Football is a great sport – so great that fans of other games have stolen its name, as if they could thereby borrow its splendour and glory. I am talking, of course, about American football, that brutal game played by 11 men on the gridiron, except in depopulated small towns where Americans unwilling to let go of their ancestral traditions field teams of six.
I was never any good at the sport. I played various positions in the middle-school squad of the O’Neill Eagles, the worst team in the Nebraska Sandhills. I remember vividly every touchdown we scored. (We scored very few.) I remember the hits I took less distinctly. (I took very many.)
On Fridays in the autumn, the whole town would gather in the bleachers, hands over hearts for The Star-Spangled Banner, heads bowed for a paternoster at the 50-yard line, roaring with excitement when the boys scored, gravely silent but unsurprised when one was carried off on a stretcher.
On Thursday mornings students would gather in the home economics room for meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Coach would tell us about spiritual battle against demons, using roughly the same terms he used to describe our contests against the Gothenburg Swedes or the Broken Bow Indians. He reminded us that we wrestled not against flesh and blood.
When St Paul boasted, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith,” he presented the Christian life as both a race and a battle. Football combines the two to a unique degree. Here is the sudden exhilaration of a runner being chased down an open field. There is the wonderful dread of two lines crashing together. A long pass becomes a prayer.
A running back fleeing a tackler does what we must do when faced with temptation. A lineman who spends dreary days in the weightroom so he can overwhelm his opponent on the field of glory gives us a lesson in spiritual combat.
It is no coincidence that football brings into the public eye men like Paul Posluszny, an NFL linebacker who is more confident and orthodox in his faith than many professors of theology at Catholic universities.
Nor is it surprising that disdain for football has become a shibboleth for high-minded members of the professional class. Anyone who believes that politics is the art of managing difference will hate such dramatic displays of conflict. Anyone who believes religion is a private manner will hate a sport suffused with public piety.
We are regularly reminded that “new studies show” football causes brain injury – in technical language, “cumulative traumatic encephalopathy”. But no one needed a peer-reviewed study to see that football is dangerous. That is the basis of its appeal. Willa Cather, my fellow Nebraskan, recognised this a century ago:
It makes one exceedingly weary to hear people object to football because it is brutal. Of course it is brutal. So is Homer brutal, and Tolstoi; that is, they all alike appeal to the crude savage instincts of men. We have not outgrown all our old animal instincts yet, heaven grant we never shall! The moment that, as a nation, we lose brute force, or an admiration for brute force, from that moment poetry and art are forever dead among us, and we will have nothing but grammar and mathematics left. The only way poetry can ever reach one is through one’s brute instincts … A good football game is an epic, it rouses the oldest part of us, the part that fought ages back down in the Troad with “Man-slaying Hector” and “Swift-footed Achilles”.
If we reach a different conclusion from Cather, it will not be because our scientific knowledge has advanced, but because our intuitions have changed. We will have decided that extending life and maximising cognitive ability are more important than honouring daring and fortitude. But what is the point of increasing an IQ meanly used, or lengthening a life poorly spent? Will a nation be better governed by safety-minded managers of high intelligence, or by spirited men trained to suffer for a great cause? It is neither intelligent nor healthy to prize intelligence and health above all else.
Cather believed that football “lays the mighty low and brings down them which were exalted”. I would add to her praise. Football points us beyond ourselves. Its very violence is a kind of memento mori, evoking the beauty of a good death like the sight of autumn leaves. It dazzles us with displays of physical greatness – and shows us how tiny and fleeting that greatness must be.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow
This article first appeared in the September 14 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here