Relearning How We Think about, Feel, and do Sports as Christians (Part 2)

Written by John B. White |
Thursday, May 23, 2024

Brains are central to cognitive and emotional intelligence, socialization, spiritual and moral formation, and to flourishing and finding personal fulfillment as responsible citizens in communities as fathers, brothers, mothers, and sisters in families, as disciples of Christ in churches and as “salt and light” in our vocations. Damaged brains can never be undone and can affect living in significant, meaningful ways, unlike other damaged body parts.  

Do Not Conform To: The Embodied Consequences of Misguided Ends

Research shows how the biomechanics of cut blocks increase the likelihood of injuries, not unlike the horse collar tackle, which was eventually banned. Cut and chop blocking became signature techniques for teams like the Houston Oilers, 49ers, and Broncos. With this technique, bodies are conscripted, instructed, and disciplined to make commitments and perform actions that can effectively hurt other bodies. Athletes’ bodies are trained and made ready physically, morally, and spiritually to intentionally enact specific moves that can prey upon the vulnerability of others.

And when hurt, these bodies suffer not only in the game but also after the game, because bodies are inescapably connected to provinces outside the game where friends and family live and work. The field of physical suffering can also include mental and emotional pain with matters related to grief, anxiety, agony, doubt, and stress about whether a player will return to play and the future backside costs of living with chronic pain, diminishing the quality of life in mind, body, and spirit.

Washington Post online survey of more than 500 retired NFL players “found that nearly nine in 10 reported suffering from aches and pains on a daily basis, and they overwhelmingly—91 percent—connect nearly all their pains to football.”1 Because sports are more than a game, bodies do not live in isolation, as if what happens in sports stays in sports between team members and co-contestants. To the contrary, what happens in sports extends to other spheres of life; for as embodied selves we take who we are—healthy and unhealthy—everywhere we live, relate, and work.

To compound the problem of bodies in football that goes beyond cut blocks, since this can be eliminated with a mere rule change and chop blocks were banned by the NFL in 2016, and aims at more besetting problems intrinsic to the design of football, scholars note how football as a combat-collision sport presents a perfect storm of well-documented traumatic brain injuries and other neuro-degenerative disorders (e.g., chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), post-concussion syndrome, Alzheimer’s) and physical health issues that can have long-term cognitive and emotional consequences. Medical research specifies that football leads all sports in the rate of concussions along with the even greater concern of repeated sub-concussive hits. It’s the cumulative exposure of many little and big hits across a player’s seasons of competition that can cause lasting alterations to the brain’s integrity. Furthermore, most of the public either forget or are unaware that authorities at football’s inception in the 19th century expressed similar medical concerns about football’s bodily risks. One observer wrote, in the Chicago Daily Tribune, how the sport of football singularly “brings the whole bodies of players into violent collision…the violent personal concussion of 22 vigorous, highly trained young men is not only permissible, but is a large part of the game.”2 And another as far away as San Francisco noted how “The head or skull of a contestant is quite frequently called into service, as butting during scrimmages is not uncommon.3

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