God on the Gridiron

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During one of the NFL games I watched last weekend, a play ended with a monster and entirely legal hit. Both players lay stunned on the turf until helped to the sidelines.

Not so many years ago, that would have been one highlight of the game for me, with little worry that the players got their "bells rung." But these days, with so much more known -- and being revealed -- about the effects of even "minor" concussions, a little bit of my fandom pleasure leaked out.

My discomfort is hardly new to football-watchers. In 1905, 19 college players died due to game-related injuries. And masculinity promoter President Teddy Roosevelt said: "I would a hundred-fold rather keep the game as it is now, with the brutality, than give it up."

But Teddy changed his mind, helping lead rule and equipment changes that made the game a lot safer. But these days, players are twice as big and twice as fast as they were a century and more ago. So the collisions are twice as hard. And the injuries? Maybe not twice as frequent, but commonplace.

So I was reminded of a magazine I'd saved from a couple of months ago.

Back In September, the cover of one issue of Christian Century featured a photo of a hit much like the one I'd just seen. with the headline "Football, the moral hazard." At the time, I'd been intrigued enough by the topic that I'd set it aside. Finally, I pulled it out to read.

Not surprisingly, the Rev. Benjamin Dueholm wrote from a distinctively Christian perspective. The Lutheran pastor made reference to an ancient Christian commentary of sports and other entertainment: De Spectaculis, by Tertullian. With the help of Mr. Google, I found a translation online.

Tertullian doesn't have much use for gladiatorial contests or horse racing or even the theater. Most of his objections carry little weight with non-Christians. Since most of these events are associated in some fashion with pagan gods, they are per se not fit for Christians to attend, he says. Presumably, the same objection would apply to a hospital dedicated to Apollo, a god associated with healing, or Minerva, linked to wisdom.

But amidst the anti-pagan chatter, I found some interesting nuggets:

"How skilfull a pleader seems human wisdom to herself, especially if she has the fear of losing any of her delights -- any of the sweet enjoyments of worldly existence!"

That hasn't gotten any less true in the intervening centuries.

"Then, too, where you have rivalry, you have rage, bitterness, wrath and grief, with all bad things which flow from them -- the whole entirely out of keeping with the religion of Christ. For even suppose one should enjoy the shows in a moderate way, as befits his rank, age or nature, still he is not undisturbed in mind, without some unuttered movings of the inner man. No one partakes of pleasures such as these without their strong excitements; no one comes under their excitements without their natural lapses."

The almost annual reports of near-riots and worse associated with sport -- whether it's the U.S. city whose team wins a championship or pretty much any European soccer match -- makes this commentary feel pretty contemporary.

His analysis of the participants isn't always particularly sympathetic:

"And will the boxer go unpunished? I suppose he received these caestus-scars, and the thick skin of his fists, and these growths upon his ears, at his creation! God, too, gave him eyes for no other end than that they might be knocked out in fighting!"

Well alrighty then. Does any other religion weigh in on how I should feel about watching a football game? Why, yes. Judaism in all of its branches has examined violent sport through a religious prism. And as is true for just about any interesting moral problem, the basic Jewish answer appears to be: It depends.

I discovered a wonderful website called JewishValuesOnline that addressed the following question: What does Jewish law (Halachah) say about combat sports like boxing?

An Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbi each take a swing at an answer. And each broaden their reply so that it covers other violent sports, like football.

From the Orthodox rabbi, Jason Weiner:

He cites a ruling by a rabbi from the last century, Moshe Feinstein, and says: "Based on the above, it seems that if a combat sport is truly dangerous, it should be avoided unless one really has no other means of making an equally good living. This type of sport should not be encouraged, both because of the danger involved to the player (not to mention those whom he or she is playing against) and because it involves cruelty, which goes against Jewish values."

Hm. So there's an escape clause for the players.

The Conservative rabbi, Michael Panitz, is less inclined to offer that out. He cites traditional Jewish prohibitions against harming one's self or others. And he addresses football specifically:

"Organized football may be thought of as an example of a sport that, from a Jewish point of view, requires some adjustment in order to retain its permissible status. Recently, medical attention has been focused on the prevalence of concussion in organized football, including concussions sustained by youthful players in school and junior leagues. Here, not only the protective headgear, but more generally, the overall mindset of the game is in need of improvement."

The Reform rabbi, Herbert Bronstein, admits he's a longtime football fan and wonders whether that permissible under the "requirements and tenets of my own Jewish tradition." I think he's still dithering. But he offers this:

"A remarkable comment on the Exodus story, (Exodus 12.12 and Deuteronomy 6.8) by Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (t) of Mileitchitz is relevant to the sports spectator: "'for I (God) will go through the Land of Egypt in that night, I and not any intermediary.' Obviously the Holy One Blessed Be He could have given the children of Israel the power to avenge themselves upon the Egyptians. But God did not want to sanction the use of ‘the fist' even for self defense, even at that time for while at that moment they might merely defend themselves against such evil doers, by means such the way of the fist spreads through the world and in the end defenders become aggressors. Therefore, the Holy One Blessed Be He took great pains to remove Israel completely from any participation in violence upon the evil doers, to such an extent that they were not even permitted even to see or observe those events."

This passage should be pondered by all of us as spectators of contact sports.

I'm with this rabbi; still dithering. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of attending NFL games with my dad. And well into adulthood, separated by many miles, when the Miami Dolphins were on TV we'd engage in instant analysis over the phone.

So my Thanksgiving Day will likely include a bit of couch time watching the traditional games of the day. Even though every injurious hit makes it less likely that I'll watch next year.

I'm sure Tertullian would sneer at my weakness. I guess I'll turn to another ancient Christian who wrote about the games of his day. To paraphrase what Augustine said in a decidedly different context:

Make me good. But not yet.

Jeffrey Weiss is a Dallas-based religion writer. Follow him on Twitter @WeissFaithWrite.

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