My spouse and I worshipped at an historic Black Baptist Church in New York City a few weeks ago. During the welcome and remarks, the worship leader acknowledged the church-sponsored youth basketball team for playing its way into the AAU national tournament. A little later in the service, the leader acknowledged a young man who had grown up in this particular church for graduating with honors from a prestigious institution with a double major in political science and mandarin. The young college graduate received warm applause from the congregation and congratulations from those sitting near him. The AAU basketball team received a congregation-wide standing ovation.
I do not mention this story to disparage this particular congregation. Truth be told. I too, stood up for the basketball team and politely applauded the mandarin scholar. I am certain that this church is not uplifting sports achievement at the expense of academic achievement, in fact I believe good grades are a qualification for staying on the basketball team. Further, this church has a multitude of social justice programs related to health, education, poverty, and the like, and the sponsorship of an AAU basketball team fits right in with these commitments.
Nevertheless, this anecdote reveals how exalted athletics is in American society in general. A recent column in SI.com tells a similar story. Paul Daugherty suggests that those proclaiming that the NFL is at a tipping point and risks a boxing-like decline in popularity are foolishly and deeply mistaken. He reasons that as long as football offers “the only way out for kids”, football has nothing to fear about a decline. While I agree that predictions of the fall of the NFL’s hegemony are overblown, Daugherty’s framing of football as the only way out for urban kids ought to give us pause.
This conception does not leave much hope for many urban “kids”, particularly those who do not have NFL or college ability, are gifted in other areas, or are female. Daugherty suggests that only the players and their families will decide whether the dangers posed by concussions are worth playing the game. Perhaps the intangibles of the game: discipline, strength, teamwork, and the like, are enough, but if for some reason the potential financial benefits were to shrink, making football less of a way out, would football seem as appealing?
I have a few ethical qualms with the idea that there will always be a pool of poor urban males available and interested in playing football for the chance to escape the hood. This idea has the potential to border on the exploitative, creating a football “gladiator” class with limited options but to sacrifice their bodies for the entertainment of the masses. While I do not deny the agency of the players who make the choice to play (although how much of a choice is it if it is “the only way out”?), I wonder how consumers of the NFL and college football ought to think about their role in this dynamic. As a Christian ethicist, I am inclined to ask to what extent we ought we to use our combined force to reduce the exploitation of these athletes and demand improved safety? I also wonder why it seems as if religious voices are relatively silent on these issues, as I believe they have the potential to add a rich layer of ethical discourse and reasoning to these conversations. College football, in particular, is deeply intertwined with Southern evangelical Christianity culture (the Tim Tebow phenomenon did not happen out of thin air). It seems to me we Christians ought to be talking less about whether Alabama will repeat as national champions and more about whether their coach’s defense of the practice of oversigning recruits is moral and consistent with out witness and values.