Saturday, February 06, 2010

Football, Baseball, and the Culture of Violence (back by no demand whatsowever)

My counter-cultural premise is that cultural forms are not neutral. Whether we are addressing communication technologies, art-forms, or sports, all must be exegeted and analyzed according to their form, nature, and structure. Television, for instance, is neither intrinsically good, intrinsically evil, nor neutral. It has a nature as a medium that makes is suitable for entertainment and generally unsuitable for edification and instruction. It tends to foster intellectual impatience, a sense of unreality, and an image-orientation to life that “humiliates the Word” (Jacques Ellul). Goth music and culture, for example, is inextricably rooted in the symbolism of death, decay, and destruction, however skillful the musicians may be. It celebrates and generates darkness and despair. Therefore, the notion of “Christian Goth” is oxymoronic in the extreme. The cultural form is not redeemable. It must be condemned and replaced with something better. And, yes, we must do all we can to communicate the truth in love to Goths (if there are any left).

Cultural forms shape our sensibilities and our mindsets in countless and typically covert ways. As a culture riven with senseless violence and mayhem, as evidenced at Columbine High School, we need to discern the cultural forces that pull people away from God’s shalom and toward the abyss of rage, revenge, and the devaluing of human life made in God’s image. Sin lies in the heart, but it also becomes institutionalized and systemic in many cultural forms. These must be exegeted and exposed to the light of truth.Now on to sports, a topic that is virtually never discussed in terms of cultural form, whether moral or aesthetic. Whatever features unite all instances of sport, each sports differs from every other sport in some distinctive ways. Rather than give an detailed ontology and ethical assessment of the major team sports, I want to draw from comparisons between football and baseball in relation to cultural violence and entertainment.

I will not be discussing the ethical character of players, managers, owners, and fans. This is incidental to a formal or structural analysis of these two sports. We find “good Christians” playing baseball and football and “good Christians” watching both sports. This is a trivial point, however, if we endeavor to discern the nature of these two sports.The argument is brief, sharp, and probably unpopular. Baseball is both aesthetically and morally superior to football as a cultural form. Moreover, football is not only inferior to baseball, but possesses deficits that should cause Christians to consider their participation in the sport—whether as players, managers, owners, or fans—in principle. As an ideal, a team sport should evince aesthetic beauty, moral virtue, and intellectual value. Now consider baseball and football.

1. Football is intrinsically violent. It cannot be played without heavy padding and physical punishment. Professional players typically undergo multiple surgeries for repeated injuries. Many of these injuries are permanently debilitating. The nature of the sport encourages a toleration for, and even promotion of, violence. Players attempt to injure each other to take them out of the game. Many young men are seriously injured while playing football. Why risk the damage to a growing body? If the body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and the temple of the Holy Spirit for the Christian, why should anyone treat one’s own body and other’s bodies to so much physical abuse? We were not designed for this kind of punishment.

2. Baseball is not intrinsically violent, but only contingently violent; it much less violent than football overall. No physical contact of a brutal nature is required of the sport. No pitcher must bean (intentionally hit) a batter, although there is a risk of this happening accidentally. No batter tries to injure a fielder with a hit. No fielder intentionally throws the baseball into a runner, although this may happen by accident. And so on. Yes, there is physical contact between offense and defense. A runner barreling home from second base on a single to the outfield may need to collide with the catcher in order to attempt to score. However, his is not necessitated by the game as such, and the catcher is well-protected by his pads and mask. Many games are played where this kind of contact never occurs. Further, many runners will try to avoid the catcher entirely with a hook slide.

3. Baseball is intellectually superior to football, because of the degree of strategy, finesse, and intelligence required to play it well. Football knows of many plays and patterns, but most of them reduce to speed, strength, and coordination--as opposed to intelligence. In baseball, a pitcher with less than a cannon arm (such as Greg Maddox) can be one of the best pitchers in baseball in light of his intelligence in pitch selection, control, knowledge of batters, and fielding ability. Nothing analogous is the case with football, to my knowledge.Historically, intellectuals have been drawn to write and reflect on baseball. A recent example is columnist and author, George Will. I doubt there is anything of this nature to be said of football. (This, of course, does not imply that no intellectuals like football or than only unintelligent people do.)

4. Aesthetically, baseball is superior because of its unique sense of time. There is no clock in baseball. Time never runs out, only opportunities do. When Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” he was not uttering a tautology. Since the game is not terminated until the final out is made, it is always possible to come back or to blow a huge lead. In football, the game is often over (determined) before it is over (temporally), rendering the final minutes meaningless and pointless. In baseball, as in the Christian world view, a measure of hope is always alive until the game is over. Near-miraculous comebacks are possible. When they occur, there is no greater drama in all of sports.

5. The pace of baseball is far more deliberate and delicate than football, given that there is no time clock. It is thus more conducive to patience and reflection. This assumes that you are not watching on an evil television network where commercials are now jammed in between batters; thus violating the ontology of the game itself.

6. Both baseball and football require athletic skill for their performance, but I venture to say that an expertly turned double-play, a diving catch in the outfield, or a deftly stolen base (particularly of home) demonstrates more athletic and aesthetic excellence than anything in football. Moreover, nothing in any sport has the dramatic effect of a grand slam home run, especially in a close game.

7. No one can hog the ball or exclude other players from play in baseball. This is largely because baseball is the only team sport where the defense controls the ball. The defense never knows where the ball will end up after the next pitch. This adds an element suspense and intrigue that is lacking in football. The batter or base runner has no possession of the ball. The ball must be outsmarted by being hit (by the batter) or avoided (by the runner).

8. In baseball, apart from the aberration of the designated hitter (a recent perversion only used in one league), all the players must function on both defense and offense. Pitchers are not expected to be excellent hitters, but they can contribute in this way and also need to know how to bunt and run the bases. This adds depth to the athletic performance. Football players play either defense or offense, but not both (with possible rare exceptions).

More could be said, but if these reflections are correct, baseball is superior to football as a cultural form. It is much less violent, more artful, and more intellectually stimulating. The intrinsically and inextricably violent nature of football makes it suspect morally, especially for Christians who ought to prize gentleness and peace as fruits of the Spirit. Despite my apologetic for baseball, I can find no moral imperative to be involved at any level of baseball. Any goodness or excellence found therein can be found, at least analogously, in other areas of life. Nevertheless, the moral implications of the argument are as follows:

1. If one participates in a team sport, baseball is a worthy choice, as is softball for similar reasons. One may play well or poorly, with good motives or bad motives, but the nature of the game is itself good.

2. Given the formal deficiencies and defects of football, one ought not play it or coach it or watch it or own it or support it (through stadium taxes, etc.). (This does not exclude touch or flag football, which are not intrinsically violent, though still aesthetically and intellectually inferior to baseball.) Football reinforces and perpetuates the culture of violence, which must be resisted in every form if we are to regain a measure of sanity and civility in our increasingly violent world.

One may wonder, then, if I am very involved in watching baseball. I am not. Television has nearly destroyed the sport (as it destroyed just about everything). I will did not watch the World Series last year, nor did I watch a single game. My argument is not a justification for any habit or addiction I may have; it, rather, addresses objective properties related to form. Attending an organic form of baseball, such as youth league, is another matter. That would be blessedly unmediated.


Gary said...

"Goth music and culture, for example, is inextricably rooted in the symbolism of death, decay, and destruction, however skillful the musicians may be. It celebrates and generates darkness and despair. Therefore, the notion of “Christian Goth” is oxymoronic..."

I take your point, but isn't your love of jazz equally problematic? Jazz music is, after all, inextricably linked to drug culture, and, to a lesser degree, the new age. I no longer listen to jazz for this very reason.

janimar said...

Great article. I watch both but am definitely a baseball fan and have been for years. Today on Bookish NYC blog there was this timely quote from another baseball lover, George Will. "Football combines the worst features of American life. It is violence punctuated by committee meetings."

Doug Groothuis said...

Good heavens, no! The origins of jazz are mixed, but it is not intrinsically dark, evil, anti-Christian, death-loving. Even bad people can create beautiful music, such as Miles Davis.

Corbin said...

Doug, I would like to know your thoughts on Heavy Metal music. Is it not also anti-chrstian music, like goth? Your thoughts would be most appreciated as I am dealing with this with a christian who is crazy about heavy metal, and not just "christian metal".

Anonymous said...

I've frequently thought of myself as "Christian goth"...Hmmm, I need to think through this, and reconsider getting that tattoo of a black tear under my eye.

Steve said...

Curious about your statements from point 1, specifically, "Many young men are seriously injured while playing football. Why risk the damage to a growing body? If the body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and the temple of the Holy Spirit for the Christian, why should anyone treat one’s own body and other’s bodies to so much physical abuse? We were not designed for this kind of punishment."

Though these comments are in the context of violence, could it be argued that baseball, especially the motion of pitching puts a growing body at risk? Some argue that the human arm was not designed for the motion of throwing an overhand fastball.

Though baseball is not intrinsically violent, a 162 game season is extremely abusive to the body. Injuries in professional baseball are approaching all time highs. A study by the Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons showed that 50 to 75 percent of all adolescent baseball players-not just pitchers-report elbow pain.

Perhaps God did not design us for throwing a baseball overhand either. These elbow injuries are unique to throwing a baseball. You do not see these injuries with throwing a football or a softball.

Maybe God intended for mankind to play softball.

Ultimately, I think one could argue that soccer (known throughout the world as The Beautiful Game) is superior to football and baseball as a cultural form. Of course Americans find it extremely difficult to appreciate a game that can end in a tie.

Lisa said...

Dr. G,
Well, last year I didn’t comment on the football/violence as counter Christian, but I’m feeling fresh this year and wanted to add my 2 cents worth…Interestingly the Apostle Paul must have been quite the sportsman at some point in his life, because he used an unique analogy to a sporting event that was incredibly violent…boxing.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he uses a sports related analogy to show how to discipline yourself to win the race; with self control in all things and having an aim and goal. He then finished the thought with a brief look at how a boxer trains (vs. 26); the only people privy to how most boxers train, are fans invited to watch their favorite fighter in his home gym.

This is an interesting glimpse into possibly the early life of Paul and his “hobbies”. But it is interesting what God can and will redeem…even something as violent as boxing; Paul is as we should be “…discerning scavengers for common grace…” (p.3 from your out-line…and I was paying attention *chuckle*) though only Paul can pull off a boxing analogy!

Aaron Beitler said...

Thanks for the great post.

A couple counterpoints from the football side:

1) Football is more team-oriented than baseball. Each play hinges to a very large degree on the carrying out of each person's assignment. This promotes accountability and intense inter-reliance at a time when those traits are badly needed in society.

2) Football's violence does have a benefit. It requires one to develop the ability to focus in the face of danger and disarray. This cultivates courage. (And football is safer than war or other risky experiences that encourage similar virtues.)

Yossman said...

I had my first Super Bowl Party ever, got the rules explained to me, enjoyed the Who. As I went through the strange motions of patriotism toward a nation I don't belong to I realized this game is indeed a bit violent. But the snacks were good and the fellowship was great.

Peter M. Head said...

I love these spoof posts. They really make me laugh. Only problem is that sarcasm and irony are ill-suited to the medium and some people will really think that Christians should not play football (although doing drugs, drinking moonshine, and playing Jazz are OK).

Doug Groothuis said...

Very clever, Peter, but ineffective logically. This is clearly not satire, and the argument is not reducible to absurdity, since the other things you mention are not intrinsically bad.

Doug Groothuis said...

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