By John B. White
Karl Barth reminds us, when giving voice to Paul’s ethics in the twelfth chapter 12 of Romans, in his Romans commentary, that if we desire to get beyond false thinking, we must relate our thinking about everyday living and concrete matters to God. “And if we are to think about life, we must penetrate hidden corners, and steadily refuse to treat anything—however trivial or disgusting it may seem to be—as irrelevant.” Harry Blamires, disciple of C.S. Lewis, said something similar in The Christian Mind when he asserted that, “There is nothing in our experience, however trivial, worldly, or even evil, which cannot be thought about Christianly.” This essay, as a mini-theology of sports, seeks to help us re-think and renew our perspectives about sports by attempting to hear, translate, speak and enact the thoughts about God specific to human bodies in the context of sports.
Do Not Conform To: Bodies are Expendable Means to the Ends of Sports
Mark Oppenheimer, in the 2013 Super Bowl issue of Sports Illustrated, writes about the complexities and difficulties of reconciling certain elements of bigtime football with Christian teachings. From an interview, he reports how a former NFL coach, who later became a major sports ministry leader, defended and promoted hazardous tactics such as cut blocking while coaching. Cut blocking by design exploits a defender’s vulnerable position by targeting the lower extremities of a defender, while the defender lacks the awareness of the incoming hit, making it an unforeseen collision and jeopardizing player safety. It can physically maim opponents’ bodies, breaking their ankles and legs, and tearing knee ligaments, causing career or season-ending injuries. When asked if he had any regrets, the sports ministry leader indicated that he did not. Why? The Christian leader reasoned that “God loves us just the way we are but at the same time He does require excellence. And in the NFL, performance is ultimate.”
If we are to think Christianly about what we read in this Sports Illustrated piece, we should be troubled by that response. This leader’s explanation in the first clause emphasizes the self whom God unconditionally loves and accepts. That is, he begins his answer with God, who certainly gives freely since our starting place as humans is not that of self-sufficiency, but as sinners who are in desperate need of forgiveness and God’s mercy which no amount of human work can earn or merit.
This notion is synonymous with the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith.” So far so good, right? Yet, in the same sentence, he goes on to contrast the unreserved and complete gift of acceptance with the notion that God expects something in return. We might initially think he is alluding to a gospel of works righteousness. I do not think that is a charitable interpretation. Rather, I think he is getting at the idea that there is some kind of reciprocity, not as the basis of our relationship with God, but as an obedient response to God’s grace. Human response follows (and is derived from) divine initiative. We might say it is the logic of our covenant relationship with God, for promise and obligation are two sides of the same coin of the Christian life. Or, in theological terms, sanctification arises from justification.
However, if I am being nitpicky as a theologian, I would have preferred for the adversative conjunction “but” to be replaced with the cumulative conjunction “and.” Why? Because God’s in the details. Principally, the grammar of his answer carries a major theological consequence. If grammatically we connect God’s love with the obligation of excellence rather than contrasting the two, we maintain the paradox of the moral life as a dialectic of gift and task regardless of the sphere of life in which we find ourselves operating. Therefore, we avoid setting up two different ways God relates to us: as individual Christians on the one hand and in the world of sports, on the other hand.
Certainly, there is a distinction between the two; but God’s call of grace originates from the same God who stands over all areas of life as our Lord. Who we are before God in church and in sports and life should be in equilibrium with God’s loving call as Creator and Redeemer. Instead of living with this tension, this Christian leader conflates the norms and values of the NFL with God’s moral vision of excellence. Excellence in sports performance has become equated with excellence in the kingdom. How we ought to live in football is the normalizing concept, which then easily gets rubber-stamped as the conduct that God approves. Herein lies the conformity ailment and temptation specific to bodies in football or sports in general.
This questionable theological move means that who we are and our quests in sports function as the moral standard. Sports can catechize us to agree with its stated and unstated expectations, patterns of behavior for making meaning, and a value system. When in sports (Rome), do as sportspersons (Romans) do. Players and coaches can get enrolled in a system of thinking and acting that takes on a life of its own and, out of the interest of stability, group members comply.
This same former NFL coach, in response to his own players, who hesitated at doing cut blocks because they knew that their opponents have careers too, said, “Well, they’re trying to take your career away from you.” This Christian leader had been taken captive by the “hidden curriculum” of football which educated his affections and actions in ways that maintained morally objectionable social arrangements and rituals. Subsequently, this construal of humans translates into the ends as justifying the means of harming bodies. Moreover, that means, by inference, that God not only accommodates “this age or the world” of sports (12:2), but God also bilaterally opts for the kind of excellence that the NFL approves of in its drive for ultimate performances.
This script comes right off the pages of Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture in which he catalogues five definitive ways that Christians have historically engaged with culture. One of his ideal types is the “Christ of Culture.” For this type, Christ and culture do not exist in conflict for there is a “fundamental agreement” or close affinity between the two. In this example, what is learned and valued as excellence are cut blocks which, when accepted as good, join to achieve the way and will of God’s standard of excellence. The use of cut blocks witnesses to and glorifies God because cut blocks are acts of excellence and God requires excellence. The NFL’s aspirations of heroic performances as evidenced in such tackling techniques are baptized and sanctified as an example of what God’s “good, pleasing, and perfect will” looks like in football (Rom. 12:2). No doubt that the ideals of sports and God’s will can coincide, but we should not assume that the two are equal and capitulate without further reflection. With renewed minds, we should test and inquire about possible compromises in given situations when seeking the norms of God’s kingdom and be willing to resist harmonizing the (objectionable) tactics of the powers that be with God’s excellence.
The integration of faith and sports is not a matter of accommodation. Our allegiance and belonging are to God and not to the world of sports. If we let our guard down, we surrender our bodies to the malforming influence of the “spirit of this age” and therefore, we do not surrender sacrificially to the service of God. When bodies become instruments of sports, the subculture of football determines the praiseworthy perspectives and practices, with Christians willingly (or unwillingly) submitting to this powerful enculturating force. And sadly, sometimes Christians extol in their post-game interviews, where moments before, vice had run roughshod over virtue, that they did this all to the glory of God. The glory of God language noxiously becomes a cover for deeds opposed to God’s excellence.
Research shows how the biomechanics of cut blocks increase the likelihood of injuries, not unlike the horse collar tackle, which was eventually banned. Cut and chop blocking became signature techniques for teams like the Houston Oilers, the Forty-niners and Broncos. With this technique, bodies are conscripted, instructed and disciplined to make commitments and perform actions that can effectively hurt other bodies. Athletes’ bodies are trained and made ready physically, morally and spiritually to intentionally enact specific moves that can prey upon the vulnerability of others.
And when hurt, these bodies suffer not only in the game itself, but also after the game, because bodies are inescapably connected to provinces outside the game where friends and family live and work. The field of physical suffering can also include mental and emotional pain with matters related to grief, anxiety, agony, doubt and stress about whether a player will return to play and the future backside costs of living with chronic pain, diminishing the quality of life in mind, body and spirit.
A Washington Post online survey of more than 500 retired NFL players “found that nearly nine in 10 reported suffering from aches and pains on a daily basis, and they overwhelmingly—91 percent—connect nearly all their pains to football.” Because sports are more than a game, bodies do not live in isolation, as if what happens in sports stays in sports between team members and co-contestants. To the contrary, what happens in sports extends to other spheres of life; for as embodied selves, we take who we are—healthy and unhealthy—everywhere we live, relate and work.
To compound the problem of bodies in football that goes beyond cut blocks, since this can be eliminated with a mere rule change, and aims at more besetting problems intrinsic to the design of football, scholars note how football as a combat-collision sport presents a perfect storm of well-documented traumatic brain injuries and other neuro-degenerative disorders (e.g., chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), post-concussion syndrome, Alzheimer’s) and physical health issues that can have long-term cognitive and emotional consequences. Medical research specifies that football leads all sports in the rate of concussions along with the even greater concern of repeated subconcussive hits. It’s the cumulative exposure of many little and big hits across a player’s seasons of competition that can cause lasting alterations to the brain’s integrity. Furthermore, most of the public either forgets or is unaware that authorities at football’s inception in the 19th century expressed similar medical concerns about football’s bodily risks. One observer wrote in the Chicago Daily Tribune of how the sport of football singularly “brings the whole bodies of players into violent collision…the violent personal concussion of 22 vigorous, highly trained young men is not only permissible, but is a large part of the game.” And another as far away as San Francisco noted how “the head or skull of a contestant is quite frequently called into service, as butting during scrimmages is not uncommon.”
Additionally, to add another layer to our pang of conscience, youth, who comprise over 90 percent of football players, are unable to give informed consent and they are even more vulnerable to brain trauma, since their brains and skulls are still developing. Children have much larger heads in comparison to the rest of their bodies with weaker neck muscles. Weaker neck muscles create the bobble-head effect as heads bounce and rotate more in reaction to tackles, hits and blocks.
Studies point out how in a practice or game, children can experience the forces of a head blow that are comparable to the hits college football players suffer. Dr. Chris Nowinski, former Harvard football player-turned-neuroscientists and co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, notes that “exposure data shows children as young as nine are getting hit in the head more than 500 times in one season of youth tackle football.” He further postulates that such a fact “should not feel normal to us. Think of the last time, outside of sports, you allowed your child to get hit hard in the head 25 times in a day.”
Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, public health professor, explores the history of youth football in her 2019 book No Game for Boys to Play, the title taken from the conclusion of a 1907 Journal of the American Medical Association. The potency of her argument is how she excavates and unearths the multiple, competing narratives that have given meaning to football and how each football hit unlocks specific ideologies and cultural values like masculinity and patriotism. A Christian interpretation could easily name all of this as extra conformity ailments or patterns and the pressures of this age that the apostle Paul warns against as negative forms for how we comport our bodies in this world (12:2).
These concerns about the connection between playing football and brain damage are why college and professional football players such as Chris Borland, Husain Abdullah, Branson Bragg and Joshua Perry retired early from the game. They weighed the risks and put the health of their bodies first. Other former NFL players like Fran Tarkenton, Bart Scott, Jermichael Finley, Rashean Mathis, Adrian Peterson, Mike Ditka, Brett Favre and Terry Bradshaw have said they would not let their own children play football.
The bodily risks of playing football have gone from the most visible serious injuries that require orthopedic, arthroscopic and arthritic surgeries to the silent epidemic of damage done to the brain. Knees, hips and shoulders can heal and eventually be replaced if need be; but the brain, as an irreplaceable organ, cannot be treated as an inconsequential, expendable part, as if the dings to heads in football are equivalent to Wile E. Coyote getting walloped with an anvil or frying pan on the crown of his head, leaving him momentarily dazed and “seeing stars.”
The head games in football are a matter of one’s total well-being, since these injuries involve real people with family, jobs and future plans at stake and not fictional cartoon characters (or athletes in Madden NFL video games) who eternally rebound from their head trauma. Brains are central to cognitive and emotional intelligence, socialization, spiritual and moral formation, and to flourishing and finding personal fulfillment as responsible citizens in communities as fathers, brothers, mothers and sisters in families, as disciples of Christ in churches and as “salt and light” in our vocations. Damage to brains can never be undone and can affect the ability to live in significant, meaningful ways unlike other damaged body parts.
This illness of conformity is not limited to male bodies in football. Laura Fleshman focuses our attention on how female bodies face their own set of bodily conformity ailments. In her book Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World, she laments how coaching strategies and sports media often betray and objectify women’s bodies. In an interview in The Guardian she says, “We have to stop comparing them [women] to a male standard, stop expecting them to progress like men do, stop erasing the parts of their body that are feminine.” She argues that sports are dominated by the ideals of male bodies organized around male-gendered physiology and performances. She demonstrates how this gendered messaging burdens the lived experience of female bodies and creates toxic environments between athletes and their coaches. She explains how such a worldview can foster bodily identities for which women inhospitably encounter their bodies as foes rather than friends, resulting in body shaming, obsessing about and being dissatisfied with their weight, leading to eating disorders. The motley twisted forms of body-harming practices that are rife in sports can turn our body parts to doing wrong as profane weapons of injustice, against ourselves and others, contradicting them as holy offerings that are pleasing to God.
Be Transformed: Bodies are Given and Claimed by God as Sacrifices of Worship
A cursory look at Christian doctrine and practices illustrates the essential place of the body in Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy: 1) Bodies are gifted to us and created by God (Creation); 2) We are exhorted to recreate and rest our bodies (Sabbath); 3) We are to break bread with other bodies (Hospitality); 4) We immerse or sprinkle bodies (Baptism); 5) We share life with other bodies (Fellowship); 6) God became a human body (Incarnation); 7) We gather as the body of Christ (Church); 8) We are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (Worship); 9) We are called to serve and advocate for other bodies (Mercy and Justice ministries); 10) Jesus healed bodies (Miracles); 11) Spouses are joined as bodies (Marriage); 12) We commemorate Jesus’s passion and death by partaking of the consecrated elements of Jesus’ body and blood (Lord’s Supper); and 13) We will be resurrected with glorified bodies in the new heaven and earth (Eschatology).
In Romans 12:1-2, Paul connects his appeal to God’s grace and mercy to his exhortation of how we ought to live in our bodies as sacrifices to God. Paul’s body ethic is deeply incarnational and echoes what he has already said in Romans 6 about presenting bodies as alive “to God as instruments of righteousness” (v.13). Paul did not say present your souls or spirits but your bodies, which refers to our entire historical selves, all of the outside and inside or material and immaterial aspects of our personhood.
Sometimes Christians have erroneously placed a premium on the soul, heart or spirit—an inward take on what they prioritize, value and give dignity to. This accounting of the image of God means that specific attributes or capabilities such as reasoning are definitively privileged. At first glance, this eliminates people who lack or who are losing specific reasoning abilities or have severe cognitive impairments. Pinpointing human characteristics or properties to determine human dignity has been used historically to justify some of the most egregious actions from infants to elders and to marginalize and oppress women and minorities because they are viewed as inferior or less than those in power. The ideal of white men has regularly been the privileged placeholder for status and worth in the West, overtaking the sanctity of every particular human as a theological fact declared by God with certain subjective human declarations and personal beliefs.
The image of God pertains to who we are in relation and connection to God, since as creatures we all distinctively belong to God. As Martin Luther King, Jr., boldly asserted, the image of God gives humans uniqueness, worth and dignity and “there are not gradations in the image of God.”
Although God does not have a body, God vocationally calls all humans as image bearers to care for and steward the earth, representing God as “little lords” (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:15) with Jesus realized as the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). This call is often referred to as the cultural mandate. This mandate, given at creation in Eden, is the first commandment in the Bible, which, according to theologian John Stackhouse, has never been rescinded and is permanent, stretching from the past to the present and on into our future with God in the new heaven and earth. That means this calling is universal and extends to all people.
In summary, I say all of this about who we are as humans, because our bodily identity and service relate to our ordinary affairs and callings, whether at work or sport, and we must elevate bodily dignity versus deprecating it.
What does it mean to disparage God-given bodily dignity? What often happens, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is that Christians in sport allow their community loyalties to sport or the powers and authorities of the institution of football to supplant their ultimate loyalty to God and Christian convictions about bodies as spelled out in the Bible. What ways of thinking about bodies have trapped us in pseudo-thinking and helped to justify abuses to bodies in sports and life?
First, implicit at a popular level for some Christians is an inferior or negative view of the body rooted in the belief that the physical is less important than the spiritual. There is often an uncertainty about bodies because the physical is viewed with suspicion. This view professes that the spiritual is what is of primary importance and good, based on the false belief that our future state means that the physical world will burn up and expire and we will eternally commune with God as spiritual selves or disembodied souls. Bodies are seen as part of the earth, conceived as a temporary weigh station, making salvation deliverance from all things physical. Looking back at Niebuhr’s Christ of Culture type, this idea of religion deals only with the soul and does not lay commanding claim on a person’s entire life. Jesus is a spiritual redeemer for personal piety but “not Lord of life.” That means that participation in ordinary life and matters of the body are morally indifferent.
If the body is bereft of theological meaning, this thinking invalidates the fact that the body is meant for the Lord and the dwelling place of God, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, which Paul further explains in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. In Paul’s context, his theological points are addressing the matter of sexual immorality, namely, prostitution.
The Spirit of God should connect us more deeply to the moral and physical health of our bodies, preventing us from divorcing our bodies from God’s earthly residence. However, although our bodies are to be rightly esteemed, they should not be made gods, for their value is linked to God’s Spirit who inhabits them. How radical would it be if Christians in sport reckoned how bodily acts of harm and violence in sports are just as reckless as sexual immorality because they show disrespect toward the Holy Spirit who now resides in our bodies? Our bodies are not Spiritless packages of muscle, cartilage, tendons and bones; rather God has taken up shop in what God created as good. If we abuse our bodies, we call into question our Creator and Redeemer’s value of our bodies.
Finally, Paul adds another doctrine for us to consider when thinking about matters of the body. In 1 Corinthians 6:14, he states that just as God raised Jesus, he will raise our bodies (v. 14). Christ’s resurrection should renew our thinking about how we do sports, because the truth of the resurrection validates the fact that bodies matter.
Singing hymns like “This World is not My Home” and “I’ll Fly Away” in our Sunday morning church services can practically indoctrinate false views of bodies and the future heaven and earth. This same outlook about material stuff lends itself to depreciating ethical matters related to and stances toward the environment or nature. If the physical will not ultimately matter, then why care either for the planet or our bodies. I wonder how many Christians who are anti-environment also hold to anti-body sentiments in the arena of sports and thus, they are unconscious of how an undervaluing of the body undergirds the two separate moral issues.
Second, practical matters in sports like cut blocking, concussions, CTE and eating disorders demonstrate how our interests and justifications are shaped by mentors and models. The use of body-denying, harmful practices to achieve a team’s goals rubs against the Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy of bodies. Injuries and risks to bodies are accepted as part of doing business in the rough and tumble world of sports. The culture of risk makes pain and injury a necessary part of the game and not a moral or spiritual issue.
For some Christians, spiritual matters in sports are limited to Bible studies, evangelism and chapels— not something that pertains to the schemes, strategies and objective acts chosen during the course of a game or practice. With my opening football example, the good intention of striving for excellence is singled out as the sole determinant of what makes actions acceptable or unacceptable in the eyes of God. I believe the coach genuinely believes that his motives are good and that justifies defeating a defenseless opponent. The good of his team outweighs the potential bad outcome to one player.
However, a good intention does not excuse Christians of a morally wrong act. As the old proverbs says, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Christians need to examine the raw material of their bodily actions in sports to see whether bodily dignity is affirmed or not. If we start the process of our moral reasoning with how our acts should be ordered to God as a first principle, it can and should challenge the coach-turned-Christian leader whom I cited at the beginning of this article. It should disturb the Christian leader’s thought processes and arrest his mistaken belief that his pursuit of excellence was justified in instructing and doing harm to an opposing player. When witnessing the observable acts like cut blocking, body shaming or anorexia, harm is being done to bodily integrity and dignity which makes the acts morally wrong.
Presenting our bodies to God means that they find their proper meaning, blessing and purpose in conformity to God. We are summoned to glorify God with our bodies in all of life as a worship offering. When this truth is disregarded, players and coaches often think that what they do to their bodies is their own prerogative and they are free to behave as they want with their bodies. For Christian living, freedom is not simply the capacity to freely exercise our choice. Freedom, more importantly, is about directing our choices toward God, and in the case of our bodies, it is a freedom for excellence that corresponds to the truth and goodness of God-given bodily dignity.
Practically, this means that, if one is injured, the team trainers, physicians, coaches and administrators do not own that body. Even parents do not own that body! One must be honest about the injury while respecting others’ expert opinion and advice. Playing with pain, however, is never justifiable if it puts one solely in custody of what is done with the body. At best, we are granted secondary charge over our bodies as they are on loan from God with the Lord possessing ultimate authority over bodily dignity and integrity.
When bodies are mastered by others as expendable tools for athletic goals, they are adapted to the scheme and structures of this world (Rom. 12:2), denying bodily integrity and excellence which are not in keeping with God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. When we conform to such patterns in sports—which we all have been guilty of at some time in sports and life—we can return to Romans 12:1-2 with the hope of Paul’s encouragement to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Mind renewal is part of the ethical surrendering of our bodies to God in worship. Karl Barth sees the change of mind as a kind of repentance. Primary to true worship is repentance, which consists of renewing our minds which “is the act of rethinking.” He says that the act of repentance brings us back to the thought of God which is “the prelude to a new action,” that is, behavior which is well-pleasing to God. May our actions in sports be disturbed by the thought of God so that our way of inhabiting sports is a consequence of God’s grace and mercy, resulting in bodies that sacrificially and truly praise God.
— John B. White, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Director, Faith & Sports Institute and Sports Chaplaincy Program at Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary.