Is Football a Pro-Life Sport?

May 26, 2012 at 10:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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While the US Catholic bishops are investigating the Girl Scouts, former football players are suffering premature death and dementia in large numbers.  Why don’t the bishops investigate Catholic football for the lives it destroys?

Read my Religion Dispatches discussion here.

The Church of Anti-Football?

January 27, 2011 at 11:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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In the past few years, my church’s fixation on abortion seems not to have receded very much. Most recently, we have the spectacle of Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride being excommunicated for chairing an ethics committee that decided that the death of a fetus alone is better than the mother of the fetus dying along with it. Before that we observed the US Catholic bishops opposing the extension of health care to millions of Americans on the off-chance that the bill providing the coverage might increase abortions, though experts assured us that this was not the case. And before that a number of those same bishops, including the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,  Cardinal George of Chicago, denounced the University of Notre Dame for inviting the first African-American president in the history of the country to be its commencement speaker exclusively because of his position on abortion. As George Dennis O’Brien argues in his new book, Roman Catholicism is becoming the “Religion of Anti-Abortion.”

But Anti-Abortion is not the only kind of religion. As Ben McGrath puts it in his provocative article in this week’s New Yorker, the United States has a secular religion–football. Such a notion is hard to dispute at any time, but just now, as many millions of American families are gathering around football’s flat screen altar for the greatest liturgy of the year, it’s a no-brainer. And if McGrath is correct, the Religion of the Anti-Abortion is not the only one facing serious conflicts; the secular religion of football is confronting a few as well.

These conflicts circulate around what McGrath’s characterizes as “the concussion crisis,” and particularly around the growing awareness of a condition called CTE–chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE is “a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice.”

The public was introduced to this condition in a series of articles by New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz. In the early part of the 2000s, Schwarz began learning of increasing numbers of former NFL players who seemed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some had become homeless after losing their capacities. Others had committed suicide.  Journalist colleagues began to call Schwarz the “Alan Brockovich” of football for this heroic (and unpopular) work. Mothers of young football players were some of his most avid readers. McGrath’s narration of Schwarz’s work is such a terrific read, it would be worth your attention even if there were nothing more to it.

But of course there’s a lot more to it. As McGrath indicates, football players are being harmed at all age levels. In Spirng Hill Kansas an honors student dropped dead from a subdural hematoma after making an interception at his high school’s homecoming game. Another high school player dropped dead of a “heart stoppage,” and a third committed suicide after sustaining a season-ending concussion. And these are just the anecdotes; wait till somebody starts collecting the statistics.

Some will argue that high school students, as minors, deserve protection, whereas professional football players have a perfect right to render themselves brain-dead if they want to. But as McGrath also points out, “two-thirds of N.F.L. players are African-American, and the white players do not typically come from New Canaan. The sport has long had a heavy underclass or, at least, working-class strain.” So the people getting their brains smashed may not be aware that they have very many other options.

I could end this right here, but I’d like to return for a moment to the matter of my church being the Religion of the Anti-Abortion. The fact is, Roman Catholicism is also intimately involved in the American secular religion of football. Catholic high schools and colleges all over the US field football teams. But the US bishops don’t seem too concerned about the serious harm that these young men risk by playing this sport. Unless I missed something, the US bishops have not as yet attacked the University of Notre Dame for endangering the lives, or perhaps I should say, the Life of their players.

I can only speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps the bishops think they have no right to intervene in a matter which, unlike abortion, is personal. Perhaps, although they feel perfectly free to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies, they don’t feel entitled to issue such orders to men. Or perhaps the financial implications for Catholic high schools and colleges are just too massive. In the last year for which there are figures, the University of Notre Dame earned $59.8 million from its football program, though that is down from previous years. And a lot of other Catholic schools are in financial difficulty as well.

Maybe a bishop will write back and fill us in.

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