Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thinking Out Loud: Questions Raised by Malcolm Gladwell on Football, Dogfighting, and Violence in Sports

If you haven't seen it yet, stop whatever you're doing and go read Malcolm Gladwell's superb new essay in The New Yorker on football, dogfighting, and the violence shared between them. I don't have the qualifications or the time to examine the numerous excellent and thought-provoking issues Gladwell raises, much less explore them theologically, but I do have a host of questions, especially from the perspective of the church.
  • If the scientific evidence of such monumentally detrimental effects on football players both during and after playing is substantiated, what does that mean for: (1) the league; (2) the legality of the sport; (3) the viewing of the sport by fans; and (4) parents' allowing and even encouraging children (elementary to teenage) to play football?
  • If the league knows of the effects and cannot devise realistic or effective ways substantially to relieve them, should it close shop?
  • If the government is in a similar position, should it pass laws against professional football? If that seems outlandish or oppressive, consider whether the government should outlaw something like gladiator games. What is the spectrum from gladiators to (fake) professional wrestling to boxing to professional football? Is serious mental and physiological injury, along with premature death, as a direct consequence from playing a sport in some way assuaged by "freely" chosen involvement or by delayed realization? If so, why?
  • What is the ethical component of being a sports fan? Can it be called moral to participate joyfully in a sport built fundamentally on intentional human violence? Does it matter that the violence of football can be said to be "incidental" to the task (as a means to an end: scoring more points than the other team by creating space for offensive players to enter the end zone as unimpeded as possible as many times as possible) in a way that boxing's is not? What of the way in which "big hits" or "playing through pain" or "knocking a guy on his ass" are viewed, understood, and cheered as the most invigorating and celebrated actions of players?
  • If, again, the science can be substantiated, what would it mean to allow one's children, much less to encourage them, to play the game? If the negative physical effects on the brain can be discerned as early as 18 years old, is there any redeemable way in which the game can be played where young boys are not put in serious jeopardy for their long-term bodily health?
  • What is the judgment of these findings on an American church for the most part utterly unable to imagine a world without the game of football pervasively present at all levels of society, to the extent that high school, college, and professional players who happen to be Christians are presented as the apex of Christian obedience and models for young men to emulate?
  • What do these findings entail for other sports? What of competitive but nonviolent sports like cycling, swimming, golf, and tennis? What of physical, yet for the most part still nonviolent, sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer? What of utterly violent (yet not "deadly" in the gladiatorial sense) sports like boxing and rugby? What of a nearly deadly violent sport like Ultimate Fighting Championship?
  • Ira Casson, co-chair of an NFL committee on brain injury, qualifies potential solutions in this way: "No one has any suggestions -- assuming that you aren't saying no more football, because, let's be honest, that's not going to happen. ... I don't know if the fans would be happy with [removing the violence from the game]. So what else do you do?" Are fans the arbiter of the ethical integrity of the game? Is popularity the single determining factor for future responses to medical findings? Is the market finally the decider of whether 250-pound men will continue to pound their heads against each other (with the force of car crashes) 20,000 times per each man's decade of playing?
  • Given that the NFL promises wealth, fame, glory, power, and sex for prospects ranging from 16 to 22 years old -- young men who have grown up idolizing professional football players and who often come from difficult backgrounds and feel the weight of providing financially for their extended family, not to mention being beset by the flurry of self-interested advisers, agents, corporations, teams, analysts, reporters, and doctors pressing in like a wild mob -- can we really say that the "choice" of "taking the risk" even with "all the information given" is in any way free, considered, unimpeded, uncoerced, or essentially valid? What other factors might we take into account other than so-called "free choice"?
  • What is the church's most faithful response to an essay like Gladwell's, and to the current state of the sports industry as a whole? What might categories of discernment -- as parents, as participants, and as fans -- look like with regard to sports in general, as well as to more particular iterations both in form (cycling, basketball, boxing) and at varying levels (amateur, college, professional)? What is the first step?


  1. Good questions. I assume you heard about it from Truehoop?

    Personally, it was quite timely, after I just went to my first Big 12 football game in 14 years this past Saturday.

    I think the "'freely' chosen involvement" will be the hardest issue to deal with. If, at the end of the research, we prove that playing football is as potentially damaging as, say, cigarettes, where do we draw the line, legally?

  2. Good question man I need to catch up on your posts...

    Have you watched Rugby before. Man what a sportsman like game. If you could call it violence I would be surprised-its more like ruff housing. The intent in Rugby is not to hurt people so far as I can tell, and that seems to be an understood fact about foot ball. The vocabulary: go hit some one... I don't know just a comparison.

    PS I've really gotten into Rugby, Great Game!

  3. Hi Brad,
    A good friend of mine forwarded me your blog. I appreciate your desire to think through the church's response to a seemingly violent ANYTHING. I thought I'd give you another perspective. My comments are directed more at the author of the article than you. I would LOVE your feedback. I am all about healthy dialogue :)

    First you have to understand my background. I played football for 14 years. The last 4 were for Rhodes College. Since college I have been in full-time student ministry. I'm currently working on my MDiv from George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Thus know that I love football, I love thinking through pastoral issues, and God used football as a discipleship tool.

    1. Football and dog fighting have completely different goals, motivations, and end results.
    Motivation: There are 32 NFL teams with 53 active guys on the roster and 8-9 people on a practice squad. At the most, there are nearly 2000 players playing football professionally in America. There are tens of thousands of football players in the country. The vast majority do not get paid.
    End Result: The majority of dogs that lose either die in the fight or get put to death shortly after the match.
    Goals: Most of the coaches I know below the college level are more concerned about helping boys learn about character, teamwork, hard work, dedication, etc. than about winning championships. The only possible goal in dog fighting is monetarily related.

    2. Do you think Gladwell’s injury concern had to do with the brain damage that can result from playing football? If he is talking about injuries in general I do not know ANY athlete that plays beyond the high school level that does not have at least one injury. Heck, look at people who develop carpal tunnel syndrome from playing too much piano or from typing too much.

    If his concern is the head injuries specific to football he should also lump in sports like boxing and soccer (I read an article a few years ago that said that kids are more likely to have a head injury from heading the ball in soccer than in playing little league football). I would like to see the percentage of football players that have these sorts of head injuries. I would suspect that the number is relatively low if you look at every football player from little league to the NFL.

    3. Finally, I’d like to address the violence of football. I had college coaches that would say, “Football is the only place where it is legal to hit somebody.” I thought that was a ridiculous way to approach the game. I mentioned that so you would know that I acknowledge that many approach the sport in an unhealthy egocentric manner.

    As a Jesus follower I never wanted to play out of anger. I remember one particular game where I made 2 consecutive quarterback sacks on a particular tackle (I was a defensive end). The tackle told me both times that I was worthless. That was the first time I had ever felt angry on the football field. I went to the sideline for water so that I could pray and refocus. Football eventually became an act of worship for me. Running over a quarterback was simply a challenging task. I saw it as no different than hitting a home run in baseball (a short burst of violence) or draining a three pointer in basketball (a graceful touch of aggression). I never took cheap shots and I usually helped people up after I clobbered them. Multiple times referees and opposing players came up to me after the game to tell me they appreciated my kindness on the football field. Teammates would comment on my setapartedness. Football was a calling and a mission field. The majority of the weddings I have done have been for college football buddies who know no other ministers.

    Please hear my heart in sharing this. I’m not trying brag and I completely respect your perspective. I simply think that there is an element of danger in all that we do (eating, driving, painting, etc.).

    Wow…that was super long. Thoughts?

  4. p.s. If you ever find yourself in San Antonio lets grab coffee. I'm the Youth Director at First Pres.

  5. Brad,

    As a self-professed sports nut, I am taken in by this post. I think Gladwell moves through the choice issue too quickly. As you suggest, "free choice" is a little more complicated than that. As a Kentuckian, I know folks who "choose" to work in coal mines, a career much more fraught with danger and health risks than pro football, and they make this choice for a much smaller reward. It is disingenuous to suggest that someone with a relatively low set of marketable skills in our current business climate "chooses" when offered a six or seven digit salary in one of the most glorified segments of our economy.

    That said, I also believe, given all of the information, many would still choose to pursue that career. Just as I often choose deep fried fat over broccoli, logic doesn't guide even basic decisions about health.

    A more interesting angle for me is each player's complicity in the future health issues of the other players. And from my own perspective as a fan, my complicity in an industry that leads to these same consequences. I am not really happy that Gladwell brings legitimate guilt to one of my guilty pleasures, but I hope research clarifies how widespread this phenomenon is. If it is, in fact, as widespread as some of the early data suggests (though the quotes suggest some bias--but Gladwell may have pulled these specifically because they make good copy), it will warrant significant argument.