Is football America's golden calf?

August 19th, 2015

It’s that time of year when children head back to school, and pastors and church staff gear up for the start of the program year. Filling in our calendars with confirmation classes, Christian formation programming, and fellowship and outreach events, we cross-reference with community calendars and school calendars, but many of us in different areas of the country also have to look at football schedules. We know that we’d better not schedule a leadership retreat or a chili cook-off during the big rivalry game weekend or we’ll suffer low attendance. We get used to congregants ducking out after the sermon in order to make the kick-off for a noon game.

On both the professional and the college level, football season grips the hearts and minds of many American communities. People’s moods depend on whether “their” team wins or loses. Grown adults obsess over where a teenager decides to attend university. Fans can rattle off their favorite players’ stats more easily than their own phone number. There will be triumph for some and defeat for others. There will be beautiful, miraculous plays, and players pushing their bodies to the limits.

Football appears to be the official religion of America. On Saturdays and/or Sundays, we gather together in stadiums and living rooms to worship, dressed in our team attire. For a few hours, we are swept up in something bigger than ourselves. We belong. The sacramental meal is chips and beer rather than bread and wine. Football is the essence of America — strong, powerful men making a lot of money in a violent game.

As a clergyperson and a public theologian, I have grown to question this devotion to football over the past several years. For me, it is less about the game itself than about football culture. We have all witnessed time and time again as sex scandals, rape charges and accusations of assault erupt on both the college and professional levels. As football players, these young men are trained to be dominant and dominating, to “take what is theirs,” to “not ask permission,” on the field, and then we are surprised when that behavior manifests itself off the field. Because our culture has also idolized winning, administrations and coaches often cover up for star players in trouble.

In forty states, the highest-paid public employee is a coach, twenty-seven of whom are football coaches. Universities rely on the revenue from their football programs, revenue that only grows when a team is actually winning. City governments shell out millions in tax breaks and new stadiums to appease NFL teams and their owners while education programs and money for the social safety net are cut.

Even successful players have a distressingly short window in which to make money before they retire, bodies chewed up by injuries and beaten from hit after hit. According to the New York Times, brain trauma affects one in three NFL players. Players are eight times more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  And despite earning an average of $3.2 million over their careers, one in six players ends up filing for bankruptcy.

In a culture that idolizes an increasingly violent sport and winning at all costs, we must remember that we worship Jesus Christ, a person who, in his day, appeared to be a loser. Jesus preached non-violence and pronounced judgment on the powerful entities in his world. Jesus shows us what true power is — vulnerability, sacrifice, and caring for the broken, marginalized, and forgotten. What might the crucified Christ have to say to our modern-day Roman gladiators and the millions of fans that watch weekend after weekend? Are we worshipping Christ, or are we worshipping the arm of a twenty-year-old quarterback?

Too often we forget that football is supposed to be a game. We become consumed with winning rather than appreciating the art of a pass or the excitement of a close game. Instead of a distraction or a chance to bond with our fellow fans over deliciously greasy food, football is an obsession or an object of worship. I’m not saying that Christians can’t or shouldn’t be football fans, but we need to seriously discern whether supporting football culture with our time and our money is consistent with our beliefs. 

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