Watson: In defense of football

Jan 30, 2017 by

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For many of us, January’s cold snaps and post-holiday haze mark an important annual ritual: playoffs in the National Football League. It is an event that, when we stop to think, strikes a dissonant chord with our Anabaptist faith.

Hillary Watson


Football is difficult to reconcile with Anabaptist identity. It’s a game that sacrifices young men to permanent brain damage and idealizes reckless, violent shows of strength. The NFL’s ritualistic effort to fuse militarism and patriotism into sports entertainment is unsettling. We should be troubled by the half-hearted responses to misconduct and sexual abuse.

And yet I hesitate to reject it. Many times as a pastor, a conversation about football (or another sport) has been an entry point to a relationship or a marker of concern, whether with a teenage boy in the youth group, a family with wildly different opinions on the same team or my co-pastor.

For years, I was skeptical of the game. At 23, for the first time having friends who were football fans, I grudgingly watched my first game. A year later, riding a shaking bus through Atlanta in January loaded with airport baggage, a group of older African-American men complimented my West Coast hometown team’s Super Bowl potential, cheering for me with the same enthusiasm as my team. They counted me a friend, an ally, because they knew where I came from.

That was the first time I understood football as a bridge, and that bridge only grew wider since 2014, when my Seahawks did become champions. Football is a shared story we can enter from many locations, telling and retelling the story of a game, a team, a season, until it makes sense from two opposite angles. It’s a story of fanatical proportions, in which there is a tacit understanding that all arguments come from irrational, if earnest, bias.

Both character and action are colored by this bias. I can argue for days that Russell Wilson is a charming model of principled celibacy and still respect my friend’s equally grounded claim, “I hear the rest of the team thinks he’s a jerk.” When we argue over a play, maintaining absurdly simplistic views is part of the experience. “That was a warm­up,” I might say, while my friend persists, “He’s the most overrated quarterback right now.”

At the end of the day, we bond inside our shared story. A story of mythical, larger-than-life proportions that shapes our habits and relationships. Many Christians have pointed out this is what makes the sport so problematic. It overwhelms the centrality of the Bible’s story in our lives.

This critique of sports in general is important. But in the divisive culture of current U.S. politics and the polarized church, I am convinced we do not spend enough time watching sports together.

In the gap between rural and urban life, between racially integrated and racially isolated communities, between booming West Coast and busted Rustbelt economies, we cannot enter the biblical story together until we enter a lower-stake, but similarly passionate, story together. Football is a bridge between Democrats and Republicans, between regions and races and ages and so many demographics. We need as many shared stories as we can manage.

I don’t love the NFL. But I believe in the NFL. I believe watching the Super Bowl together — or, as so many parties go, failing to watch, but laughing and eating and talking together — is a ritual we need, especially this year. A ritual that prepares us to enter the biblical story together.

Hillary Watson pastors at Lombard Mennonite Church in suburban Chicago. She blogs at Gathering the Stones.

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