It’s New Year’s Day on the annual football calendar, and celebrations are underway. But just as January 1 is a mixture of champagne toasts and sober resolutions, so the start of every football season now comes fully equipped with a series of sad reminders of All the Things That Are Wrong with Football. In case you’re one of the remaining football fans who hasn’t faced facts, this time of year is your chance to deal with the truth: watching football is a moral problem. And if you’re still watching football — especially Big Football (the NFL and NCAA) — with the same feverish and guilt-free glee you’ve enjoyed most of your life, then you’re part of the problem.
A few years ago, you could don your player jersey and root for your team and set your Fantasy Football lineup and go about your merry sports-fan way from September to January and not wonder if you were caught up in some ethical quandary. Not anymore. Each new season brings a scrolling news ticker of bad news: brain trauma and other lifelong (and life-shortening) injuries; pervasive violence, bullying, and misogyny; an out-of-control college game that promises “student” athletes quality educations and career potential and delivers neither; powerful, monied interests that promote the professional game at the expense of taxpayers who subsidize team wealth.
For many of us, a sinking feeling has set in: so long as we’re watching Big Football, cheering it on, live-tweeting it, paying our cable bills and sports bar tabs and buying team paraphernalia — so long as we allow ourselves to be entertained by this brutal and overgrown sport — the stink of football’s rot is on us.
But what are we to do about it? Are fans responsible to deal with the moral messes in Big Football? What can we do? What should we do? Gregg Easterbrook, Steve Almond, and others have specified terrific improvements for the game itself and the leagues that run it. But what about regular fans? What’s our responsibility to the sport? What’s our responsibility to the athletes who play it and to their families and future selves?
I’ve long felt these questions are pressing in particular for football fans who profess to be people of faith — especially Christians, because in large swaths of America, football and Christianity run on shared energy. Everywhere you turn, Christian leaders seem to be rubber-stamping the game — see, for example, this Washington Post report on the church-like atmosphere at Clemson and Ole Miss, where coaches double as pastors; or see this myopic defense of football violence by two Southern Baptist pastors. Such is the fruit of a tree whose roots run deep — at least as deep as Amos Alonzo Stagg, a Yale Divinity School student who traded preaching for coaching in 1890, in part because he believed that coaching was preaching; Stagg became football’s chief innovator, and in giving us the game we know today, he believed himself to be doing God’s work. Likewise for countless coaches and athletes associated with the game today. Football is not just a job; it’s not just a passion; it’s a sacred vocation.
At one level, the convergence of Christianity and football is well and good. The faith does a lot of good for the sport — ennobling players and coaches, fomenting community bonds, inspiring athletes to overcome adversity and become benevolent and powerful community leaders. And the sport has often been good for the faith — athletic fields are in many communities an extension of local churches, and I mean this as a good thing; thousands of players will tell you that programs like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action changed or saved their lives, that a redemptive force found them on the football field. Football has indeed been a context for human flourishing.
But in many settings, Christian culture is too eager to baptize football, washing away its sins — or, rather, just ignoring them. Pastors connect with their congregations through their shared love of football, which is fine. But Big Football is a power in this country, one now facing multiple moral crises, and religious leaders should speak to that power. How can religious leaders celebrate NFL and NCAA games without also calling Big Football to account for its sins of greed and violence (against the human body, women, decorum, etc.)?
We can love things well, and we can love them poorly. Perhaps football’s most urgent problem is that too many of its fans are loving it poorly. We’re gluttonous in our love — we just consume as much of it as we possibly can, then ask for more, without weighing the human cost. Put differently, we’re spoiling the game rotten — like parents of a willful child, we’re afraid to ask it to behave better. This has to change.
Last year, I interviewed Denver Bronco veteran Nathan Jackson about his visceral football memoir, Slow Getting Up. Jackson remains an admirer of the sport, but he is also a trenchant critic, and we talked in candid terms about the ethical problems plaguing the NFL. Near the end, I told him that our conversation was making me never want to watch another game. His response surprised me: “Oh, I hope you don’t stop watching. The last thing the sport needs is for morally conscious fans to go away.” I asked him to tell me what being a morally conscious fan might look like. He said he wasn’t sure, but he hoped “fans like you will think it through.”
Despite concerns that the game cannot be played at all without risking serious cognitive impairment, much of what’s wrong with the game can be fixed. Injury protocols (from reporting to treatment to recovery times) improved slightly last year and can be improved much further — though the NFL is unlikely to improve them without more public pressure. Fan responses to injury need to mature — we can advocate for players to return to full health, prioritizing their football afterlives over short-term productivity. We can lobby our elected representatives, most of whom are spineless and feckless when it comes to football, to speak truth to football power at the college and professional levels. All in all, fans can develop a critical fanhood that takes the game seriously enough not to let it run amuck.
In his book Reforming Hollywood, William Romanowski tells the story of how religious leaders helped save Hollywood from itself. During the movie industry’s 1920s boom, a rise in indecent pictures and salacious industry behavior raised the specter of federal regulation. Religious critics of Hollywood helped lead the way toward reformation by helping the industry govern itself. They were vocal in their critiques, but they did not want to take the industry down — they wanted to make sure Hollywood’s excesses did not lead to its ruin. Whatever we think of the artistic results of that interference, it arguably helped create the conditions for a sustainable cinema industry.
Football needs similar interference. The NFL and NCAA need more than just fans — they need critics committed to changing the game for good.