In August 2008, I took my sons Jake and Chandler to watch the New Orleans Saints play football in the Superdome. I had not been back to the city since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in the fall of 2005, and much of New Orleans was still battered and shuttered. From the window of our hotel in the Business District, we couldn’t see another occupied building, and when we veered more than a block or two away from the tourist attractions, it felt like we were looking at a dead city. In those bad days, New Orleans was like a once-beautiful woman putting on her makeup thick and colorful and hoping people wouldn’t notice the damage.
I’d watched the footage of bodies floating in the toxic water, seen pictures of the crowds crammed into that very same Superdome, and met with refugees who escaped to my home in Austin. I knew that Katrina was a cataclysmic failure of more than just the levee system. The hurricane made apparent the divides between classes and races in our nation. Affluent white people weren’t the ones floating in the streets or crowded into the Superdome, desperate for help.
How could a city ever recover from such tremendous physical and psychic damage?
But on that night in New Orleans—and again on the night two years later when we watched the Saints play for a Super Bowl championship—all traces of that disaster seemed to vanish. I would not have known about the dividing lines between black and white, rich or poor, or about any of the tragedy that had befallen the city as I looked around the Superdome at the Saints fans who make up Who Dat Nation.
The crowd on both nights was multi-racial, and its composition cut across cultural, economic, and gender lines. Sitting next to us in 2008 was a white doctor and his family; sitting behind us was a black cab driver. During the game, they were laughing and talking like old friends. I’d rarely seen such stunning diversity in any social setting besides my home church.
What I witnessed both nights in the Superdome, in fact, was a broken city coming together around an NFL game—strangers singing together, embracing, and high-fiving each other.
It was a vision of community prompted by a sporting event, and I’ve never forgotten it.
For all the negatives I’m going to have to consider later, that night was emblematic of how people can come together around football. In the seasons following Katrina, the New Orleans Saints gave a ruined city something to believe in. The Saints’ quarterback, Drew Brees, donated millions of dollars to rebuilding the city through his charitable foundation, and in 2010, when he led the Saints to that Super Bowl championship, the program became the most-watched show in television history up to that time. New Orleans went wild with happiness. It was, as the Associated Press reported, “a prayer answered in this struggling city, which seemed different because of it.”
And that’s what the Super Bowl can be at its best—a chance to set aside your everyday cares for a few hours, be a part of something so much larger than yourself that you actually lose yourself, and forget the things that stand between you and your fellow fans.
At its best, whether you’re a fan or a player, sports can give us a chance to seize our common humanity.
But what about sports at its worst? And how do we tell the difference?
The Super Bowl giveth, and the Super Bowl taketh away
On February 2, Super Bowl XLVIII will be played in New Jersey in front of a national audience of over 100 million people. The broadcast (which goes out to over 200 countries around the world) will feature a sure-to-dazzle halftime show featuring Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (The Super Bowl seeks to be all things to all people—watch the pre-game show for even more diversity among the performers.) It will also feature new commercials that will be the talk of the (real and virtual) water cooler for days afterwards, and, of course, a little football game to crown the champions of the National Football League.
This year’s game showcases NFL quarterback legend Peyton Manning and his powerhouse Denver Broncos facing the feisty Seattle Seahawks and their brilliant young quarterback, Russell Wilson. It seems like the perfect end of a season for the nation’s most culturally pervasive sport.
The NFL is the most popular game in town—no matter what. As Colin Cowherd often says on his national ESPN talkshow, there is simply no comparison to any other sport. When he talks NFL, his ratings go up.
Lawsuits, injuries, arrests, and controversies don’t seem to stick to the NFL. Tim Dahlberg has written that “if there ever was a bulletproof sport in America, it’s football. And if there was ever a bulletproof sports league in the country, it’s the NFL.”
These very same New Orleans Saints were at the heart of the recent “Bountygate” scandal in which the team was found to have encouraged players to intentionally injure opposing players.
Last year’s Super Bowl was delayed for half an hour by a power outage in that very same Superdome.
This fall, a bullying scandal in Miami shed light into the culture of NFL locker rooms and revealed behaviors that would get any other business sued.
Head’s Up, the league’s million-dollar initiative to reduce concussions in youth football and keep a steady pipeline of young players and fans interested in football, has come under fire this year from experts who see it at best as cynical and at worst as dangerous
And most significantly, a federal judge, Anita Brady, just threw out the settlement in a class-action lawsuit accusing the NFL of hiding key facts about brain damage and of being a party to the concussion-related health difficulties of thousands of former players.
When the suit was seemingly settled in August, it became possible for many of us who love the NFL to set aside the fact that players (who now include popular stars like Tony Dorsett, Brett Favre, Jim McMahon, and Junior Seau) have gone on to develop symptoms ranging from forgetfulness to senility to rage to suicide because of their game-related conditions. It might even have been possible for us to forget that this settlement did nothing for players we see getting concussions now—or for those who will play in the future—since the league is making all the right noises about player safety.
But with the suit back in the news, it can’t help but remind us that there is a startling human cost to this game millions of us watch religiously from August through February, and 100 million of us will watch on Super Bowl Sunday.
Players are hurt—many suffering lifelong damage—for our amusement.
How close do we have to get to the Roman Coliseum before Augustine’s reflections on blood sport in the “Confessions” become relevant?
On Facebook, my friend Jamie Tyler wrote that the Super Bowl remains one of the few shared events we still have in this “cable-and-internet age,” an event that can offer the entire nation escape and a sense of shared community. That’s a good thing.
And at the same time, the Super Bowl serves as the ultimate glorification of what my friend the Rev. David Sugeno calls “ the ways of the world, characterized by power, competition, hatred, violence, and greed.”
The Super Bowl giveth, and the Super Bowl taketh away.
The kingdom of football heaven
In last year’s Oscar-nominated Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Solitano, Jr. (Bradley Cooper) comes home from a stay in a mental ward to a house filled with relatives and hangers-on held together by the Philadelphia Eagles. At the beginning of the film, Pat talks about how much he loves Sundays, something that actually becomes true by the time he repeats it at the end of the movie: “I live for Sundays. The whole family’s together. Mom makes braciole. Dad puts the jersey on. We’re all watching the game.”
In this movie, the NFL is a shared ritual that ultimately gives life and brings joy. Football has its own liturgy; it offers us moments of high tragedy and irresistible transcendence. And it builds community.
Look around the living room: there are the Solitanos. Plus there’s Pat Jr.’s Indian psychiatrist, Dr. Patel, and Pat’s African-American compadre from the mental ward, Danny, and Randy, the family’s neighbor and greatest enemy, who almost takes everything the family has in a bet—and all of them are made welcome at the table for homemades and crabby snacks.
The conclusion of Silver Linings Playbook looks like my experience in the Superdome—people coming together across all sorts of divides because of this shared experience. It’s a vision of the Kingdom, secular though it may be, where everyone belongs and everyone is accepted.
Sports offers more spiritual benefits than community, of course, as important as any sense of shared experience is in a world where we hide behind our computer screens, texting, and headphones. My musician friend Tricia Mitchell says that when she walks past the TV and the NFL is on, she observes a number of spiritual qualities being demonstrated: “the cultivation of talent, the collaboration of a group, hope, perseverance.
In my tradition, those things are actually singled out as spiritual virtues to be sought. We’ve always been told that playing sports builds character; is it possible that sports also impart something like character to the people who watch them?
Maybe so. Certainly that’s the positive side of the ledger. Unfortunately, I find there’s a whole lot left to be said about football the Super Bowl—and none of it is good.
Hell for the players, entertainment for us
I love football. I enjoy watching it with my family. I miss it when it’s gone. And yet the words of my friend David Sugeno (“power, competition, hatred, violence, and greed”) echo in my head, because I sense he’s right.
I’m a devout Christian, and despite the ways the Super Bowl brings out obvious secular cousins of the values we seek in my faith tradition, this festival of excess, consumption, spectacle, and violence looks particularly un-Christian. Augustine spoke often about lesser goods we mistake for higher goods—a transitory thing of beauty we treasure for itself, let’s say, instead of giving credit to the eternal Creator of the universe who brought it into being.
I think it’s entirely possible that we can join in a national conversation about the Super Bowl on Facebook, Twitter, talk radio, and other media, watch the game, halftime show, and trendy commercials, and get a sort of spiritual sugar high that has little or nothing to do with the virtue at the root of all wisdom traditions: compassion.
The ethicist Scott Bader-Saye told me that he has talked with his ethics classes at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest about “material cooperation with sin,” a condition . . .
“. . . in which we don’t intend wrongdoing or harm but support it in some way materially. The question is to what extent we are responsible for our material support even if we do not desire or intend the harm that we are supporting. We discussed sweatshops and smartphones, but also discussed the NFL and concussions. Do we bear any moral responsibility as the consumers of entertainment in which the participants harm one another? How close do we have to get to the Roman Coliseum before Augustine’s reflections on blood sport in the Confessions become relevant? Are we willing participants in the cover-up of potential dangers in the NFL by virtue of our continued material support?”
How close are we to the Roman Coliseum? Football is a violent game; no one denies that. It is, in fact, one of the chief reasons many of us like it: a combination of savagery and acrobatic grace characterizes the best football plays. But is it advisable to watch the championship of a professional football league with undiluted pleasure when, as the statistics show, many of the young men we watch will be badly hurt in the playing of a game for our amusement?
Is there any way to watch the Super Bowl and still hold compassion as our highest value?
NFL players get hurt, many of them in ways that alter or even shorten their lives. Again, the NFL agreed to a $765 million settlement on a lawsuit that claimed a connection of player concussions and possible brain damage. The league doesn’t admit fault, but the LA Times reports that the NFL allegedly covered up what it had learned about the effects of head trauma on its players, and without doubt the NFL’s 18,000 retired players have suffered an inordinate number of cases of dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain damage, and early death.
Those injuries were sustained to entertain us. They might have been incurred in a past Super Bowl while we watched, nibbled Buffalo wings, sipped a Bud Light. And they don’t even count the torn ligaments, broken bones, and other injuries inflicted on any given Sunday. This year has offered a sad irony; as the league has changed rules to reduce concussions, it has redirected hits from the head to the lower body—and caused a rash of injuries to the knees of its players.
Players are hurt—many suffering lifelong damage—for our amusement.
Many writers argue that ACL injuries are now ravaging the NFL, and there is ample evidence of this. Robert Griffin III, the 2012 Rookie of the Year, suffered a horrific injury on national television when his ACL was torn in the 2012 playoffs. On a single Sunday last fall, I watched Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing and St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford join the star players carted off the field with season-ending knee injuries in a season that saw such injuries increase by 64 percent.
When we watch the NFL now, we do so with conscious awareness that this game harms its players—sometimes for the rest of their lives. It should prompt us to recall Professor Bader-Saye’s central question: “Do we bear any moral responsibility as the consumers of entertainment in which the participants harm one another?”
But it probably won’t. Every year more and more of us tune in, play NFL fantasy football, increase the ratings of sports radio and television whenever they discuss professional football, and watch the Super Bowl in record numbers.
Football may be hell on its players—but it is just entertainment to us.
The situation makes me think of another movie—The Hunger Games. Author Suzanne Collins has said that the idea for the Hunger Games came from late night channel surfing in which coverage of the Iraq war and reality TV programming began to blur in her mind. She told The New York Times that she saw the Hunger Games as a reality TV show:
“An extreme one, but that’s what it is. And while I think some of those shows can succeed on different levels, there’s also the voyeuristic thrill, watching people being humiliated or brought to tears or suffering physically. And that’s what I find very disturbing. There’s this potential for desensitizing the audience so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should. It all just blurs into one program.”
Suzanne Collins was making a spiritual point about our fascination with spectacle and programming involving real people. What does it do to us when we take pleasure in real people offering up their lives for our entertainment? Maybe an NFL game doesn’t feature the same extreme violence as her Hunger Games, but it certainly operates on its audience in the same ways.
What should we do?
The second-century African theologian Tertullian wrote an entire treatise, On The Spectacles, about why Christians should avoid the gladiatorial games, and perhaps his reasoning still applies. Like the crowds Tertullian describes at the Roman entertainments, our own pursuit of mindless spectacle and amusement can make our “ignorance linger and bribe [our] knowledge.”
As Scott Bader-Saye noted, Augustine condemned his age’s Super Bowl. In The Confessions, he described the sad tale of his friend Alypius, who got caught up in the “madness of the gladiatorial games.” Alypius went, innocently, to the games, believing he had the moral fortitude to distance himself from the violent action in the arena, but upon watching a gladiator struck down, Alypius was . . .
“. . . struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul. . . . [A]s soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness—delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but just one of the mob he came into.”
Again, I know that NFL players are not being killed in front of our eyes in the Super Bowl—but NFL players are sacrificing their bodies, and some of them, their lives, to the game.
I also know that experts continue to disagree about the effects of watching violent spectacles. But Collins, Tertullian, and Augustine—all Catholic writers—are making the same point: consuming violence as entertainment is sure somehow to be bad for the soul.
So I’m going to watch the Super Bowl again this year—even though neither of my teams got in.
But this year I’m going to watch with full awareness of all the ways it’s bad for me as well as good for me. I’m going to be aware that the solidarity I temporarily feel with all other Broncos fans as I root for Peyton Manning to win a second Super Bowl is inferior to the solidarity we should feel when we form communities to feed the poor, minister to the sick, fix the planet.
I’m going to recognize that the new commercials, entertaining as they may be, are still just designed to make me think I can buy peace, something my tradition teaches me can only come from God.
And I’m going to pray—not that my team will win, although that would be a refreshing change. I’m going to pray that no one would be badly hurt for my entertainment. I’m going to pray that the NFL and its fans might press, in the days and years to come, to see the right thing done for all those who have been or will be hurt. I’m going to pray for those players and their families, and for all those who suffer, because that’s what my tradition calls me to do daily.
And I’m going to keep wrestling with the way that football makes me feel. Because I love it. I hate it.
And it all comes to a head on Super Bowl Sunday.