Monday, February 6, 2012

The Superbowl: Not so super from a compassion perspective

I refrained from posting this yesterday because I didn't want to rain on anyone's good time. But I was truly surprised to see how many vegan and/or Christian friends were stoked about the Superbowl. A few people were indifferent and one mentioned some negative feeling toward it, but by and large, people were in party mode.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the appeal of football. In the early 90s and 00s, any given Sunday you'd have found me in front of the game, pigging out on chili and screaming myself hoarse. Before NFL Sunday Ticket, I'd go to sports bars with my husband every weekend, even though I don't care to drink and the smoke made me ill. I shelled out hundreds of dollars to go sit in the stands in the sweltering 98 degree heat for a game I knew we were bound to lose. I never went so far as face painting, but I'd wear my team shirt and paint my nails team colors - even though I didn't root on the hometown team and was risking arguments with drunken idiots. And if an argument came, I wasn't backing down - I knew my stuff and I loved the game. On the Rabid Fan Scale, I'd have fallen just below "foaming at the mouth."

So what changed? I went to a pee-wee football game to support my neighbor's kid.

Stepping back a bit, for years my husband had been telling me about the conflicted feelings he had about football. He'd played from the time he was five until he was in his teens and had a real love for the game. But he'd quit after he crippled another boy during a game, accidentally breaking the opposing player's neck with an awkward tackle. For a long time after that, he didn't so much as watch football on TV. When he did start watching it again, the moral implications of supporting the game bothered him. Should we be paying young men to cripple themselves?

Make no mistake: that's what we're doing by supporting football. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Spinal injuries. Crippling arthritis. Pain-killer dependency. Dementia, sleep apnea, and Lord knows what else. (There's a fairly thorough study of self-reports of NFL retirees as compared to the general populous here, if you're the type who likes to read dozens of pages of stats. Of particular interest is the self-rated health status chart on page 28.) The NFL is aware of and trying to address these problems for its retirees, but by then the damage has already been done.

I rationalized it, as I imagine most fans do, by suggesting that the obscene wages pro football players make (a moral argument against football in itself) were offsetting the risk. Basically, my reasoning was that these men were being paid in advance for their future medical care, like hazard pay for soldiers. And it's true that retired football players are, on average, somewhat financially better off than the general population. But not as much as you might think, and a surprising number are dependent on family and friends for support. Yes, there are some retired players living like Trump, but there are also some living below the poverty level. (This is covered in the aforementioned ridiculously long study.)

But I don't think these are the things that bothered my husband. It wasn't as much what the game did to the players that troubled him, but what it did to us, the viewers. He saw football as essentially small-scale war for the entertainment of the masses - armored warriors engaging in hand-to-hand combat to gain or protect territory. And though removed from the action, we somehow consider ourselves participants. We cheer the crushing tackles with blood-lust. We rage at the refs, the opposing team, our own team for losing. I don't think anyone - player or spectator - considers football a peace-creating activity. But does the war-like energy extend past the game itself?

There's definitely something to this. One study showed that in cases of upset losses in football games, incidents of domestic violence rise. And what fan hasn't been in an argument with someone about the game, developed hard feelings towards a certain team or their fans, or been stressed out and angry just reading the sports pages? If we've "put away anger" (Col 3:8), why are we bringing it back out again every Sunday?

As Christian pacifists - those who've chosen to 'lay down our swords for plowshares and make war no more' - or as vegans who have committed to a life of compassion for all living beings, shouldn't all of this prick our consciences?  To object to violence and not object to people dishing out physical harm for pay seems illogical. To object to bullfighting and not object to sacking the quarterback makes little sense. (And this is saying nothing about the fact that 3,000+ cow hides are used each year to make the regulation footballs for the NFL.)

This was what convinced me: the boy next door - a friend of my son - asked us to come watch his first away game in a nearby city. We went out to support him. During the game, these 12- and 13-year-old boys who were playing their hearts out were constantly screamed at, belittled, and pushed by their own parents. The coaches received even worse treatment. I thought it was appalling, but what really got me was when a mother walked away from yelling at the coach with tears in her eyes and said to her companion, "If my boy doesn't make the NFL, I don't know what chance he'll have."

This mom, desperately worried about her child's future, wasn't fighting for his education, wasn't fighting for his safety... No, she was fighting for his medical bills to be paid for in advance, so after a few years of small-scale war, he could retire to a life of chronic pain and possible dementia. That's not what I wanted for that 12-year-old boy, or my neighbor, or any of the kids on that field. We can rationalize all we want and say these pro football players know what they're getting into, but do they really? When they first put on a youth football uniform at age 8 or 9, and begin pinning all their hopes and all their family's hopes on a future in the NFL, do they know a thing about chronic traumatic encephalopathy? Or do they only know they want to be a warrior on a televised battlefield, receiving the adulation of millions of fans if they're strong enough to pull out a win?

If our lives are about building peace, compassion, and harmony, it just seems to me that brutal sports like football are out of step with that practice.

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