Is it moral to watch football? Here’s what America magazine said over the years
This week marks the 100th iteration of this column. That’s a lot of words, a lot of books and a lot of strained references to Bob Dylan, the Dodgers and “The Sopranos.” Because the editors have some tools that allow us to see what people read (and what they didn’t), we can also suss out the most and least popular weekly offerings.
It turns out America readers can’t get enough of Teilhard; a column only three weeks old on the great Jesuit paleontologist has already drawn tens of thousands of visitors. Other faves included a column on Thomas Merton’s death and ones on Leonard Feeney, S.J., Xavier Rynne and Wendell Berry. Significantly less popular was our Feb. 14th attempt of this year to survey how America had covered Valentine’s Day over the years. Barely anyone read it, suggesting many of you used that holiday to celebrate being haters. Harrumph!
America's editors in 1909: “No sane person thinks of abolishing football; but neither can any sane person tolerate play which is so frequently an occasion of homicide.”
One sports topic that has come up time and again in these pages is the violence of American football. When Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb’s season was ruined after he was hit in the leg on “Monday Night Football” last week, the image was so jarring that ABC didn’t show a replay. For old heads, it was a reminder of the horrific leg injury Joe Thiesmann suffered in 1985; more recently, it brought back bad memories of the January game this year where Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack after a tackle.
After that game, America editor Zac Davis asked: “Is it time to stop watching football?”
It wasn’t just the trauma to viewers he was concerned with. It was the ongoing—and often quietly ignored—damage to players. He’s not the only one; former America literary editor Raymond Schroth, S.J., wrote in 2013 that high school football should be outlawed. “Let us entertain ourselves with soccer, basketball, track and swimming—as well as reading and working,” Father Schroth wrote. “Life is too short and precious to wreck a young man’s brain.”
As both Davis and Schroth noted, hundreds of former N.F.L. players have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.)—brain damage caused by repeated head injuries that is linked to memory loss, depression, anxiety, loss of impulse control and even suicidal behavior—including at least two dozen who died in their 20s and 30s. And in 2017, a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that C.T.E. was found in 99 percent of former N.F.L. players’ brains that were donated to science after their deaths.
More obvious injuries are suffered week in and week out (15 out of every 100 N.F.L. players have surgery each year), and have been a major reason why the average length of a pro football player's career is only 3.3 years. And while the league has made billions off of its superstars, most players don’t find a level of compensation worth the sacrifice: More than three-quarters of former N.F.L. players experience serious financial hardships after they retire.
The violence and injuries are not new. In our inaugural year of 1909, a November America editorial railed against the violence of college football, citing news reports that 26 players had died that year of injuries suffered on the field. “Among other things for which we should be profoundly grateful this Thanksgiving is the conclusion of the football season. Twenty-six lives crying to heaven for vengeance should be enough to disquiet the inconsistent votaries of the game—the sightseers who witness it, and the press men who advertise it—who all deplore its brutality and yet encourage the precocious executioners,” the editors wrote. “No sane person thinks of abolishing football; but neither can any sane person tolerate play which is so frequently an occasion of homicide.”
A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that C.T.E. was found in 99 percent of former N.F.L. players’ brains that were donated to science after their deaths.
In 1919, a physician writing in America, James J. Walsh, denounced collegiate football as “a colossal substitution of sham for reality, prostituting what should be a means to health by making it an end in itself and an end that defeats the end to which it should be an end, by endangering rather than insuring the health for which alone it exists.” Walsh also quoted the great psychologist James Rowland Angell, then the Dean of the University of Chicago (and later President of Yale University): “I do not believe there is any obligation on the part of the colleges to furnish the general public with substitutes for the circus, the prize-fight, and the gladiatorial combats.”
In a 1972 essay for America, “The Pro Football Mystique,” the theologian William J. Sullivan, S.J., noted that “the elements of brute force and violence are heightened and glorified in the present day professional game.” (And this was in 1972!). Further, “no major team sport played anywhere rivals American football for injuries,” he wrote. “The injury aspect of the game is played down by the league and by the co-opted media. But the violence and the ferocity are still present and taking their toll.”
Sullivan was not optimistic about the future, either: “To change things substantially would mean to take out either the violence or the money. And neither of these is likely.” Regardless of how one feels about football, he wasn’t wrong.
Though the N.F.L. has tried to curb injuries through incremental changes to the game, “these minor rule changes all skirt around football’s fundamental problems. No other sport lets 22 players (who are 6 feet 2 inches and 245 pounds on average) run at one another at full speed, with the express purpose of stopping an offensive player by force,” Davis wrote in his 2023 essay. “Perhaps only boxing has more raw inherent brutality.”
Davis noted that the league paused the game after Hamlin’s injury. (It was later cancelled.) “A national moral consensus emerged: Stop the game. Anything else would be inhuman,” he wrote. “So that game stopped. But the question remains: Should the rest of them continue?”
“Let us entertain ourselves with soccer, basketball, track and swimming—as well as reading and working,” Father Schroth wrote. “Life is too short and precious to wreck a young man’s brain.”
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
James T. Keane