Super Bowl Sunday. It’s as American as apple pie, but in recent years, controversy has erupted over the beloved American pastime and – considering the risk it poses – whether or not the game of football is even worth it.
Whether one is a devoted football fan, or only watches once a year, Super Bowl Sunday holds a place as a major event for people across the country. However, some say that aspects such as commercialism, graphic content, and the life-changing injuries sustained by players should make Catholics think critically about the game they’re seeing, even as they cheer on the teams before them.
“I love football and in fact it would be difficult to find someone who loves football more than I do,” said Charles Camosy, professor of ethics at Fordham University. He even credits football for his existence, given that his parents met on a train to the Notre Dame-Alabama Sugar Bowl game in 1973.
But despite his love for the game, Camosy said there are a variety of potentially troubling aspects about the Super Bowl. From the often lewd commercials and halftime show to the sometimes cult-like intensity of the fans and violence of the game itself, viewers must take care in how they view the Big Game, he said.
“The key is to be hyper aware of what this is, what you’re doing, and where you stand,” Camosy told CNA. “Be aware that we need to resist those things. Even call it out as you’re watching.”
While the Super Bowl is the most-watched television event in the U.S., there is growing concern that behind the screen and underneath the helmet, the brains of the players competing in the Super Bowl are sustaining potentially life-altering damage.
Within the past decade, researchers at various institutions have noted a link between repetitive brain trauma sustained in football – including hits that produce no immediate symptoms – and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Also known as CTE, the degenerative brain disease triggers progressive brain damage, and symptoms include memory loss, impulse control, depression and progressive dementia. The mental health problems created by CTE have also been linked to suicidal thoughts and attempts by former professional football players.
CTE has been found in 96 percent of NFL players whose brains were submitted for a 2015 analysis by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University. The disease was also found in 71 percent of all football players – including high school players – whose postmortem samples were submitted for research.
This risk for life-changing brain damage, Camosy said, is “built into football.”
“There are certain things built into football, at least the way we play the game now, that aren’t built into soccer” and other sports, he suggested.
“Given what we now know and given how central violence is to the game, that gives another reason perhaps to resist this.”
Camosy has written several essays on the morality of America’s football culture. He suggests that it is “morally problematic” to support a game that is so deeply intertwined with violence and connected to long-lasting damage for those who partake in it.
He pointed to the criticism voiced by Church Fathers including Tertullian for the Roman gladiator games and the Christians who went to see them. In his treatises, Tertullian slammed the games’ idolatry, the justifications for their bloody nature, the public’s addiction to watching them, and the violence of the matches themselves.
Many of these criticisms of the gladiatorial games, Camosy continued, are relevant to the way football is played today. “We prefer not to look at the violence. We somehow make it compatible with the non-violence Jesus calls us to,” he said.
Chad Pecknold, a professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America, had a different perspective.
While the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire and American football today have some similarities – and can provide insight into the respective cultures that created them – there are also important differences, he said.
Most obviously, imminent death was a prominent characteristic of the gladiator games, in a way that is not characteristic of football.
“The Roman gladiatorial games were a by-product of war, and in this sense they were a potent cultural expression of Rome’s ‘lust for domination,'” Pecknold said.
While theologians such as St. Augustine taught that in some circumstances, the violence of war could be justified, they criticized Rome’s approach to war and found that when the “horrific violence” of war was turned solely into entertainment in the gladiatorial games, that the games “were more pernicious than war itself,” he continued.
American football, Pecknold suggested, does not carry the exact same significance the early Christians cautioned against.
Still, he said, there is reason for caution with football.
“I am not sure if we should worry about football in the same way that the early Church fathers worried about gladiatorial spectacle, but we should pay attention to how easily the goodness of sports can be disordered.”
Both Camosy and Pecknold acknowledged positive aspects to the game of football – including the God-given athletic talent, strategy and teaching of virtue, as well as the game’s ability to bring together families and communities.
“If it can serve the common good of the family, the neighborhood, the community, then it’s really terrific and we should thank God for it,” Pecknold said.
But that affection can quickly become disordered and occupy a disproportionate place in people’s lives, he cautioned. And the commercial aspect of football, which grows out of the economy, can also be concerning because of what it reflects about the culture.
Ultimately, he said, when approaching the Super Bowl and its content, “Christians can watch football with a clean conscience, but they might want to turn off the halftime show.”
Camosy agreed that it is possible to watch the Super Bowl with a clean conscience, but suggested that Christians avoid being drawn into the negative elements, perhaps by openly “(making) fun of the commercials and what the half-time show is all about.” He also warned Catholics who watch the Super Bowl to be wary of their own focuses and care for the game, and to be careful, when cheering for teams, “that we don’t create another source of ultimate concern here – that this isn’t another god.”
And Catholics should speak up about the violence that plagues the game, Camosy said.
“What I call for is a similar kind of shift that happened almost a hundred years ago,” he said, recalling Teddy Roosevelt’s reforms to the game when college students were dying during matches.
“Leave the good – get rid of the bad.”