Football is a deeply offensive sport. It is violent and triumphalist, and teaches young children that however nicely they play the game, winning still matters. More terrible still, a football team is a roiling cauldron of unvarnished masculinity. Hardly anyone even pretends to want women on the field. Football is an affront to everything progressives hold most dear, and every year at the start of the season, I marvel that it still exists.
But it does exist, and even manages to thrive. As culture wars rage all around us, football remains relatively unscathed, which may seem like rather a remarkable achievement. There is an explanation, however. Although the great majority of players, coaches and fans are conservative and Republican, football has powerful liberal friends. Neither the media nor the universities wish to see the demise of America’s most popular (and most profitable) sport. Journalists get excited when the name of a football legend (such as Joe Paterno) is tainted by scandal, and university professors quietly sneer at athletic departments behind closed doors, but their grumbles are muted. In time, lawsuits and parental fears about concussions may destroy the sport, but for now, the almighty dollar keeps it going strong.
Should faithful Catholics be glad or sorry? Certainly, there are moral hazards associated with football, as with every sport. As many wise moralists have observed, athletic prowess, like all human excellences, can breed vainglory and pride. (In light of that consideration, I would advise every gifted athlete to seek a spiritual director at once.) Also, as Romano Amerio grumpily notes in Iota Unum, sports fanhood may contribute to the general cult of body-worship that is already one of the great spiritual evils of our time.
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These are heavy charges. It should be said, however, that the love of sport is quite different from the hedonism (including gluttony, promiscuity, and general acquisitiveness) that has poisoned so much of modern life. A moment’s reflection will reveal that sport builds up exactly the sort of discipline that hedonism destroys. But this observation is really just an entry point into a deeper and more significant distinction: hedonism concerns the appetites, while sport is a celebration of the spirit. This is a categorical difference, which may help us to see how sport, although it is not without its hazards, can nonetheless make a very positive contribution to the virtuous life.
At any given time, most Americans could not say which of their compatriots is the fastest, strongest, or most nimble. We pay attention to raw physical abilities once every four years, when they are presented with a flourish in the form of a grand international competition. In general, however, people are not interested in raw statistics. We admire athletes for their ability to employ these skills and capabilities under duress. Sport is a struggle to triumph over adversity, and this, most fundamentally, is what we love about it.
In an athletic competition, the body is used to achieve something decidedly extra-bodily. This thrills us because the athlete in the heat of competition faces a situation analogously similar to our own, as corporeal beings struggling through the battle of life. Watching athletes prevail on the field rekindles our hopes, because we too hope to rise above the challenges and limitations of our natural state to attain a glorious prize.
Most likely we are not reflecting on that eschatological horizon as we watch a sporting match. Many enthusiastic fans will even say that they do not believe in such things. Nevertheless, the thirst for supernatural fulfillment is so deeply engrained in us that we yearn for it whether or not we are able to articulate our desire. We understand intuitively that the human condition is one of struggling to achieve greatness under arduous conditions. This is why the drama of the sporting match resonates with us, regardless of whether we ourselves are athletically inclined.
Football is particularly exemplary in this regard. No other American sport offers such a spectacularly literal display of the struggle to overcome adversity. As every serious fan knows, the battle at the line of scrimmage is the very foundation of American football. Linemen take a kind of pride in their relative anonymity, but their exercise of brute physical force is the center around which all other action turns.
For a quarterback, adversity takes the very definite form of a line of burly men standing mere feet away, who want to pulverize him. For a running back, penetrating that wall of human power is the key to a successful play. For the entire offense, overcoming the looming brigade of fast and fearless enemies will require speed, skill and ingenuity, as well as a significant display of raw strength. Although many sports give us glimpses of the stunning potential of the human body, few present such a thrilling visual juxtaposition of the ardor of competition and the excellence required to emerge victorious.
Can you imagine Americans inventing such a sport today? In a litigious and self-indulgent society, football stands as a delightful anachronism of a heartier age. Quite often I hear professors lament the prominence of sports in higher education, but I find it deeply comforting, when looking over that bleak landscape of Marxists, post-modernists and reductive materialists, to remember that the university is still a place in which ardent young men may hurl themselves against one another with an almost super-human strength, while their comrades scream encouragement from the sidelines. When my feelings towards the rising generation begin to turn bleak, I watch a football game, and that wholesome scene persuades me that the next generation may not be entirely lost.
As with any merely human enterprise, football can distract us from more-important spiritual matters if we allow ourselves to become obsessed. Sports can help to revive and encourage us, but we can also turn to them as a form of escapism. The struggles of the sports arena tend to seem more glamorous than those of our own daily lives, so we must endeavor to bear in mind that football is merely analogous to the struggle of human life; it is not itself synonymous with that struggle. Still, as a form of entertainment, football has more to recommend it than most other popular American pastimes. It may be fun, but it is far more than just a game.
Editor’s note: The image above depicts Ronald Reagan as the doomed University of Notre Dame halfback George Gipp in the 1940 film Knute Rockne: All American.