“People are cowed by the NFL”: A Q&A with Gregg Easterbrook

ESPN columnist Greg Easterbrook on God, the ethics of sports, and the most pressing problems for football.

Every year during the National Football League season, journalist Gregg Easterbrook writes a whip-smart weekly column for ESPN.com called Tuesday Morning Quarterback. The column opens with a rundown of the week’s games, but it also features rabbit trail commentary on politics and policy, economics, NASA and astronomy, television shows (especially science fiction), and anything else that strikes Easterbrook’s fancy. A contributing editor at The Atlantic and The Washington Monthly, Easterbrook is the author of several books, most recently The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

Sports fans likely know Easterbrook mainly for his football commentary, but he’s also written extensively on religion, including the book Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt. I called Easterbrook to ask him to merge his thinking on football with his thinking about religion.

Let me ask you a theological question: Does God participate in the National Football League?

If you had asked Jerry Jones that question, he would say, “Well, of course, yes! I’m right here! You’re talking to me!”

If what you mean is, “Does God care who wins football games?” I certainly would hope not. But if the general form of Christian theology is true, and God is universal and all-knowing and infinitely fascinated with the world, then why shouldn’t God be just as fascinated with football as with art or with any other aspect of daily life? I don’t see why an infinite God wouldn’t be interested in what happens in a football game—both the human spectators and the game itself.

To the extent that people believe that God controls outcomes—and I am a churchgoing Christian who does not believe that—then football games present you with a fast-moving morality play. The good guys should beat the bad guys; the virtuous athletes should succeed over the cheating athletes. If you believe that God controls outcomes, daily life is full of little morality plays—but most of them are hard to discern, whereas a football game is right on TV. You know what’s happening, you know who wins, you know which players you like and which players you don’t like. Athletics gives you a type of morality play for the presence of God’s active control in life.

A recent spate of journalism, including your new book, has given us a lot of bad news about football—lifelong brain injuries for players, corrupt financial arrangements for the NFL and NCAA, and so on. Given these issues, is being a football fan a moral dilemma?

As I perceive Christianity, you should find ethical issues practically everywhere you look around you. Everybody was just singing and dancing over Florida State winning the BCS, but Florida State graduates just 58% of its football players. So Florida State is exploiting its football players for money and not giving them educations in return. You don’t have to be religious to find that ethically offensive, but anybody who is religious should be very keenly attuned to the ethical problems of football, just as we would be to other sports.

Okay, so, what should fans do? Is there an ethical way to be a football fan in light of these concerns?

What’s the ethical response? You’re asking one of the greatest questions of all of human existence.

I don’t think you should refuse to go to a game or watch a game, or else I would refuse to watch the games myself. In my case, since I have a voice on this issue, I talk constantly and loudly about the need for ethical reforms at all levels of the sport. Most people don’t have a voice, but often times you get to vote on these subjects. Some states and local areas vote on whether there should be subsidies for the NFL. In Florida, the state legislature just voted against subsidizing—or, subsidizing more of—the Miami Dolphins.

You’ve written about how the most pressing problem with head collisions and brain injuries is at the high school level. As the sense that playing football is especially risky settles into American culture, fewer families may want their kids to accept that risk. Pop Warner numbers have already begun to decline. Are you concerned that football will increasingly recruit players from America’s underclass, while people who don’t need the economic opportunity will pass on football?

This concerns me mainly in the fact that only 55% of college players graduate. For disadvantaged players in football—and there are many—the college diploma is what is going to change their lifestyle and what is going to change the people around them. It is far more important than any other thing that could happen for them, and they are being exploited in not being educated.

In this season’s NFL playoffs, we’ve seen high-profile players like Jamaal Charles removed from games because of concussions. That would not have happened a year ago, or perhaps even earlier this season. Do you think that the NFL is finally taking head injuries seriously?

I think the NFL is finally saying the right things, and that’s actually a lot further along than they were just five years ago. They are saying the right things, and they are making a half-hearted-at-least effort to change the incentive structure. They need to do more.

Of course, although nobody wants NFL players to get hurt, it’s high school and college players—especially high school players because there are so many of them—that we’re mainly concerned about. And at least it’s on [the NFL’s] radar screen now. If avoiding liability is their motive . . . I don’t really care what their motive is, so long as they do the right thing.

What about changes with the NFL’s economy? In The King of Sports, and especially in the chapter that was excerpted at The Atlantic, you argue that the NFL enjoys unjust tax policies and show how part of the league functions as a non-profit. Do you see potential for change in those areas?

There is a bill in the senate to strip the NFL of its nonprofit status. That’s for the headquarters, not the teams, but the headquarters is bad enough. [The bill] has a grand total of zero co-sponsors.* Tom Coburn of Oklahoma is sponsoring the bill. Nobody will attach his name to the seemingly uncontroversial proposition that a $10 billion-a-year organization should not get nonprofit status.

People are so cowed by the NFL. And for each individual politician, there is a lot of benefit to cozying around with the owners and sitting in the owner’s box, and a lot of possible harm if you are the one who is blamed for a team moving from state to another. But if we can’t take away a silly financial benefit enjoyed by one of the wealthiest, most subsidized organizations in the United States, what problem of government can we fix?

*Note: Since this interview, the bill has picked up one co-sponsor.

Patton Dodd
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  • Big Time Gaylord

    Why do we care if people get concussions? The activity is ridiculous in the first place. And, really, enough with the protecting the children. Shoving someone in the hallway can get you suspended, but we later glorify people ripping and tearing at each other after school on the practice field. They just need better helmets–dissonance solved. Let dumb people play their dumb games anyway they like. Player safety idiotic.