Last week, a group of leading concussion specialists gathered in Pittsburgh to address the crisis facing professional football in America. The National Football League financially backed the event, and for good reason. The nation’s most profitable sport faces a major threat to its survival if the negative publicity surrounding concussions continues. A recent PBS Frontline episode reported a 96% rate of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease) in former football players. Will Smith’s upcoming drama, Concussion, will bring the issue into theaters nationwide. While these developments have the potential to further discredit an American institution, they are also a call for Christians to think about the welfare of the athletes who entertain us each week.
When I played football in high school, I remember having my “bell rung” on a few occasions. It was no big deal for most of us, as the essence of a sport like football is toughness and the ability to push through pain. In fact, it was somewhat a rite of passage and many players jokingly shared their experiences. At that time, most guys would shake off their pain and keep playing. Rarely did these incidents elicit substantial responses, yet I have recently begun to reconsider the appropriateness of this culture.
Shouldn’t the fans of the league demand that the NFL make every effort to protect these men?
While I love the sport, I often wonder if America’s national passion for football has a greater price. I am reminded of the Roman thirst for violence in their entertainment. Similar to America’s obsession with reality television, especially that which displays family dysfunction and outlandish personal behavior, the Romans enjoyed watching pain. Football obviously does not celebrate tragedy at the level that Rome did. However, it does bring into question what excites us, as America thoroughly enjoys the bone-crushing side of the sport. Hard hits and big collisions sell tickets.
Yet the Christian faith requires a sense of compassion for others. This was the essence of Christ’s ministry. When He was informed of the death of Lazarus, Jesus wept, even though He knew He would raise him from dead. I have often wondered why this was the case. I can only surmise that watching the pain of Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, caused Him to feel empathy towards them. The lesson for all of us is to live our lives by putting ourselves in the place of others. This is a good rule of thumb for all areas of our lives, including our entertainment.
The question for Christians is not whether we should disavow ourselves from any connection to football, but whether we should concern ourselves with the well-being of the athletes we invest so much of our time following. Shouldn’t the fans of the league demand that the NFL make every effort to protect these men? Currently there are discussions of new helmet technology, rule changes and expanded medical resources for the players. All of these options deserve immediate attention. Fans have substantial power through social and traditional media, letter writing and government lobbying to send a clear message to the NFL. While we value the sport, it is not worth the lives of those who participate. We should raise our voices to collectively and urgently address this crisis, the impact of which, on both the athletes and their families, fully remains to be seen. Our Sunday heroes at least deserve this.