Should I Like Football?

Ever since my wife and I bought a giant flat-screen television set for our living room, I cannot get enough football, whether it’s the NFL or college. (It also doesn’t hurt to be an alumnus of the number 1 high school team in the country, Bishop Gorman, and a professor at Baylor, which produced the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, and two weeks ago opened its majestic 45,000-seat, McLane Stadium). Prior to purchasing the TV, I used to watch football intermittently throughout the season, though paying far more attention during the playoffs and bowl games. 

But recently, I’ve begun to entertain the question: should I like football? There is, of course, much to like about it. It is exciting; the players are amazingly gifted; the coaches are like military tacticians plotting to out-maneuver their adversaries; and there is a special pride that arises when you experience your city’s or school’s team on-field accomplishments and the positive national attention that they receive.

And yet, there is the intrinsic brutality of the game. For unlike sports in which physical contact is tangential (baseball, cycling) or organically connected to the players’ performance (basketball, soccer), in football the intentional collision of players is the whole point.  For example, a concussion in baseball, cycling, basketball, or soccer is unfortunate, but it is not treated as an expected consequence of the game’s point. In football, it is, as they say, part of the game.

So much so that when the University of Texas announced that its starting quarterback, David Ash, would be out indefinitely after suffering multiple concussions, the most recent of which occurred during BYU’s September 6 drubbing of the Longhorns, ESPN reported: “Texas coach Charlie Strong said Monday. . .that the Longhorns will push ahead with Tyrone Swoopes as the starting quarterback.”

While a young man’s brain function may be compromised for life, there’s no need to worry: the state’s premier university has another equally talented college student, though with a non-shaken brain, willing to step in.

Notre Dame’s Everett Golson being concussed in a 2012 game against Purdue

I am fully aware that the question I am entertaining is to take a small step in the direction of embracing cultural heresy, especially in Texas, a place that my wife and I have called home for over a decade.  In the state of “Friday Night Lights,” and in the nation of “Remember the Titans” (one of my all-time favorite movies, I might add), there is probably nothing more subversive than to suggest that it may be legitimate to harbor doubts about the goodness of football, especially if you’re like me and you truly love football.

This observation, of course, presupposes several other questions: Could my seemingly ordinary affections be disordered? Is it possible that I have grown to love that which I should not love? Can your fondness for a particular activity blind your critical faculties from seeing the activity’s true vice? In the abstract, the answer to each question is clearly “yes.” But in terms of the specific issue at hand, football, the best answer I can offer right now is, “I don’t know.”

No doubt, some will respond to my queries by trying to change the subject. They will turn it into a routine exercise in applied libertarian moral theory by simply claiming – as if claiming is all that is required to establish the veracity of a moral theory – that all the participants, except for those under the age of 18, are adults, and if adults consent to engaging in inherently dangerous activities with each other, who are we judge?

This is no real response, since my initial query assumes that the answer to it depends entirely on whether the activity under scrutiny is likeable in itself. The question is about the nature of the activity. It is not about the dispositions and choices of those who engage in the activity.

At what point does a sport’s physicality shift from an impressive display of athletic excellence to gladiatorial exhibitionism choreographed by ambitious entrepreneurs for a jaded public with an ever-increasing appetite for ordered violence? Again, I do not know. But I do think the question is worth asking. (In case you were wondering, this evening I will be watching the Baylor game against the University of Buffalo, since I still do love football).

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).