Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Why I'm Breaking Up with Football...As a Christian

Crusty is taking a break from his usual pedantic, insider-baseball, church-relations blog to give you an insight into other aspects of his life.  Crusty isn't all about church and matters theological.  He enjoys music (Replacements are the greatest band ever), is a runner (at age 46 ran a 26:09 5k on the 4th of July), and an avid sports fan.  This blog post is all about my difficult decision to break up with professional football, and on the basis of how I understand myself as a Christian.

It's been a long couple of months, but I've finally gotten to a place where I can say this out loud:  I will no longer support the National Football League, and this is because of who I am as a person of faith, as a Christian.

Now, full disclosure, for any haters out there.  Crusty grew up in Boston and my family were Patriots season ticket holders from 1971-1994.  Crusty suffered through innumerable losing seasons and humiliations, 1-15 campaigns and 46-10 Super Bowl blowouts.  Our "season tickets" were two stickers on a metal bench in the old Sullivan Stadium/Schaefer Stadium, and more often than not one was in the vicinity of vomit, at least one fistfight, and lots of profanity at some point during the game.  In 1994, my Dad canceled the tickets because he didn't like Robert Kraft and was tired of their years of futility (thanks a lot, Dad, in a StubHub world I could have sent my kid to college with the resale value of two season tickets).

So yeah, I'm a Patriots fan.  And yeah, I know the rest of the world can't stand them, and, honestly, I don't really care.  Part of what makes sports great are having someone to hate as much as having someone to love.  It's important to say from the outset my breakup with the NFL began well before the Deflategate idiocy and  actually has little to do with that particular melodrama.  If anything, this travesty of the past few months has only accentuated underlying tensions.  I want to be clear from the outset I'm not breaking up with the NFL because of the ridiculous nonsense of the past eight months and counting.  I'm breaking up with the NFL because, as a Christian, I could no longer square my beliefs and values with this organization and this sport. Here's three reasons why.

1.  As a Christian I believe in economic fairness and justice.  While many Christians spew out the ridiculous "prosperity gospel", so accurately lampooned by John Oliver here, and while many others associate free market capitalism with Christianity, the reality is that the Old and New Testaments speak pretty consistently about economic fairness and justice.  The Old Testament has concepts of jubliee (see Leviticus 25, where jubliee year involved  forgiveness of debts and freeing of slaves) of not cheating others and dealing with people less fortunate and marginalized (widows, orphans, strangers) justly and fairly.  In the New Testament, Jesus spoke regularly about the need for wealth to be used for the greater good of the community.  The Book of Acts talks of a Christian community that held property in common and redistributed wealth towards the poor. One cannot be a Christian and not address the just and proper use of wealth and other resources.

Professional football runs a shameless con game that seems solely to support the wealthiest of the wealthy.  Right now we are viewing charades in St Louis, San Diego, Oakland, and Los Angeles whose sole purpose is to extort as much public money to support stadiums for plutocratic oligarchs.  This is not solely confined to football, mind you -- in Wisconsin they're considering cutting public education by hundreds of millions of dollars while at the same time giving hundreds of millions of dollars to replace a basketball arena that's only 17 years old.  People in Miami will be spending generations paying off their baseball stadium, if they ever do at all (read about it here); people in New Jersey are still paying for the old Meadowlands stadium, even though it was demolished years ago and is now a parking lot (read about it here)  The sheer greed and price tag is what marks the NFL's process; over $1 billion for these stadium plans in San Diego, Los Angeles, and St. Louis, while owners keep all revenue associated with it.

This is just so utterly unjust, and opposed to biblical and Christian injunctions to the proper use of wealth for the common good.  There are numerous economic studies which show these handouts do not provide the economic return promised, and are, more or less, simply extorting public funding for billionaires could fund on their own.  You can read about it here and here,  just to pick two articles out of a hat, one from a liberal and one from a conservative organization.  (BTW for all the people who envision the Patriots as the embodiment of evil, Robert Kraft funded his stadium 100% prviately with no public funding.)  How can one be a Christian and be blind to the economic injustice in the public paying billions to billionaires, at the expense of necessary public services to the poor and marginalized?

2.  The NFL does not deal fairly with its employees (the players).  The stunning and utter incompetence of its labor practices is just astounding.  Here's a few examples.  In recent years, they have tried to retroactively apply new standards of conduct to prior offenses.  (This does not include the bumbling response to the original offenses, which included a man knocking his wife unconscious and a father whipping his son with a stick so hard his son's testicles bled.)  These attempts to apply standards of conduct retroactively to fix the incompetent way the initial offenses violated labor standards so egregiously they were overturned by arbitrators.  Not to be outdone, in the current Deflatgate charade, the due process was even more laughable.  Again, I really don't care about the initial offense, which, if it was an offense at all, involved tampering with equipment, which happens and previously had been treated quickly and judiciously (like with the San Diego Chargers in 2012, see here).  This is about complete disregard for due process.  And again, this is not just griping from a Patriots fan.  John Dowd, the attorney who got Pete Rose kicked out of baseball for life, poked numerous holes in the report it took the NFL months to prepare, and pointed out the utter disregard for due process, which can be found here.  These holes include the NFL's own report noting that perhaps one, and maybe none, of the balls were actually underinflated; refusing to share its evidence; and applying punishments utterly out of proportion to previous precdent (Brett Favre paid a $50,000 fine for refusing to cooperate with an investigation; Tom Brady gets four games).  Making a mockery of arbitration, the same commissioner who handed down the sentence appointed himself as arbitrator to hear an appeal (in part because of the way his previous incompetent judgments were inconveniently overturned by arbitrators not himself).

Christianity cares about issues of due process, contract, and labor.  Christianity, and especially the Episcopal Church, have had a long and historic involvement in collective bargaining and fairness in labor.  As early as the 1880s the Episcopal Church was supporting the rights of workers to be treated fairly.  Later the church supported the 40-hour work week, and end to child labor practices, the right to form unions, and the right to collective bargaining.  How can I as an Anglican and Christian support an organization that makes an absolute mockery of due process and labor rights?  If the NFL sold grapes or tomatoes, it's likely Christians would be lining up to advocate for a boycott, like churches did for years in support of Farm Workers Union, or against Taco Bell in the 1990s and 2000s. 

3.  But all of this pales to the real reason why I, as a Christian, cannot support the NFL.  I've actually come to the conclusion that the utter catastrophe that has been the NFL's disciplinary process for the past couple of years is part of an elaborate con, to get the world talking about anything other than this fact: professional football is killing its own players.  They know that football causes chronic brain damage.  They forced ESPN to drop out of a PBS documentary on the subject (see here; conveniently, in the past year ESPN has dumped Bill Simmons, Gregg Easterbrook, and Keith Olbermann, the three biggest critics of the NFL).  Its proposed settlement to former players was thrown out of court as being too low.  The NFL's product is killing its players, it knows it, and we all should know it.  Every person talking about Ray Rice, every Deflategate, every angry media denunciation of a father whipping his child, is a media frenzy that does not talk about this central fact.  Is it any surprise the NFL was leaking inaccurate information in advance of the Super Bowl?  When the world was turning its attention to football, the last thing they wanted was for people to talk about the obvious, and instead talk about Tom Brady's balls.

Christianity and The Episcopal Church have taken numerous stands against such exploitation of human suffering for financial gain.  We have a whole office in Washington, DC to lobby the government on questions of justice and fairness.

If the NFL were anything other than a sports organization with its millions of devoted fans, things would be different.  Seriously:  if Wal-Mart was killing its own employees with its working conditions, flouting due process in labor negotiations, and extorting money from local communities to build its stores while keeping all the revenue -- would communities of faith stand for it?  Of course not.

So I'm breaking up with the NFL.  Just like I protested against apartheid in the 1980s and  just like I marched with union government employees in Wisconsin in 2011, there are times when we have to get a grip on our cognitive dissonance, square our actions with our beliefs, and decide whether we are willing to be compromised.  Under the Roman Empire, Christians were expected not to participate in public events which would require them to compromise who they were: they didn't attend gladitorial matches, for instance.  When the Emperor Constantine founded his new city of Constantinople in 330, he deliberately did not build an gladitorial arena like all other Roman cities. This, for me, has become a time when I can no longer consider myself a Christian with integrity and blindly support such an unjust system.

There's no reason why football should always be this popular.  Boxing and horse racing used to be as popular as professional football is currently, and those sports faded in popularity in part because of the way they were perceived as unnecessarily brutal.  I can only hope in 30 years we'll look at football like we looked at smoking in the 1950s, or cock fighting.

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
   and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore, because you trample on the poor
   and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
   but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
   but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
   and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
   and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
   for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil,
   that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
   just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
   and establish justice in the gate;

I hate, I despise your festivals,
   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
   I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
   I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. 

Amos 5: 10-15, 21-24. 


  1. I think there is another reason you should consider: football has become a game of violence. This value has displaced the values of teamwork, sportsmanship, etc. Some players are assigned the task of hurting an opponent. Players are paid bonuses for inflicting bodily harm. These are the reasons to quit football.

    1. I agree with you. I want to share something I find fascinating too. Historically, football has always been a game of violence; it began to give the children of Civil War veterans a chance to prove their own brutality. RadioLab made a fascinating podcast on the origin and history of American football, including the ways that people of native descent changed and improved the game.

  2. So glad to have so much in common with Crusty. A born Patriots fan who did not watch a game last year, a conscientious objector to the culture of human destruction as entertainment, and wanting our church to speak against the modern gladiatorial games. A second tangent to explore: how can we be more vigilant against the local sports cultures built on winning at all costs (Google "Little League Softball Thrown Game") and promote the positive aspects of sports participation and fan support.

  3. So, will you be taking St. Telemachus as a blog patron?

  4. I get it. My biggest gripe with the NFL hasn't been the greed (because, let's face it, the vast majority of corporations are all about how they can maximize earnings for the board while screwing the employees and getting them to buy into the belief that they are participating in the American Dream), but how they treat their employees (players) with regard to health care. There's care available for active players, but once you retire, you are on your own. With the amount of money generated, the NFL should easily be able to provide lifetime healthcare as a benefit of playing in the league. The sad story of Mike Webster really brought this to life.

    But it's not just the NFL. The NCAA treats its students/players like indentured servants while getting massively wealthy from their efforts.

    I officiate high school football (hence the nickname), and we are gearing up for our season. Do I stop participating in that avocation because of how players are treated at the higher levels and the general brutal/violent nature of the game? Or do I continue to officiate this game I love in an effort to ensure it is played fairly and as safely as possible within the rules?

    It's a debate I have every year. And so far, every year I put on the stripes and walk onto the field. And every Sunday, I will probably turn on a game when I get home from services because, other than golf, a Sunday afternoon football game will generate a great post-liturgical nap.

  5. Thanks, RevRef. I didn't get too deep into the weds, but I agree entirely on the health care question; this was one of the reasons why the judge threw out the initial concussion settlement. I didn't get into the NCAA for the simple fact I've never been much of a college sports fan, I grew up in New England where college football rivalries were Amherst vs. Williams. But I agree entirely the NCAA is a soulless and corrupt organizations and that the system of college athletics is rife with injustice and exploitation. I also did not advocate total prohibition of football, because it's a great game and with care and attention can be played safely.

  6. The Episcopal Church preaches justice and fairness -- for others. 815 felt free to fire its unionized cleaning company in Advent 2009, and engage a contractor to hire cheap employees in its stead. A similar dismissal of a union cleaning crew at General Theological Seminary came to light amid the horrible labor practices of the current dean and board. I wouldn't cite Episcopal pronouncements on justice, when the institution is as prone to cover-ups and double-dealing as most.

    1. I have mentioned both of these incidents on this blog previously, and registered my own disapproval of both the 815 and GTS actions as betraying this church's historical stands for labor rights, fairness, and due process. I was an employee of 815 at the time and told my supervisor I would not cross a picket line if it was set up.

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  8. Thanks, Fr. Ferguson. I drew conclusion #3 a few years ago, first with, and second with (which cuts against your claim that the game can be played safely). Among the conclusions I have drawn about football's legal future is that we know that the league has lied to its employees, the players, for decades, about the safety of playing football. If the files ever reach legal discovery, the result is going to be a multi-billion dollar judgment that willl find the league in violation of OSHA standards. And that result would become very political, in that John Q. Public would get mad at the federal judge, because all he wants to do is watch his team on Sunday, and the judge knows nothing about how to protect against a first down.

    My question for you: As an average fan, is there anything I can do to show the players moral support in the fight over CTE? I have already decided not to buy tickets or any merchandise, and I will not watch or listen to games when they're on. But I think that is insignificant compared to what needs to be done to protect these players against the very real damages they are facing. I pray about it, but anything else?

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