to helmet contact, everything should be up for discussion.

Have you read Malcolm Gladwell on the subject? I think everyone who thinks significant changes are unnecessary or that they lessen the game, should read him.


Jesus might...but not Moses!

They play with a ball made out of the skin of a pig, so technically anyone who touches a football is unclean (Lev 11:8). Moses would be appauled. But Jesus Jesus loved unclean folks, so I can totally see him cheering in the stands.  Personally, I'd want him on my team's medical staff!

Letter from Charles Hoffacker

Rodney Clapp agonizes over the violence of football and the serious injuries it produces (“Would Jesus love football?” Oct. 18), yet his assertion that “true fans do not watch the game primarily to see spectacular hits or the mangling of bodies” rings hollow. If elegant action were enough, football fans would convert to baseball or ballet.

Football ritualizes a combat myth. It domesticates the warrior energy of players and fans, sidetracking them from both interior struggle and social justice.

The influence of professional and college football on American life is hard to over­estimate. The harm extends beyond the severe brain injuries suffered by players to a subtle hardening of our collective heart.

Charles Hoffacker

Washington, D.C.

Would Jesus love football?

No, I don't believe Jesus would love football. I agree with Charles Hoffacker. I could not have stated it better.