Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Still Watch the NFL

It's a tough time for critical-thinking, football-loving people. There was a time when I very vocally opposed the Super Bowl. I thought that the blatantly consumerist ends of the contest were just too insurmountable to watch in good conscience. As a baby theologian, I knew about the primacy of conscience and followed mine, all the way to finding another activity on that and every other Sunday during the NFL season.

I changed my mind somewhere in the past 15 years or so. Does this mean I've ignored my conscience? Or worse yet, have I let it be re-formed in a way so as not to be bothered at all?

There are enough reasons to boycott the NFL (and maybe even football in general): the mishandling of domestic abuse cases, a league-wide denial of the continuing effects of play on mental and physical health, contribution to sexist culture in its portrayal and treatment of women, and racial tone-policing that treats and labels minority players in markedly different ways. All of these create a stew of moral dubiousness that is sure to make us think twice.

As much as I respect the decisions of my younger self, I have to say that my moral stand (to the degree you could even call it that) was a bit misplaced. I love football for football's sake. I love the game itself. I even used to love playing it. Some of my most formative childhood moments happened during games of backyard football, which we played day in and day out. I happen to think that there are ways to alter the game to respect the bodies of its players. But the real problem--the thing at the heart of our stew of moral dubiousness--is precisely that: the respect of bodies.

As a culture, we do not respect bodies. In fact, we have a whole hierarchy of bodies that undergirds our political, economic, and social lives. The NFL treats women as objects or less capable than men because America treats women this way. The NFL values its profits over the longevity of its players' lives because we have long valued profit over the lives of workers. The NFL treats the bodies of minority players differently because those bodies don't matter as much in wider American culture.

We don't have a football problem; we have a body problem. Unless we transform our culture into one that respects the bodies of all people who live in it and make it possible, our games will continue to reflect our most deeply held attitudes toward those bodies. I continue to watch football not only because I love the game but because I cannot be a voice for cultural change if I exempt myself completely from that culture (as if that was possible). The Second Vatican Council challenged church leaders, theologians and lay Catholics to "read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel" (Gaudium et Spes). Watching the Super Bowl does not necessarily mean that we are choosing to ignore all of the problems of the NFL. In fact, it might give us very particular images, sounds, and moments that reflect the "signs of the times." Those little reflections are the shared experiences upon which real conversation and cultural transformation are built.