By Tom Krattenmaker
Pro football has a serious morality problem. I am not talking about promiscuous players or racist team nicknames. Nor am I referring to the obscene amounts of money changing hands between the masses obsessed with football and the sports industrial complex that keeps them supplied.
I am talking about the risk the players are taking on for our entertainment — the risk, if the growing pile of evidence is to be believed, of brain damage. In light of an investigation by journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, we now know better than ever that playing in the National Football League can destroy men’s cognitive health, and that those who run the nation’s most powerful sports league have been making herculean efforts to keep the risk obscured.
The brothers Fainaru-Wada and Fainaru lay out their disturbing findings in their new book, League of Denial (also the name of a Frontline documentary that aired Tuesday night on PBS). Now that the lid is starting to blow off, the revelations are sure to intensify the debate over the complicated relationship among faith, morality and football.
Gridiron platform for faith
In recent generations, evangelicals have used football as a huge platform to promote their religious values. And why not, you might ask? The qualities of football closely align with Christian virtues such as sacrifice, discipline and courage.
As the author of a book on evangelical Christian engagement with pro sports, I am keenly aware of the dilemma this poses for well-intended agents of faith who work in sports. How much longer can the good Christian men in and around pro football continue cozying up to the NFL and treating it as an ideal venue to promote faith and morality to the sports-consuming public?
“When we attach ourselves to a structure that from a Christian standpoint is fallen, we inadvertently reinforce something that we don’t believe in,” John White, director of the Sports Ministry Program at Baylor University, told me after watching the Frontline documentary. “For Christians, this link between football and brain trauma is very troubling.”
Brains of deceased players
Statistics are part of the fun of following football. Well, consider this stat: Researcher Ann McKee has studied 46 brains of deceased football players; 45 have shown evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative neurological disorder.
That’s an alarming number. And to put a face on it, we now have more and more stories of retired NFLers in mid-life succumbing to cognitive disease — stories that too often end in suicide. For this onetime fan, the suicide of longtime star linebacker Junior Seau, found later to have CTE, dealt the definitive blow to any ability to enjoy football.
To be sure, there is still a great deal researchers don’t know about the phenomenon of concussions and brain damage in football. Why, for instance, do repeated concussions cause some players to develop dementia years later and others not? To its credit, the NFL has agreed to pay more than $765 million to settle concussion-related lawsuits and has donated $30 million to the National Institutes of Health to study what effect playing football has on the brain.
Let the research continue, but let’s not carry on as though we don’t know enough to regard football as dangerous. I have no doubt that football will continue to reign supreme in American culture for many years to come. Too much money and passion are invested in it, and its roots into our culture extend too deep to expect a rapid decline in football’s popularity, either at the high school and college level or in the pro ranks.
Yet, I expect we’ll witness ever-increasing numbers of moms and dads who won’t let Johnny don the shoulder pads and helmets. Retired Super Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner, who founded the First Things First Foundation to promote Christian values, says he questions whether he will allow his sons to play. And the father of Tom Brady says he might not have let his son play if he had known then what we know now.
With fewer boys playing, spectator interest in the pro game is likely to fade.
For this respecter of faith and morality, it’s no longer possible to enjoy watching the game. The agenda for fall Sundays and Monday nights has changed, and football ain’t on it.
Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of Onward Christian Athletes and The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.