Like many football fans, I watched aghast at the news coming out of the NFL this week. The horrific video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer came out the morning after a full slate of Week 1 games. A series of Nixonian statements from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell followed, in which Goodell denied reports that the league office had seen the video months ago (as if the previously-available video of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator—and Rice’s own admission of punching her—hadn’t already made clear what happened). To finish the week, Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of child abuse, after admitting to bloodying his son with a tree branch.
Incidents like these don’t occur among the majority of players, and it’s hard to draw solid causal links between the on-field violence of football and the off-field behavior of its players. Researchers have produced increasing amounts of evidence that concussions lead to permanent and debilitating brain damage, though this week’s incidents probably had little to do with head trauma. Still, such a week raises the question of how much fans will be willing to tolerate, as we learn more and more about how our most violent major sport affects the modern-day gladiators who play it.
This is an issue with particular urgency for evangelical Christians, who once worried about the violence of football but now have become a major part of its massive fan base. Football-loving evangelicals came to prominent attention with the rise of Tim Tebow a few years ago, but since the 1960s, evangelicals have been deeply involved in evangelizing players and celebrating the athletes who make a show of their faith. When pressed on how they can support such a violent game, evangelicals typically insist that their faith supports them to play their best and that on-field brutality has no place outside the lines. Moreover, football has a metaphorical appeal to modern evangelicals, many of whom have fretted about the weakening of society. I made some of these points in an interview I did during Super Bowl week with NewarkStar-Ledger reporter Matthew Stanmyre. (I call your attention to it in the grand tradition of self-promotion here at RiAH.)
Evangelicals haven’t always been so sanguine about professional football. A generation of muscular Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries enthusiastically endorsed weight-lifting, swimming, and basketball, but some balked at the brutality of football. While they expressed concern about the weakening of (white) American men, they believed that gameplay forged character. If the games asked men to destroy one another, what type of character would they produce? Muscular Christians worried about the ways sports shaped the men who played.
Such concerns have largely disappeared in the context of modern professional sports. Football players have become some of the most prominent evangelicals in the country. The clean-cut masculinity they represent has significant currency in certain corners of American Christianity. But as evidence mounts about the toll football takes on its players, I wonder if we’ll see a resurrection of an earlier form of muscular Christianity, one that worried less about celebrity and more about the character produced by the games we play.