Football and Ethics


The Religion News Service headline, “What’s God Got to Do with Football Devotion? Plenty,” prods me to sight “Sports” this week.

During the sixty-three years that I have lived in Chicago, I have attended one Hawks, one Cubs, one Bears (exhibition), two Sox, and one Bulls game–weak credentials for writing about professional athletics. But I have watched TV, of course, and converse. Still, to make up for lost time, I’ll touch on two sports topics-of-the-week. (But first, good-bye to good Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, who died last Friday at age 83.)

One topic is the main ethical debate around professional football’s “Deflategate” and whether quarterback Tom Brady and/or other New England Patriots are cheating and lying, both no-no’s in some sports circles. The issue breeds cynicism: almost every non-Patriot commentator assumes the worst.

If there was cheating, why did the best quarterback and best-record coach and their team “need to cheat,” asked columnist Joseph Epstein. He wrote that the only answer is the obvious counter-question: “Why not?” Asked the same question, Don Ohlmeyer, TV sports producer, replied: “If your question is about sports, the answer is money.”

Religious ethicists who talk about materialism, priorities, etc. assume that the National Football League owners and the League as a whole are given to excess. We know that a qualifying case can be made. Many coaches, players, and supporters can point to the positives of religion and the part it plays in forming “good kids,” promoting morale and team work. All that awaits discussion in some other week.

The second topic is a constant: the morality of supporting football, a sport that all agree wreaks devastation on brains and condemns many players to diminished brain functioning, premature dementia, and the like. It raises an issue which deflates the importance of the “Who deflated footballs?” question.

The comment that zinged soul and conscience came when Mike Ditka, Mr. Bear himself, said that if he had an eight-year-old son he would not let him play football. “I think the risk is not worth the reward,” he said on his TV show.

Local sportswriter Rick Telander, along that line, reflected on one team among many, the Chicago Bears. He notes the early death of hero Walter Payton, the suicide of Dave Duerson, Superbowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon who is fading and thinks of suicide, huge William “The Refrigerator” Perry, linebacker Wilber Marshall, and Richard Dent (who fears early onset dementia from concussions and says “S—, I’m scared,”) who, with so many others, survives on medication.

Telander: “How they entertained us. How they achieved the heights. At such a cost.” To them? And to us who watch, support and often idolize them?

I’ve been reading what early Christian moralists began to think and say as they faced the question of what gladiatorial combat did to fighters and their watchers. We won’t find perfect analogies, but there are some cautions in that “slave” context to inspire some questioning about what “we” do to bodies and souls, made–many faiths say, as in biblical terms–“in the image of God.”

Tatian (ca. 165): “You purchase men to supply a cannibal banquet for the soul.” Theophilus (ca. 168), on forbidding believers from watching lethal combat: “[For with Christians,] self-restraint is practiced,…righteousness exercised, law administered, worship performed, God acknowledged. Truth governs, grace guards, peace screens them….God reigns.”

There is more, but “I gotta go.” It’s almost game time.


Grossman, Cathy Lynn. “What’s God got to do with football devotion? Plenty.” Religon News Service, January 22, 2015.

Epstein, Joseph. “The Deflated State of Sportsmanship: Why would the New England Patriots cheat? Given sports these days, why wouldn’t they?Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2015, Opinion.

Telander, Rick. “The 1985 Bears and the cost of greatness.” Chicago Sun Times, January 20, 2015, Sports.

See Dr. Google for quotes by Tatian and Theophilus.

SI Wire. “Aaron Rodgers: ‘I don’t think God cares’ about game outcomes.” Sports Illustrated, January 20, 2015, NFL.

“Pro Football Talk” live with Mike Florio. “Russell Wilson credits, and blames, divine intervention for Sunday’s win.” NBC Sports, January 20, 2015, Latest News & Rumors.

Image: ostill / shutterstock creative commons.

This post originally appeared in Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago Divinity School.

NOTE: This article is not available for republication without the consent of Sightings. Please contact the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com.

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