On Sunday, I tuned in to watch my first football game in over a year as part of my discipline toward Christian nonviolence.
That may seem odd, especially since I’m the person who wrote about quitting the NFL as an act of nonviolence just last year. But this weekend I tuned in for the NFL’s Pro Bowl competition, including the flag football game, to signal my support for player safety and wellbeing.
Christian nonviolence is not just a passive refusal; it also involves action toward practices of peace. So, one of my steps in resisting the violence of the NFL is supporting the league’s minimal acts of “nonviolence.” While flag football may not be a perfect alternative, the reduction of tackling and head impacts makes it a significantly safer way to enjoy the sport. It’s my hope that Christians will feel convicted to support nonviolent alternatives to football, even if they aren’t able to give up the sport entirely.
The myth that players aren’t victims
One of the most common responses I get when I talk about resisting football as an act of nonviolence is that all the players choose to participate: Players are putting their own bodies on the line, and they make millions doing it. How can celebrity millionaires be victims of violence, people wonder?
Theologies of liberation have long held that violence is not just seen in sudden outbursts, but in the ordinary violence of systems and structures. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a foremost voice of liberation theology, defines liberation theology as having a preferential option for the poor, who are subjected to “premature and unjust death.”
Violence, I believe, fits the same definition.
So, sure, no individual coerces players into playing, but how informed is that choice?
Over its existence, the NFL has spent more time hiding and denying the risks that players take than they have addressing those risks. Plenty of players throughout the NFL’s history retired young due to injuries. Now that the link between traumatic brain injuries and football is established, it’s less shocking to see players retire young.
Even after the NFL agreed to a landmark settlement (while denying any wrongdoing) to help pay players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to concussions, an investigation from The Washington Post found that “the settlement is routinely failing to deliver medical care and money to former players suffering from dementia and CTE.”
And while NFL players might make millions of dollars, it’s wrong to assume this makes them beneficiaries, rather than victims, of violence. The average NFL player has a short career, around three years. Median and average salary estimates fluctuate, but they are generally around $1 or $2 million. If you take home $5 million playing football and retire at 26, you have about $80,000 for the next 60 years of life. Most players will have to work other jobs to make their earnings last and provide for their families.
And what good are millions of dollars at the cost of a long and healthy life? New studies have found that professional football players are more likely than nonplayers (other conditions being equal) to develop age-related diseases early in life, and linemen are likely to die younger. Christian nonviolence should resist the temptation to place temporary riches over the long-term wellbeing of our neighbors.
Finally, the NFL players aren’t the ones making the most money from violence. That would be the owners: Rich, mostly white owners who do nothing to earn most of the money football makes them. Fundamentally, NFL players are workers, serving under bosses who control their working conditions. The only way players can affect their working conditions is like all other workers: through their union. There’s a reason even the most successful NFL player of all time (Tom Brady) wants to be an owner.
And all of this doesn’t account for the fact that most football players won’t ever make the NFL, while still suffering from the cumulative effects of head traumas.
So... Flag football?
Which all brings me back to flag football. Scolding people has never been my strategy or desire in resistance. People love football — I love football — and they aren’t going to resist the violence of the sport if they think they must give up their appreciation and love for the game.
One challenge is that football truly does have intangible merits that, for many of us, can’t be found in other sports. As cliche as it is, the sport has a unique blend of athleticism, strategy, and stakes that make every game and every play interesting. I’ve filled a lot of my old football time with tennis and basketball, two sports I love, but they aren’t the same. And organized sports can help reduce violence and promote peacebuilding by containing conflict and competition to a game setting.
Acknowledging this merit isn’t meant to counterbalance the violence; it’s to try and be honest about why football is hard to turn away from and help us imagine what we need in alternatives. Understanding what motivates people toward (or allows them to accept) violence is a key part of addressing it.
When I think back to my best memories with football, I think of the time my team pulled off an upset in the championship over a previously undefeated juggernaut (we held their 42-points-a-game offense to 12 points). I think of how loved and affirmed I felt while my dad and I coached my sister’s flag team years later, when he graciously asked me to coach the offense. None of these memories are marred by a “lack” of big hits. No matter how different the game might be from what you see in the NFL, it’s a sport worthy of the title “football.”
Even if you’re not able to give up football entirely, you can support flag football at every turn. Encourage kids to play flag instead of tackle, especially until they reach high school. Tune in to the Pro Bowl and other flag football competitions like the 2028 Olympics. There’s no telling what a bonafide professional flag football league could look like if it had the same fan base and financial support as the NFL.
There was once a time when modern tennis was known as “lawn tennis,” in contrast to the indoor sport, but with time that changed. Maybe one day “football” will be the sport that doesn’t inflict such brutal violence on its players. As Christians who follow Jesus as the prince of peace, we can certainly hope to make it so.