Football and the necessity of immorality

Jamil Smith, at The New Republic, has written on “The Necessity of Football. After outlining what is all too clear—many football players have destroyed (and are destroying) their brains, to say nothing of “garden-variety” football injuries—Smith argues,

Every time I’ve thought about leaving the sport behind, I remember my favorite photograph: a black-and-white shot my mother took of me in my football uniform in the eighth grade, standing next to my father and smiling after a win. But nostalgia is a reason to love the game, not a reason to need it. Perhaps, then, this is where I should tell you why—even in the wake of Omalu’s revelations—I feel we still need football. Not to rescue the NFL’s largely black labor force from its humble origins, or to entertain the masses that refuse to let it go in the wake of mounting tragedies. We need it partially because football serves as a kind of fun-house mirror for our national character.

The reflection comes in various forms: social movements, national tragedy, political spectacle, and yes, our sports. And we are a dramatic country, so much so that the volume of theatrics we see in every corner of our lives dulls our senses. We need more, and we need it louder. And in spectator sports, we want to see the best versions of ourselves reflected back at us, or else why would we consider it entertainment? We want to believe that inside that arena, everything will be all right because our men are the strongest, and our fight is the hardest. This is why between 2012 and 2015 the Department of Defense paid 18 NFL teams a total of more than $5.6 million for marketing and advertising, including flying military bombers over stadiums at taxpayers’ expense. It’s also why we watch hit montages week after week, delighting in the crack of the pads or the punch of the music without wondering whether that player just got pushed a bit further toward CTE. Football marries artfulness to brutality, providing the most honest interpretation of American character that we have available, and I enjoy football despite its horrors because I have learned to do the same in my life in America.

(Emphasis supplied and hyperlink omitted.) Read the whole thing there.

For our part, we have already explained why we believe that a good-faith argument could be made that American football (and other extreme sports) is sinful, since it is contrary to the clear injunction of the Fifth Commandment and the Church’s teaching about similar dangerous activities. Moreover, we think that what makes football immoral is inextricably bound up with the positive aspects as Jamil Smith describes them. That is, it is impossible for spectators to watch players striving manfully on the gridiron without those men same heedlessly risking physical injury, either immediately or in the future. Thus, it seems to us that it is impossible to use football as a cultural mirror without embracing what makes football morally illicit. Thus, we are left with the question: is immorality ever necessary? The answer, of course, is no. Paul VI reminded us in Humanae vitae that good ends never justify sinful means.