Concussions and Christian football

Editor's note: In light of the Aug. 16, 2013, death of a high-school football player after making a tackle, we're revisiting this earlier post on the inherent danger of the sport.

It’s been a rough year for quarterbacks in the NFL.

Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears and Kevin Kolb of the Philadelphia Eagles have each already missed games because of concussions. David Garrard of the Jacksonville Jaguars will be out this Sunday and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers almost missed last week's game due to a mild concussion. All this in light of increasing scientific evidence that repeated collisions while playing football may permanently damage a player’s brain.

A tipping point seems to be on the horizon for this particular sport. Some people are seriously asking: Is football too dangerous to play?

That would be a heretical question at the many Christian high schools and universities where the game approaches sacramental status. After all, football and Christianity have been in a long, committed relationship that has only intensified in recent years. In 2008, The New York Times reported on a surge of football-themed books from Christian publishers, while Chad Gibbs’ “God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC," published this year, chronicles how the phenomenon plays out in the Bible Belt.

Full disclosure: I played two unremarkable years for the football team at my Christian high school. The Lord didn’t lead us to many wins, but I still had fun playing this exhilarating, intricate game. I know from experience that the concussion question hits home for many Christians and their kids. How should we answer?

The NFL is putting on a good show – rewriting rules to better protect quarterbacks, penalizing defensive players for helmet-to-helmet shots, setting stricter guidelines for when injured players can return to the field – but the league will never consider the bottom-line issue: Is this simply too dangerous of a game?

Christians, of course, look at this as more than a physical issue. At what point does the willful damage of our bodies by participating in a violent sport contradict Paul’s directive to “honor God with your body.” If we’re supposed to treat our physical selves as temples, is allowing them to be pummeled to the point of concussion similar to excessive drinking, unhealthy eating and the abuse of drugs?

Perhaps that’s a stretch, but the more I hear about current NFL players being knocked silly – and read about former players who are now physical wrecks – the more I wonder: Is God pleased when he sees us do this with our bodies, one of his precious gifts?

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I played the game---backyard with brother and neighbors, schoolyard with friends, and in high school, a similar lackluster two-year "career" at a large public high school in Michigan; I watched the game---a Lions fan, until moving to Bears territory, a Michigan fan (O How I Hate Ohio State!) until moving to Northwestern/Notre Dame area; and I coached the game in high school for 20 seasons, 10 more or less unremarkable seasons, followed by 10 more or less nearly remarkable seasons. I coached my own two skinny sons---one who decided after two years to be a scholar, the other who played four years.
Many see football as sublimated warfare---positively or negatively; critics see it as a modern-day version of gladiator contests---again, positively or negatively. As an English teacher, I tried to view the sport as drama . . . .
The tension I felt as a Christian, deeply involved in the sport, was not of the violent physical nature of the game, but of the violent attitudes often expressed in the spirit of the game. Many opponents, and even fellow coaches, players' parents also saw the game as gladiatoral and militaristic---opponents were to be defeated, "destroyed," not to mention humiliated, embarassed, etc. To dominate the field was the sole objective. Friday Night Lights in America takes on all the aura of the Civil War.
As a coach, who learned coaching under a great mentor, I emphasized to my players to "play hard, play fair, have respect for your opponent," to act with class and dignity on and off the field, etc. The focus was more on individual achievement and team success, excellence, good sportsmanship winning or losing, without vilifying opponents. I emphasized the same when I coached baseball, tennis, and track.
Yet football has that extremely physical nature to its core---it's not a contact sport, but a collision sport---and in practice as much as in the game, bodies get pummeled--thus the protective equipment. The current controversy in the NFL, head-to-head tackles, comes from aggressive coaching techniques as well as rogue players---the helmet is less for protection, and more for an aggressive weapon. Concussions happen, along with blown-out knees, bone-breaks, and neck injuries; and the incidence and severity increases with each level of play, from h.s. to college to pro, as the players get bigger, faster, stronger.
Not to down-play the physical nature of football, but please also consider the injury potential for automotive sport, for hockey, for baseball, for bicycle racing---notice the helmets; some of the most serious injuries I have ever witnessed have been in soccer and in basketball, where players have minimal protection and risk catastrophic collision, though much more rare than in football.
I'd hate to brand any sport as un-Christian for its physical nature and its potential damaging effects. I'd be more concerned with the psyche and the heart of the athlete who is less than God-honoring in his or her attitude and approach to the game and opponents. I think the case is over-stated that athletes 'willfully do damage to their bodies,' for don't athletes also work out and train to strengthen their bodies as well? Rules of the game, made to protect atheletes, need to be made and enforced; ethical training, coaching, and performance need to be emphasized in our culture.
Not to start a worship war, but based on this logic, is it a sin for a church to worship at a decibel level that can damage hearing? It also raises question for other other venues as well.

Is the question really: Is it ok to cause harm to the temple for entertainment purposes?

interesting how there are so many rules against work for protection reasons, but football and futbol both create numerous injuries for teenagers. Why is it acceptable to be injured in sports but not in work? I'm not saying this as a complaint, rather a theological one as we're part of our purpose is to work.
At the risk of abusing Scripture, "All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial." There is nothing in football that is inherently wrong, even as there are definitely wrong ways to play the game. You might as well ask if commercial fishing, the most dangerous job in the world, or even something less exotic (but still dangerous) like truck driving is Christian or not. (I recognize that such an analogy eventually breaks down, as truck drivers aren't actively attempting to separate other drivers from their rigs! :-)
Really,this seems to be too silly to even consider. We live in a world where everything is taken to the extreme-- hello does Survivor sound extreme. Also we could reference the scripture about beating your body into submission. I think you have overemphasized the relationship between Christianity and football, if anything there is at least an attempt for balance there, for many people football is a religion, worshipped in stadiums and in front of big screen tv's every Sunday. Please this is a stretch to say the least
Basically, one can only make those decisions for oneself and therefore we are not permitted to make broad judgments about others' participation in any potentially harmful, but not specifically prohibited, activity or career.
"Sin" is any action which takes us OUT OF THE WILL OF GOD--NOT a list of 'Dos' and 'Don'ts'. In that context, a person would have to evaluate whether their role in football (or other sports, or professions, etc.) is one that adds to, or subtracts from, their relationship to God and their fellow Christians.
Can God use our actions, wise or unwise, [and by extension, our injuries] to bring glory to his name? Sure. That doesn't necessarily mean he blessed the decisions that brought us there. A good many inspirational stories have come out of the sports world, and I believe it has a place. But I also believe the system, within which our national sports function, is deeply flawed and that our actions within the system need to be carefully brought before the Lord; just like any other aspect of our lives.
When I first saw the headline on Twitter,. I was thinking, wait.. to watch or to play?
Josh, thank you for being willing to write this, even in the face of the great majority of our cultural interests. I've found myself asking the same question you posed at the end for a few years now as well, but don't know how the rest of our society, or church, will take it seriously. But we need to begin having this discussion ... Ben (With Those Who, a journal of empathy)
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are missing the point in the current discussion of concussions and football. This issue cannot be compared to other sports. Yes, soccer, basketball, bike racing and hockey and ALL other sports have major injuries that look horrific and have a profound result on one's body. But how often are those shocking and wince-inducing accidents actually downgrade one's quality of life and ability to live it? What these new studies about football show is that routine, regular game-play in football (not just the big 'oh-my-goodness' hits) causes irreparable brain damage due to the accumulation of concussions--concussions a player may never know they had. Breaking a leg in a spectacular accident is one thing. Not being able to think or process for the rest of your life is another. Yes, people have even died in other sports--like Nascar. But those are very rare instances. What we are talking about in football is a large percentage of those who play the game being adversely affected for life due to the consistent, unspectacular and routine hits to one's head. We get so caught up on the big gnarly hits and serious injuries that are clearly witnessed but it's the unseen damage that is far more dangerous. It is--as Slate wrote recently--the damage from "repetitive, normal football blows of moderate intensity" that are causing the new level of concern. No, not every football player will walk away from the game changed for life. But what we need to take notice of is the percentage, severity and likelihood of these long-lasting brain changes. I am not anti-football (Go Bears!). And I am NOT saying it needs to stop being played. But we need to stop lumping this in with other sports and really face up to waht science is showing us. I want those arguing this to understand the issue. This is not a matter of avoiding freak accidents. It's a matter of new research showing devastating but frightening routine brain damage. I encourage those interested in debating this issue to read some of the studies--including this Slate article (http://www.slate.com/id/228151....
Thank you for writing your recent thoughts on concussions and Christian football. I thought I would give my observations as someone who works on a weekly basis with concussions, including those sustained in football. I am a neuropsychologist, and so specialize in brain behavior relationships. There has been a lot of press regarding NFL concussions, etc. I do not want to minimize the nature of concussions; we should attend to them as a potentially significant issue. However, it is important to add that a lot of individuals in the scientific community are much more guarded in terms of what these findings actually mean. Often, when researchers publish findings (such as the recently much-lauded “chronic traumatic encephalopathy”), they offer preliminary, tentative observations. News outlets pick these things up and make much freer observations and interpretations. It is unclear so far whether these NFL players show much difference from the general population. The early work on CTE has been based on very limited numbers and liberal interpretations of data. Unfortunately, the outcomes I expect are as follows: 1) parents will pull their kids from sports participation even though it is probably ultimately more beneficial to be active; 2) as a society, we will spend millions (billions?) on addressing something we are not sure is actually an issue; 3) in our hyper-litigious society, many parents will jump on the bandwagon and sue schools/providers for substandard care; and 4) providers will become ultraconservative and recommend treatments that are ultimately more harmful than good (e.g., I have seen multiple providers telling people not to do ANY activity after a concussion in order to prevent further damage—there is absolutely no scientific evidence to suggest that this is beneficial, but there is evidence that it may ultimately be harmful). I fear that in striving to be cautious the pendulum, as it so often does, has swung too far. Regardless, thank you for dialoging about this issue.

 

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