Nick Foles, this year’s Super Bowl MVP, wants to be a youth pastor when he retires. What would you advise Nick to advise youth who want to play football?
I played seven years of organized football—four in high school, three in college. Sustained three concussions—the first was during my junior year of high school. Coaches told me I came off the field with a silly grin. “Am I a guard or a tackle?” They sat me down and I sat out the rest of the game.
All I remember is sitting in front of my locker that night. The locker room was empty. I walked into coach’s office and asked if we won the game. He thought I was trying to be funny (we lost by a point late in the game). Then he saw my dilated pupils.
A few months later I was driving home and suddenly could not remember the route home. The streets were familiar; the route no longer was. I was shaken but drove on. A few seconds later, the route returned. Over the years, my fadeouts have faded away.
I’m fortunate. Rob Kelly isn’t. He played five seasons as an NFL safety, beginning in the late 1990s. After one blow to the head, Kelly came off the field asking if he played offense or defense. Read Emily Kelly’s heartbreaking story of her husband Rob today. He’s 43—paranoid, withdrawn, and gaunt (down to 157 pounds from 200 in his NFL days). Emily says people are visibly shocked when told Rob played in the NFL.
Concussions are not the problem as much as repeated blows to the head. It’s the nature of the game. I’m not sure how I’d advise youth who want to play football today. I weighed 215 in high school. The University of Michigan recruited me. Bo Schembechler bragged that no one on the team weighed more than 250 pounds (“too much weight slows you down!”). Today’s players are bigger, faster. Increased mass and velocity equals increased force of a blow. I shuddered when I watched Brandin Cook knocked out of the Super Bowl due to a vicious – and legal – blow to the head.
So what would you advise Nick Foles to advise youth? I suggest starting with the “four-chapter” gospel—creation, fall, redemption, restoration. In street language, ought, is, can, will.
In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas writes, “God and happiness are the same.” Created in his image, God seeks our happiness, first by making a wildly wonderful world, including oceans, for ships to sail on and Leviathan (whales?) to sport in—to play in (Ps. 104:24-26). Sports and fun ought to be linked. They’re foundational to human flourishing.
Even after the fall, we equate sports with fun. Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of making sport—fun—of her when he spurned her sexual advances (Gen. 39:17). When we jump ahead to eternity (the final restoration) we read, “the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets” (Zech. 8:5). Lots of fun and sports.
The hard part is redemption—the gap between the fall (the way it is) and the restoration (the way things will be). In the early 1800s, the Clapham circle worked to ban blood sports—dueling, gambling, the lottery, and bear baiting—because they were not part of human flourishing. Brandin Cook got clocked and I wondered: Is this fun?
A few months ago I read the neuropathologist’s report on the brains of 111 NFL players, where 110 were found to have C.T.E., the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head. I asked myself: Is this what fun ought to look like?
I’m having second thoughts about football. I’m not ready for an outright ban, as redemption first seeks to fix things. Several proposals are being put forward to make the game safer. Eliminating the three-point stance (linemen absorb many hundreds of repetitive subconcussive impacts, which is largely why many of the former NFL players diagnosed with CTE have been offensive and defensive linemen). Non-contact practices. Flag football until high school. These are all good starts.
When Nick Foles is asked one day about sports, he could help youth wrestle with football inside the “four-chapter” gospel frame. Sports, fun, and flourishing ought to be linked. This often isn’t the case in a fallen world. Exhibit A is the Pyeongchang Olympics. An initial allotment of 110,000 condoms was made available for the over 2,000 athletes attending the games. Initial—because recent Olympics have seen supplies run out. The IOC replenished supply to keep athletes happy.
I doubt this is the happiness Aquinas had in mind. Nor is a sport that causes so many to suffer degenerative brain disease. That’s not flourishing. But what do you think?