Beliefnet
Progressive Revival

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is the author of the new book Onward Christian Athletes examining Christian engagement with pro sports. 

            It’s midday Sunday. Soon I’ll be watching the Minnesota Vikings–the pro football team of my dreams since I was eight–playing the Green Bay Packers. I’ll be watching. But not with a clear conscience.

It’s becoming harder and harder not to feel creepy about enjoying and supporting an enterprise that uses up men’s bodies–and healthy brains–for the sake of entertaining the masses each weekend of the football season.

            The ugly and increasingly unavoidable reality about pro football was brought home for me last week by two chilling articles.

One, by the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, explored the mounting piles of evidence of the devastating effects of football-playing on the combatants’ heads and cognitive health. As Gladwell provocatively asked, is football all that dissimilar from the “sport” of dog-fighting that we unanimously reject as cruel and barbaric?

The other convicting piece was a blog post at the Sojourner’s website in which writer and football fan Ernesto Tinajero said Gladwell’s piece had hit him “like a ton of bricks.” He announced that he has watched his last Super Bowl.

I wonder if I’m on my way toward a similar declaration.

Truthfully, the bloom has been coming off the pro football (and pro sports) rose for me gradually over the past seven or eight years. In researching and writing my recently published bookOnward Christian Athletes” on Christian engagement with pro sports, I’ve had to examine the object of my fandom with a critical eye and a scholar’s skepticism.

What was once fun and games for me–drama, eye-popping athleticism, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat–has become increasingly tarnished by my awareness of the profit-driven abuses and excesses of big-time sports in America. I have come to see our fixation on the sports spectacle as borderline idolatrous and largely unproductive in a time when so many urgent common-good needs are going unmet.

As a progressive, I have also found pro sports disturbingly complicit in the promotion of militaristic patriotism and religious nationalism. As I explore in my book, sports-world Christianity has often aligned strongly with the Christian Right ideology and interests that have harmed not just our national politics, but Christianity itself.

The taste in my mouth just got worse.

To read Gladwell’s article is to feel your good conscience absorb a bone-crunching tackle by Ray Lewis or one of the other ferocious linebackers roaming the fields of the NFL. Retired players are experiencing off-the-charts rates of dementia brought on by the innumerable blows to the head that are a fact of life in pro football. We are witnessing more tales of ex-players suffering breakdowns, cognitive dysfunction and/or suicide. (Cases in point: Mike Webster and Andre Waters.)

            Gladwell’s gift is his ability to see things, and show them, in a different light. Given the drama around NFL quarterback Michael Vick and his incarceration for running a dog-fighting ring, Gladwell’s comparison of football and dog-fighting is a highly effective attention-grabber. And absolutely convicting for anyone with a religious and/or moral compass. It has me asking how I can continue enjoying pro football knowing that some of those players entertaining me will end up with their brains scrambled and their lives in shreds.

Imagine the dilemma for the Christian men and ministry organizations that have helped make pro sports, and football in particular, one of the most outwardly religious sectors in American popular culture. Since the formation of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes more than a half-century ago, sports ministry has devoted itself to leveraging the visibility and influence of big-time sports to reach the public with the evangelistic message. It’s called using “The Platform.” But what if the platform is becoming so morally degraded that it robs the gospel message of any authenticity and credibility?

            This unfolding drama is shot through with other dilemmas as well.

            Contemplate the bind in which Commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the pro football power structure find themselves. If they appear dismissive or calloused about the mounting evidence and alarm, and a public relations disaster awaits. Exhibiting too much concern could lead them down a dead-end alley. Let’s face it: Other than forcing players to wait longer before returning to action after concussions, there appears to be little that football can do to protect players from head injuries without turning football into something other than the action-packed, high-thrill (and violent) spectacle that it is.

            To say there is a lot at stake is an understatement. Pro football is an enormous money-making enterprise, its two most valuable franchises (Washington and Dallas) worth an estimated $952 million and $851 million, respectively, in 2008.

            I can’t help thinking, too, about the race overlay. Like pro basketball, the NFL draws most of its talent from the African American community, meaning it’s mainly black guys getting their heads bashed Sunday after Sunday. One has to be careful about going too far with this; the dynamics of football competition being what they are, offensive linemen appear to be the ones most exposed to head injury, and that’s a “trade” within the NFL where large numbers of white men still find employment. Nevertheless, Gladwell’s likening of pro football to dog-fighting seems especially poignant in view of the unmistakable race dynamics.

            A day of reckoning may be coming for pro football–and those of us who watch it.

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