Does God like football?

Does God like football?

The on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin has sparked a couple of good think pieces from Christian writers about theology and football, and my first and likely best instinct was to let them handle the thinking. Alas, here I am.

Since I left a doctoral program in religion focused on society and ethics to go work in collegiate and professional sports for five years, after spending my seminary “supervised ministry” work as an intern with the Atlanta Braves’ chaplain, the interplay between religion and sports has always been in the back of my mind. 

Even though medical experts seem to think that what happened to Damar Hamlin was a freak injury – one that happens around 30 times a year, more often with LIttle League catchers than high-level football players – the shocking nature of this incident – the suddenness and visibility of a player collapsing in the middle of a nationally televised game – has magnified issues that were always there under the surface. The best and worst of the American phenomenon of big-time football (be in NFL or major college football) is all so brilliantly on display.

But “Does God like football?” is a hard question to ask, especially for those of us who like football ourselves.

Football is first and foremost a sport, which can be considered along with the performing arts as a sort of non-ultimate good. At their best, performance-based activities like these have direct and indirect benefits for both participants and spectators that are lesser versions of divine goods. Participants pursue excellence, commit themselves to discipline, develop self-sacrificial bonds of community, and, perhaps most uniquely, communicate a radiating sense of joy when they are able to perform their roles at the best of their ability, reflecting a sense of fulfilled vocation lived in the moment that is apparent for all to see. Spectators have the ability to witness and be inspired by that joy, while also learning to appreciate beauty, honor the excellence of others, and, especially in sports fan bases, develop community among fellow spectators.

These elements are good in that they cater to the best of human nature, and they are reflective of goods that we are called to in our ultimate vocation as spiritual beings. Pursuing and appreciating excellence, embracing discipline, sacrificing our desires for the good of the other, and developing community are all attitudes and skills that we are called to hone in our spiritual lives. For those who accept the notion of natural revelation, through which we can come to know something of God through the function of the world, it is easy to see how sports like football might offer bread crumbs of experience that prepare us for the pursuit of more meaningful versions of the same goods.

Even in the Hamlin case, we see the elements of potential holiness. Players from both teams, those in the stadium, and millions around the country prayed actively and fervently together. Even in subsequent days, commentators on sports shows prayed openly, something generally considered taboo in secular culture. Hundreds of thousands of fans donated millions of dollars to Hamlin’s charity, which had previously raised only a few thousand dollars, as a sign of compassion. Surely those instincts – to suffer with, to pray for, to support a fellow human being beset by tragedy – are ones that connect directly to our vocation as spiritual beings. Yes, there are thousands if not millions of people in the world whose need should engender this sort of response. But at least we responded to this one. That’s a start we can build on, right?

Sports also have some more morally ambiguous elements. Foremost is the nature of sports as competitive, pitting individuals and teams against each other. On the one hand, this zero-sum element of sports fosters and feeds division, which is contrary to God’s original plan and ongoing will for humanity as a unified family. On the other hand, team sports like football require the development of strong bonds of self-sacrifice that, in our fallen nature, are often best created in the face of an opponent. While we are ultimately called to see that we all belong to each other, sports can play an intermediary role of calling us out beyond our own selfishness to recognize that we belong to, if not everyone, at least those on our team. This argument is similar to the theological justification of nations. It is an imperfect good, perhaps justified by whether it prepares us for or impedes us from the perfect good of unity.

Likewise ambiguous is the similarity between culturally significant sporting events and religious ritual. Through the symbols of colors, clothing, chants and cheers, and prescribed forms of behavior, the crowd at a sporting event replicates many of the elements of religious ritual and, in the experience of losing themselves to the larger whole of the crowd, can experience something akin to spiritual transcendence. (I would argue that college and pro football games are often more textbook religious rituals, and more consistent gateways to this form of transcendental experience, than most church services.) Whether these experiences prepare and inspire us to pursue similar transcendent experiences that connect us to the divine, rather than just to our football team, is unclear.

Then there are the more challenging moral questions. Much of the current discussion revolves around the degree to which football in particular jeopardizes the health and well-being of participants, as well as the degree to which this specific sport glorifies violence. Though what happened to Damar Hamlin may well have been a freak occurrence, in the 21st century there has been much greater scrutiny of the long-term impact of football on the health of former players. Most of that attention has been on brain health and CTE, though in reality the wear-and-tear of playing football appears to have an outsized effect on lots of other body parts. One can argue that every sport and even some performing arts include levels of this sort of physical risk. In some cases, the common awareness of physical risks accentuates the more transcendent components of the experience for both participant and spectator (I think of circus artists as an example). But it is hard to argue that God wants us to risk our lives for a sport, which has no intrinsic value.

Football in particular has a history and design that glorifies violence. While the 21st century implementation of brain-safety protocols seeks to protect participants, there still remains a significant part of the game that celebrates “big hits.” It is no accident that football players frequently use metaphors of war in describing their pursuit, and some social theorists have identified sports like football as evolutionary replacements for war as outlets for aggression. But (for non-pacifists) war can be justified under specific criteria. Violence in the pursuit of protecting others, for instance, may sometimes be seen as virtuous. The violence of football, though, does not occur within that larger moral context.

More damning is the role that culturally central sports play within systems and structures that violate the dignity of every human being. A common critique of capitalism is that the systems in place can promote “profits over people,” ignoring the essential human dignity of every participant in favor of the economic success of the venture. Many of the critiques of those who called for the Bills-Bengals game to be resumed focused on this. Not only might resumption of play dishonor the dignity of Hamlin, who at that point was fighting for his life, but it also would have ignored the impact of witnessing the potential death of a fellow player on the mental state of both teams’ players. Though a more humane response carried the day, the fact that this was a debate at all highlights the temptation to reduce players to commodities in a sport that has such direct and indirect economic consequences.

But ultimately, the problem with football is bigger than all of this. Because the reality is, many of us don’t want a God who doesn’t like football. Wags have pointed out that NFL attendance has rebounded much more quickly and fully than has church attendance since the pandemic-related lockdowns. As I mentioned earlier, people commit hours of time to participating as a spectator in a football ritual, painting faces and wearing jerseys, tailgating with traditional food and drink and cheering through a 3+ hour game filled with blaring music and rituals that might seem quirky to outsiders. Far fewer people are as committed to church rituals.

Since the beginning of our existence, humanity has had an idolatry problem. The evidence is pretty clear that for many of us, football is today’s idol. Unless we are willing to give it up, it’s pretty easy to know whether God likes football.

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