“Look! Our first football cover!” was the first word I heard on my first sighting of religion in public life for Sightings after a month of pause.
“Football: The Moral Hazard,” words superimposed on a football game photo, was the first relevant sight during my late summer visit to my editorial home-away-from-home, The Christian Century offices.
It called attention to “Unnecessary Roughness,” an article by Benjamin J. Dueholm, a fellow Illinoisan who confesses to being a Green Bay Packers fan (as are the Martys).
Should he continue to follow professional football, or do the evident moral hazards add up to the point that, in confession, he should turn from devotion to football?
More and more religious journals and blogs, plus quoted pulpiteers and pundits, are expressing uneasiness about the attention or addiction to violent sports.
Most are written or broadcast by moralists – in Dueholm’s case, by Christian ethical thinkers.
Convinced that many aspects of the sport are moral hazards, do they turn away? Dueholm and, as we used to say, “the present writer,” tend to be in the posture of St. Augustine, who would be converted, but “not yet.”
With ambivalence, we watch the games and chew nachos.
Readers don’t need to turn to Sightings to be brought up to date on issues. By now we all know the bill of particulars: brain damage and other permanent bodily harm for players, misplaced priorities for publics, etc. etc. cannot be denied, and dealing with them cannot be postponed.
If nothing else, the defensive actions and semi-reforms of the National Football League make that clear. Pastor Dueholm, typically for writers in this genre, draws on grand-scale theological themes and writers, chiefly crabby old Tertullian and ambivalent old Augustine.
They analyzed not football but gladiatorial contests, and Dueholm knows there are limits to the analogy and the insights to be gained from it.
He does, however, helpfully digest them.
First, does the physical harm to the contestants challenge Christian teachings on stewardship of the body, and are acts which defile the image of God permissible?
Second, he worries about “the moral harm to the spectators,” and about what the celebration of violence with intention to do harm to “the other” does.
Third, the pagan cultural rituals back then competed with Christian rites.
Today? There is a huge and credible literature on the ways in which professional football is the American civic religion in its most celebrated ritual form.
We won’t go into that literature today, since it introduces too many parallel issues for one article.
The Christian Century writer, to be fair, does not overstate the case or pretend that we match exactly the scene to which the ancient Christian moralists reacted.
He sees some positive values in the civic ritual functions of Superbowl-type activities.
He acknowledges that many professional athletes appear to be genuinely serious about their Christian faith or other moral norm-setters.
Dueholm concludes, as a lifelong fan, “I find it hard to accept that the time may have come for Christians to exercise what remains of our culture-shaping power by turning away from a game whose dangers are grave even as their extent is not fully known. … It is by definition difficult to run away from an entertainment,” and “Christians, too, need pastimes and diversions. The question is which ones honor the image of God and the call to justice and equity.”
No doubt, after preaching, Dueholm watched a televised game, showing that he is ready to be converted from such activity and thought, as did others and this sighter, but evidently “not yet.”
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.