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Originally posted Oct. 18, 2013
NASHVILLE (BP) — Football — more than theology -– has become one of the Baptist blogosphere’s dividing lines this fall.
The debate, waged in congenial fashion, focuses on football’s aggressive nature and Christians’ response to its frequent violent hits and its effect on players.
A bit of common ground, however, emerges regarding football’s appeal and its character-building qualities.
Football’s “grace, precision and the crushing of bone,” as Owen Strachan puts it, make the game appealing.
“There is nothing quite like a hit over the middle. A ballet-graceful wide receiver at full extension grabs a tightly thrown pass only to be smacked down like a rag doll by a heat-seeking safety,” Strachan, assistant professor of church history and Christian theology at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky., wrote in a post titled “Our Shaken Faith in Football” at ChristianityToday.com in early September. Boyce College is the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Strachan also is executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
Two other Baptists in the blogosphere, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins, also noted football’s appeal in a joint post titled “Is football too violent for Christians?” at the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s erlc.com website.
“No other game combines brute force and elegant choreography the way football does,” Prince and Scroggins wrote in late September.
Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., and an assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Seminary. Scroggins is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Strachan, Prince and Scroggins noted football’s widespread appeal. It “provides a place for people of wildly different backgrounds to come together,” Strachan wrote, and serves “a profound communal and civic function.” As Prince and Scroggins put it, “the atmosphere and pageantry of football attracts countless people who are fans of the spectacle more than” the actual game.
Among numerous character-building qualities of the sport, the trio agreed that it calls for discipline, determination, courage, teamwork and self-sacrifice.
“Many of these virtues,” Strachan noted, “line up nicely with biblical character (1 Cor. 9:27, for example),” while Prince and Scroggins suggested that the Bible “draws a relationship between sport and war” and that “the lessons learned from agonizing and struggling in one can readily prove instructive for the other (Heb 12:1-4, 1 Cor 9:24-27, Eph 6:12, Phil 3:13-14).”
Risks & downsides
Then, however, comes the debate over how Christians should respond to the game’s inherent risks as well as its potential cultural downsides.
For Strachan, the harmful physical effects that full-contact football has on players and its brutal nature raise “concerns for Christians, who of all people have the most stake in human flourishing based on the imago dei, the likeness of man to God (Gen. 1:26-27).”
Referring to the National Football League’s deliberations over players with concussion-related injuries, Strachan asked, “[D]oes it behoove Christians to reconsider the game’s violence? I think it does.”
Strachan acknowledged that his question raises a “tough issue” because, “To lose football would be to see one of the primary laboratories for maturity (in young men particularly) disappear. It would change America, which has been warmly defined as fundamentally ‘football and apple pie.'”
“Concussions are the scariest part of the game” and “are under-reported and under-diagnosed in youth sports,” Strachan wrote. Despite millions of children playing football nationwide, he pointed out that, “there are almost no studies of the effects of youth football on the human brain.”
Also, the “culture of football should concern Christians,” Strachan wrote, and “football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience.”
Instead, “Christians should be informed about the nature of football,” which is “affected by the fall” and “not impervious to the effects of the curse of Genesis 3,” Strachan noted.
“Christians should think hard about involving their children in such a violent game,” he wrote, acknowledging that “I would have a hard time sending my son into a sport that is leaving 40-year-old men with dementia,” which afflicts some former NFL players.
“Some conscionable, God-fearing Christians may strongly disagree with me,” Strachan wrote, since football “affords joy in a world in which it can be hard to find.”
“But at the end of the day, the punishing nature of the game concerns me.”
Football & Teddy Roosevelt
Prince and Scroggins pointed out that Strachan’s “question of whether football is too violent to be deemed ethically acceptable is not a new one.” They discussed the state of the game in 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt was president and “18 men died on the college football field,” prompting calls to abolish college football.
Roosevelt, a fan of the game, expressed the opinion that abolishing football might result in producing “mollycoddles instead of vigorous men,” Prince and Scroggins recounted. Roosevelt moved to save football and his “efforts resulted in a few changes that rescued the manly game he loved.” The duo quote from the book “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football” by John J. Miller: “In Roosevelt’s estimation, the foes of football were wrongheaded idealists who simply refused to accept the risks that are attached to virtually any human endeavor. They threatened to feminize an entire generation.”
Prince and Scroggins wrote that “Roosevelt’s willingness to listen to concerns” and his “defense of a brand of football far more brutish and violent than today is instructive for the contemporary conversation about the ethics of the combat sport. We should always be willing to reform the game in ways that reduce risk but do not destroy the very character of the physical and manly sport.”
Acknowledging that the NFL has “an ethical responsibility to inform players” about the known and potential dangers of football, Prince and Scroggins wrote that, “Nevertheless it is wrongheaded to use data from NFL football players who have made the game their career at the highest level and attribute it to everyone who plays football.”
It is tragic, Prince and Scroggins wrote, that “despite the logical difference, many American parents are keeping their children out of youth football.” They cite a survey that 25,000 fewer kids played football in the U.S. in 2012 than only four years before. From a news article they quote a pediatric surgeon who said, “I tell parents that it’s safer to send their children to Pop Warner [football] than to the playground.”
“As Christians,” Prince and Scroggins wrote, “we believe that it is our responsibility to take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). This means that followers of Jesus are right to question their participation in any activity, including football.”
They lauded attempts to reform corruption and cheating in the game and “are saddened every time a player gets injured on the football field, but no more so than when one is injured in a cycling or skateboarding accident.”
Nevertheless, Prince and Scoggins wrote, the “rugged, physically demanding, purposeful aggression of football is an asset, not a liability” on the gridiron, providing “a consistent and valuable metaphor for contemporary churches that need to remember that the Great Commission is not a public relations campaign, but rather a war cry that demands self-sacrifice.”
Sacrifice and calculated risk “are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood,” Prince and Scroggins wrote. “Sadly,” they noted, “evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety.” Boys whose parents don’t allow them to participate in sports like football “because they might get hurt” will have a difficult time finding the apostle Paul remotely intelligible when he asserts, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
In concluding their essay, Prince and Scroggins returned to Roosevelt’s playbook, who they said purposefully recruited football players for his Rough Riders military unit.
“The church is in desperate need of some Christian Rough Riders who are willing to serve the church self-sacrificially and enter spiritual battle, no matter the cost. The modern church has too many mollycoddles instead of vigorous men, and our mission demands the latter.”
Tim Tune is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).