Football and Discernment

Now that I have a son, I find my lingering doubts about football coming to a head. With the Super Bowl upon us, I find myself wondering whether it is for the greater glory and praise of the divine majesty to watch the game.

Consider these two well-wrought essays: the first, by Steve Almond at the New York Times:

footballMedical research has confirmed that football can cause catastrophic brain injury — not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played. That puts us fans in a morally queasy position. We not only tolerate this brutality. We sponsor it, just by watching at home. We’re the reason the N.F.L. will earn $5 billion in television revenue alone next year, three times as much as its runner-up, Major League Baseball.

The second, by Greg Garrett at On Faith:

Is it advisable to watch the championship of a professional football league with undiluted pleasure when, as the statistics show, many of the young men we watch will be badly hurt in the playing of a game for our amusement?

Is there any way to watch the Super Bowl and still hold compassion as our highest value?

Garrett cites Augustine’s reflections on his friend Alypius, who had been seduced by the blood lust of the gladiatorial games in the Roman Coliseum, and asks whether our (otherwise good) expressions of intergenerational, interracial, inter-economic-strata camaraderie are not merely icing on a rotten cake.

Discernment is the practice of asking the imagination “what is good?” and “what is a greater good?” There are of course many goods that emerge from watching football; but the question for discernment is whether those goods are to be found only under the existing circumstances.  Can we imagine other alternatives? I can: and so can the millions of people (for example) who watch the football whose main contest is not the Super Bowl, but rather the World Cup.

I, for one, will not be going to watch my children on the gridiron this Spring, but rather on the pitch.

(Full disclosure: I’d rather be rowing.)


  1. I, too, have reservations about the high esteem our culture places on all sports. Many sports (like auto racing, boxing, and even skiing) can cause injury. But the football community hasn’t done the best job of protecting players against injury. But my main problem with professional sports in general is that our tax money is being used to build palaces to the god of sport. This is money that might be put to better use. While some might argue that massive sports stadiums are for the “common good” (whatever that means), our tax money, and maybe our discretionary income, is best used in other ways. I probably won’t watch the Super Bowl – not even the halftime show.

  2. When I heard one person refer to American football as a modern gladiator sport, I knew I couldn’t condone football. As a healthcare professional, I also can’t justify boxing as a sport.


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