This year’s Super Bowl, between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, comes at the end of a season where the NFL took an unprecedented bruising.
On the matter of the national anthem protests, the bruises were self-inflicted. But the flag controversy came at a time when public support for the NFL was already at a low ebb: The league has a bad reputation as a dangerous place — for its players’ health.
Many people turned off the NFL this year because they did not want to support the disrespecting of the flag. But some make a much stronger claim: They say that, due to its injurious nature, Catholics shouldn’t be watching football anyway.
Long before Super Bowl weekend, I asked doctors, theologians and football players what kind of support Catholics can give to the NFL. Should we enjoy the big game, or just turn it off?
“Somebody like me, I don’t watch football,” Dr. Bennet Omalu told me. “I cannot watch my fellow human beings damaging their lives. I cannot spend my money to support the devaluation of life.”
Omalu’s efforts to research brain trauma from repeated concussions were dramatized in the movie Concussion starring Will Smith.
“I don’t criticize the NFL. I don’t,” said Omalu. “The NFL is a corporation. I am a free-market guy. What do corporations do? They generate revenue. They turn out profits. The product the NFL sells is football. The service they provide is entertainment. They are not in business to provide medical research.”
Nonetheless, he said, he can’t watch. But Paul Camarata can.
He is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, Kansas.
“I like to watch football games as much as the next guy,” Camarata said. “Football is a game of sport replete with strategy and decision-making and graceful athletic moves, but there is no denying that there are some violent confrontations that occur on the field.”
Said Camarata: “Catholics can be reassured that organizations on the high school, intercollegiate and professional levels are doing everything possible to minimize the extent of serious injury in football.”
He mentioned rule changes — moving the kickoff farther upfield and extending the touchback line — but he also had high hopes for helmet technology.
“Some of the technical advances are truly amazing,” he said, “from helmets that absorb more of the impact to some that push back to transmit less of the impact energy to the brain.”
His profession is being called upon to help, too.
“There are now unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants on each sideline at all NFL games to help evaluate and treat players who are diagnosed with concussive injuries,” said Camarata, “and once injured to help ensure the safety of those players, that they not return to the field of play.”
As to the morality of watching football, he said, “I am not a moral theologian, but I would say if one were watching football because of the violence, that would be wrong.” Apart from that, he saw no trouble.
John Rziha is a moral theologian — author of The Christian Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017) — and he agreed.
“Football is not intrinsically wrong,” he told me. “There are some sports which may be intrinsically wrong … you only win by injuring someone. To win by injury is always wrong. The point is: You don’t want anybody injured on either side.”
But since injury is an often-foreseen effect of playing football, it is still a factor. “That becomes a prudence question,” he said. “If we know the risks are so great that if they outweigh the benefits, then it may be the case that football in itself at some level is wrong.”
That reasoning led me to ask a football player what he thought the benefits were.
Jerome Roehm was a captain of the Benedictine College football team and the school’s valedictorian when he graduated in 2016.
“While football certainly has its issues,” he told me, “I firmly believe it to be valuable and to have more benefits than drawbacks.”
What are the benefits?
“Football gives a sense of purpose and direction,” he said. “To work as a team for a single goal is powerful.” Now that he is teaching math instead of playing college football, he feels its absence, he said.
“The virtues of football include persistence, excellence and fortitude,” he said. He cited Matthew 26:41, where Jesus tells the apostles: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
“Football builds character and virtue so that the spirit is willing and the flesh is strong,” he said. He remembered one weekend at college where he played four baseball road games one weekend, losing “in heartbreaking fashion” three times.
“The bus pulled back on campus at 1am Monday morning. I had football weightlifting at 6am that Monday and a linear algebra test at 8am. Football built the character in me to take on the challenge, not make excuses, and get the job done.” He also said being coached builds an underrated virtue — the thick skin needed to take “passionate constructive criticism.”
Importantly, “Football helped me live out my faith explicitly through interactions with teammates,” he said. “We prayed before and after every game, as well as had a weekly football Bible study.”
Competitive football ended for Roehm after college, but not for Chris Godfrey.
Chris Godfrey is a former NFL guard who started for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI. That game capped the 1986 season with one last win and is remembered as the national debut of the celebratory “Gatorade shower” for the coach.
Godfrey said he finds health risks overblown. Does he hurt from all of his own NFL starts?
“I cannot say its due all to football that I sometimes feel stiff or get twinges of pain in some joints,” he said. He thinks being 59 has something to do with it.
“It’s a joke between us that my ex-cheerleader wife’s knee is worse than mine,” he added.
Godfrey also extolled the virtues of football, quoting a senior at his children’s high school, Dom Appelton, who said that, along with “servant leadership,” football “gives young men things that they cannot achieve from any other academic or athletic activity. At St. Joe, we football players are taught to be the epitome of discipline, hard work and dedication — traits that are usually lacking in most teens.”
Still unconvinced? That is fair. But realize that many sports have even greater concussion risks than football.
Lacrosse is notorious for head injuries — and so is soccer, where players head balls that were launched from long distances. Boxing leads them all.
Nonetheless, there are many reasons to turn the Super Bowl itself off this year — and not just the commercials, as many families already do. There are many other wonderful things to do on a Sunday afternoon.
But if you do decide to watch, it would seem that you need not feel guilty. Enjoy the best in the sport — and cheer for whichever team wins the Vince Lombardi Trophy, named for the great Packers coach who was a daily communicant.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence
at Benedictine College
in Atchison, Kansas.