Commentary

Stars, saints, or martyrs?

David Lott

Perhaps the only thing that stirs more passion among people in Washington, D.C., than partisan politics is its football team. If you think that football is just a spectator sport and politics is religion for Washingtonians, you’ve got it exactly backwards. FedEx Field, not the Capitol or the White House, is D.C.’s cathedral, and this year it is Robert Griffin III — RGIII — not President Obama, who is our high priest.

Football fever so pervades the atmosphere here that one can hardly stay ignorant of the Washington team’s fortunes, no matter how hard someone like me might try. And so when RGIII went down multiple times with a knee injury in the wild-card playoffs against Seattle, discussion of who was to blame for his injury and his delicate prognosis overtook all coverage of the fiscal cliff, gun control, cabinet nominees, and other national business.

Was the issue RGIII’s stubborn insistence on being put back in the game after he went down in pain the first time? Was it Coach Mike Shanahan’s arrogant willingness to put the health of his star quarterback at risk in order to win a playoff game? Debates over these issues have become so heated as to make the partisan dysfunction in Congress seem almost genteel by comparison.

Occupy the NFL!

But even those who would prefer to ignore all this drama should not turn up their noses in disgust and simply look away, for there is too much going on in this cultural phenomenon that demands our ethical scrutiny. Even as RGIII was beginning his surgical recuperation, medical examiners elsewhere released reports on last summer’s suicide of former NFL star Junior Seau showing he had degenerative brain disease consistent with the multiple concussions many football players incur during their careers. This is only the latest in a sickening string of reports of deaths and illnesses connected with these kinds of head traumas, almost surely connected to the increasing brutality of football at all levels.

Odds appear to be good that RGIII will return to play sometime next season, though it remains to be seen how this latest surgery will affect his form and his once-promising career. But it is not just RGIII’s determination and will that seems to be driving the speed of this return, but the absolute will and passion of his fans, who demand it of their religion’s high priest. And while RGIII with luck will not face the fate of Junior Seau, this new knee injury may well hamper his future mobility and chances for a relatively pain-free existence. The religion of football apparently has its own perverse version of the theology of the cross.

Why is it that we endorse with our time, money, and passion this so-called sport that is putting so many lives at such peril? Scores of former football players have been diagnosed with varying forms of degenerative brain disease, while maybe thousands of others are bearing the burdens of other forms of debilitating injuries. Yes, the players go into the sport knowing the risks, and most get paid extraordinary sums in return, but the real reason for this quid pro quo is our absolute refusal to own up to how our fandom abets these catastrophic injuries.

To make matters worse, virtually every city that hosts a major-league football team has found itself at some time or another in a virtual hostage situation with wealthy franchise owners who demand that local and state jurisdictions pony up millions of dollars to construct increasingly more elaborate stadiums, lest they move the team to another location that is more willing to pay the demanded ransom. If you want a quick and obvious illustration of the divide between the so-called one percent and the 99 percent, you need look no further than the transactional relationship between football team owners demanding tax benefits from ordinary citizens. Occupy the NFL!

And let’s face it: Even the church gets in on the act. Thousands of preachers are unrepentant pro football fans who cheer their favored teams on from the pulpit but would be loath to speak out against the violence that permeates this “sport.” Churches schedule events so as not to interfere with football programs or even host viewing parties. But how many churches do you know of that have held adult forums to discuss the ethics of football fandom in the face of evidence of its economic and medical evils? How many preachers have dared to voice such sentiments from the pulpit?

As the football season winds up, it may be time finally to confess how the church has conferred a sort of baptism upon this brutal sport and been co-opted into its twisted ethics.

As the football season winds up, it may be time finally to confess how the church has conferred a sort of baptism upon this brutal sport and been co-opted into its twisted ethics, accommodating itself to a foreign culture — no, a foreign empire. Against these powers, can we come to regard football heroes not as idols but as beloved of God and deserving of our advocacy against the powers that gladly subject them to maiming and profound suffering for the sake of the almighty dollar?

Many churches will soon celebrate what is called the “Souper Bowl of Caring,” in conjunction with the NFL Super Bowl, as a way to raise awareness and funds to fight hunger in America. But what if churches also used that event as a way to address the very real immorality that is happening in the NFL with its callous toleration of traumatic head injuries, degenerative brain disease, and other disabling injuries among its players, and to protest the economic blackmail being foisted upon cities and states? What if the money we spend on football paraphernalia went to organizations that research and assist those with degenerative brain diseases?

Dare we confess our culpability in a sinful cultural phenomenon? Can we regard RGIII, Junior Seau, and others as our brothers in need of our care, not our idolization?

David Lott is an independent book editor living in Washington, DC. He has worked with Fortress Press, Alban Institute, and the World Council of Churches. His many publications include New Proclamation and Conflict Management in Congregations. A version of this OpEd was originally published on his “View from the Hill” blog at www.newproclamation.com.

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