Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Football - Sightings (Martin Marty)

I must confess my love of football. I'm an ardent fan of the Oregon Ducks. I have long been a fan of the 49ers, though I have had a wandering eye over the years that led in the 1970s to an embrace of the Pittsburgh Steelers and living as I do in Metro Detroit, I join with long-suffering Lion's fans in hoping that one day success will be visited upon them. At the same time, I understand that this is a violent sport that can lead to serious long-term injuries, including dementia. There is even something verging on the demented with regard to the business side of things. NFL games are played on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays on multiple channels. Even college football has become big business, with the coaches pulling down salaries in the millions, dwarfing what even the presidents of institutions make. And yet, I love my football.  So what do we make of all of this -- from a faith perspective?  Martin Marty offers us some suggestions as he overlooks Soldier Field from his condo.

By MARTIN E. MARTY   NOV 9, 2015
Young player down after a tackle during a Broncos vs. Eagles game, Cumming, GA. (10.17.09)
Credit: Susan Leggett /
The jumbotron at Soldier Field, visible from our condo window, offers a colorful set of images on Sundays when the Chicago Bears are at home. It displays more liturgical colors than can the devotees of other religions still trying to attract worshippers on what Christians used to call “the Lord’s Day.”

In this scandal-filled football season, with stories of dementia and deaths increasingly common, it should be easy to raise questions about the morality of the national sport. It isn’t.

For one thing, to be prophetic about a cultural phenomenon, one must be able to stand apart from and above it. That is hard to do, given football’s ubiquity, successful calls for devotion, and, let’s face it, the excitement of the game as it is viewed on television between commercials or, in person, for the Christian Sabbath-breakers among us. (To be fair; possibly .0004% or 0005% of the viewers in the stadium have been to matins services, so…)

The Sightings “to-do” file for relevant news coverage of the candidate-sighting, “football,” bulges with moral, moralistic, ethical, and theological questionings. In this “to-do” file, I noticed that I wrote about football three years ago (September 3, 2012). It is time to revisit and update an ever more urgent topic. Headlines like these leap out: “The Moral Case Against Football.” “Why You Should Stop Watching Football.” “Our Shaken Faith in Football.”

Some express or report on ambivalence, Thus Diane Roberts revisits the long-standing symbiosis between Christian faith and football, reputedly fostered most ardently by Evangelicals. (Give them credit; their leaders often do try to bring perspective, moderation, and a search for positive features in this national pastime.) Her headline in the Los Angeles Times headed an Op-Ed: “What a team—football and Jesus.”

Religiously-based media are growing more expressive in their criticisms, as they take on many dimensions of football culture: violence, felonies, etc. We were drawn to take up this topic—it has often come our way, but we punted—by an article, “Ethical Fumbles” in U.S. Catholic. Subtitle: NFL football has become better known for scandal than spectacle.

Is it time for Catholic fans to rethink their love of the game?” In a poll of U.S. Catholicreaders—who are not representative of Catholicism at large—70% “agree” that “Supporting the NFL is an ethical conflict of interest for Catholics.”

Owen Strachan, the author of “Our Shaken Faith in Football,” asked questions about head injuries, dementia, brain damage, and death as downsides on the ethical balance sheet. This was in Christianity Today, which, years ago, published a pro-NFL article which some of today’s editors evidently regret. They and other ethics-issue writers concentrate on what the collisions of head-to-head play do to the ever-fragile instrument called the brain.

We read how Mike Ditka, our local Bears hero down the block—Ditka’s restaurant is also visible from our place—joins the many sports veterans who would not permit their sons to play football, even in childhood (two more young players died this week alone).

What can be personally disturbing in the debates over the ethics of supporting pro-football as it is now promoted, is how upsetting it is for us, the great company of ambivalent folk, to think through and resolve ethical questions. We can turn relativist and even things up by pointing out what is true: there are more violent sports with more scandalous side-effects than is pro-football. But the issue nags.

Suppose one becomes nervous about the ethics of it all and even comes to agree that it is wrong to support it: does one stop watching? It is easier for us double-minded folk to pray with some of the great saints.

As I did three years ago, I sign off with a slightly adapted quote from St. Augustine: “Oh, Lord, I want to repent and reform—but not yet!” It’s game time!


Jeltsen, Melissa. “The Moral Case Against Football.” Huff Post, August 4, 2014, Sports.

Mumford, Tracy. “One man’s moral case against football.” MPRNews, January 29, 2015, The Thread.

Almond, Steve. “Why you should stop watching football: Even for casual fans, the evidence about the destructive forces of the game have become too clear to ignore.”Boston Globe, August 7, 2014, Perspective.

Roberts, Diane. “What a team—football and Jesus.” Los Angeles Times, September 13, 2015, Op-Ed.

Wenner, Lawrence A. “Ethical Fumbles.” U.S. Catholic, November 2015, Sounding Board.

Strachan, Owen. “Our Shaken Faith in Football: Should Christian fans step away from such a physically devastating, violent sport?” Christianity Today, September 5, 2013, Views/Speaking Out.

Brayton, Ed. “More Blending of Christianity and Football in Public Schools.” Patheos: Hosting the Conversation on Faith, September 24, 2015, Atheist Channel/Dispatches From the Culture Wars.

Diamond, Dan. “NFL Players Have 30% Chance Of Alzheimer’s Or Dementia, New NFL Concussion Data Suggests.” Forbes, September 12, 2014, Pharma & Healthcare.

Laskas, Jeanne Marie. “The People V. Football.” GQ, February 21, 2011.

Image: A young player down after a tackle on the field during a Broncos vs. Eagles game in Cumming, Georgia, on October 17, 2009. Credit: Susan Leggett / Shutterstock.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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