Saturday, January 21, 2006

Football, Baseball, and the Culture of Violence

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 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.

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 homerun, 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 baserunner 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 addresses objective properties related to form. Attending an organic form of baseball, such as youth league, is another matter. That would be blessedly unmediated.


BJS said...

Dr. G,

I am drafting a response to your argument here for the superiority of baseball. I will address, point by point, why I find your argument fails. I am letting you know that I am preparing this refutation only as a teaser -- for I plan on finishing my refutation of your claim tomorrow as I watch the AFC and NFC Championship football games. Yes, I am doing this primarly for dramatic effect. Also, perhaps as I watch the beauty of the sport as I work on my response, I will be hit with even more insights. Presently, I am quite confident I can soundly refute your claim. Stay tuned.

Oh, and unlike baseball and like football, I will put myself on a clock: I will have my refutation of your argument posted by the expiration of the final quarter of the NFC Championship game tomorrow night (Sunday).


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan said...

From the time I was a young child, my dad took me to baseball games, and we still go today. It is quite easy to imagine the difference in impact on my character in those early years particularly, had my father taken me to football games instead. Baseball is an alltogether different sport, rich with traditions and values that go back to the beginning of the game in America. It has always been a sport that promotes good manners, equity, fairness, and no-harm. I do not, however, purchase team-logo laden paraphernalia, or disparage those who "root" for teams outside of Colorado. I find that baseball fans, overall, have a more friendly and more healthy attitude toward competition in baseball. A baseball aficionado is typically a much more jovial individual regarding "the other team" than is a football fan (though I have seen bad form in the stadium at baseball games. Usually this is sternly corrected by those seated nearby, reminding the offending spectator that "we dont do that in baseball, sir!")

I have, in the days when I worked on TV crews for sporting events, been to football, soccer, and basketball games. Football's constraint to "the clock" is rediculously driven by the broadcast of the game and the commercials that "must" be aired. Behind-the-scenes, you would not believe how tense it can get! The volence and bad-manners extends even into the TV control room.

R. Chapman said...

Dr. Groothuis,

I love your essay here on football and baseball. I found it profoundly interesting and unique in its points.

I often get criticism from people because I am a Christian whose favorite sport is actually Mixed Martial Arts (also called "Ultimate Fighting"--the Ultimate Fighting Championships).

I realize you dislike football largely because of its violent elements. I'd be interested to see your comments on Mixed Martials Arts on this. But recently I heard Gary Habermas talking on a radio show and he briefly addressed the Apostle Paul. Habermas made the interesting point that Paul was most probably an athletic, physically gifted man. He often used athletic allusions in his writings and himself was able to endure the harshest physical strife. Habermas noted that Paul mostly alluded to boxing and track & field in his letters, and thus was seemingly a fan of such events.

This is interesting in regards to your comments on the violence of football (and the comments of others on the violence of Mixed Martial Arts). For if Paul did not find boxing to be unChristian (he spoke of it even after his conversion), why would football or Ultimate Fighting be considered incompatible with Christianity?

I just thought this was an interesting tidbit to think about in regards to your essay.

BJS said...


since the Broncos failed today, I suppose I will as well: I will not get my refutation of your position finished tonight, I'm afraid. (The realization that I still have a Plato paper to finish that is due tomorrow morning also might have had a factor in my decision to put off finishing the response).

But fear not -- the refutation will come soon and Dr. G. will be proven wrong (...on this point at least).


Jeff Burton said...

You forgot the most important way in which baseball is superior to football - it's orders of magnitude more boring, and therefore much less likely to entice me to waste my time watching it. I am surprised the good doctor would have a kind word to say about watching any sport (usually said activity involves the anathematized far-seeing device).

Adam Omelianchuk said...

All that you say is true, and yet football is still much more fun to play and watch than baseball!

Ted M. Gossard said...

I would prefer either baseball or soccer to Amercan football. Or basketball for that matter.

I would like it if football was more of the "flag football" variety. Though I don't know the rules to that entirely.

So I can see what you're saying. I cringe at vicious hits in football.

Ted M. Gossard said...

That being said, for whatever reason I like football best. It is the big sport in Ohio, where I'm from. Maybe that's why. Shorter seaons. Less games. Too.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I would like to add one other thing here.

I think grace figures in for us all. Otherwise we would all come short. We need grace every moment.

And I think that grace enables us to critique where we're at, and grow in conformity to Christ.

Thanks for the thoughts, even if I don't side 100% with especially your conclusion.

Ted M. Gossard said...

and, I must add, all your premises at arriving to that conclusion.

Craig Fletcher said...

Dr. Groothuis: You know I consider you an intellectual dynamo, but in this case I disagree with some of our premises. There are many good points in your essay that have caused me to stop and think things through regarding my love of football, but I must certainly refute one of them where you wrote "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".

For one to say such a thing illustrates a lack of knowledge regarding the game of football. The complexity of football is far greater in my opinion. Have you ever listened to an NFL coach call a play? It's madness. Each play call is a slew of commands that almost sounds like a foreign language, in which all 11 players are given specific instructions. For example, he might call "double X right slot zoom 88 bravo strong left 27 I-left alpha fade triple Z". I made this one up, but it is similar to real play calls. All of these commands mean something to the players on the field, and all eleven of them have to try to execute their job during the play to perfection in order for the play to be effective.... and these things are being done concurrently by 11 people (not true in baseball. In baseball, several plays can go by where half of the players do nothing at all because the ball did not come their way). So you take that, coupled with the fact that the coaches and players have studied the opposing team's tendencies before they even design these plays to counter the opposing team's strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Additionally, when the quarterback comes up to the line he "reads" the defensive formation. If he sees that the opposing defense is in a formation that does not favor the play call, he "audibilizes". Audibilizing is a fine art. It involves reading the defense, and changing the play call at the line of scrimmage. This requires that all players on the field have an intimate knowledge of their team's playbook. It is said that in many systems (teams), it takes a quarterback several years to learn the system effectively before they can audibilize effectively... or even execute the original play call for that manner. The quarterback needs to know what everyone on the field is doing on every play so that he can react and make good decisions.

I could cite many more examples, but I hope you see my point: Football is at least as intellectual as baseball, and in my opinion much more so. This is why I love the game. The violence is a downside, but the strategy is very intense and enjoyable. Also, there is indeed time for reflection. There is a 30-45 second delay between plays during which time the coaches are scheming their next call. There are also coaches "up top" looking down over the field with better views of the opposing teams' formations as well.

One more thing: You will be hard pressed to find players who intentionally want to hurt other players. Almost without exception, every time you see someone get hurt and the player who caused the injury is interviewed, there is obvious remorse. This happens on the playing field, and during post game interviews. The goal is to stop the opposing player from executing the play, not to hurt them.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Some responses:

1. Yes to Susan!

2. I don't "watch" baseball on the infernal device anymore, as I said in the essay.

3. To Craig: complexity is not the same as intelligence. Football player do try to hurt each other. I knew an NFL guy who said they tried to take each other out in training so they could secure a position.What they say in front of a TV camera is another matter!

BJS said...

OK Dr. G, my big detailed refutation is still on the way... but I have to quickly jump in here on point 3 you just made.

This is just not true as tendancy across the sport. Perhaps you knew one warped individual player who did try to hurt other people (even his own teammates!), but he was the exception not the norm. I'll get into much more detail on this in my refutation, but football is about the highly CONTROLLED use of force, not uncontrolled violence intended for injury.

You can easily cite a couple players who are outliers on this point, but the same could be said of baseball (Sandy Koufax sharpened his spikes so that when he slide into second he would break the SS's ankle. There are some pitchers who intentionally try to injury other players, etc.). Those are exceptions in baseball not a rule of the formal aspect of the sport, and the same is true in football.

Football players do NOT intentionally try to injure other players. I must agree with Craig: to make an assertion that football players try to hurt one another demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the game of football.

Much more to come. :)

Craig Fletcher said...

What I am trying to illustrate, is that being a professional football player in certain positions (most of them), is intensely cerebral. It is complex, and to master this complexity requires tireless study. The more intelligent players are oftentimes much more effective in their ability to read the opposing team, call the right plays, and make split-second decisions. As a Quarterback or defensive captain, you are strategically directing all of your players on your team simeltaneously. The more intelligent (or the ones who study more - usually both) leaders on teams are the ones who are the captains - and they demonstrate noticeable intelligent in the midst of a very complex game.

Plus, baseball is boring! (I know, a premise with no arguments. It's just my opinion):-)

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Tornado and Craig:

You know I love you guys, but...

1. Baseball is not boring if you understand the game and the teams are skilled.

2. I am against players sharpening spikes, throwing pitches at batters, and so on. You do not need to engage in this violence (or the threat of it) to play baseball.

3. The fact is, Tornado, that the average "career" in the NFL is something like less than five years. After that, their bodies are dead meat. Moreover, Jedd M. (whom you know) tells me there is a new book out charting the lives of NFL players after retirement. Most are physical wrecks. Pretty boy quarterbacks (who start the play running backwards most cases) are less pummelled than other positions. They are the exception, not the rule.

I am resolute. Football is bad.

Craig Fletcher said...

I feel the love!

I was specifically arguing your premises that baseball demands more intelligence, football players try to hurt each other on purpose (as if this were the norm), and that baseball has more time for reflection. I too, am resolute... I disagree!

BUT: you have stirred other thoughts for the first time in my 30+ years of being a fan about aspects of football that are in fact bad. I've thought a lot about it the last couple of days, and the damage it does to the human body is bad. I agree. I've also thought a lot about about how much fans of ALL professional sports invest in their teams. Emotionally, financially, and temporally. Our values are askew! I shared these thoughts with two different people on plane rides today (who had sports team hats on), and by the end of the conversation they agreed... althought they must have thought me a 'curmudgeon'. Look what you've done Dr. G! :-)

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

The curmudgeon infection is highly contagious--if properly incubated.

BJS said...

Dr. G,

hard to believe, but my more detailed refutation is coming shortly. However, as a quick response to this last point by you:

1. I was not claiming that football players bodies go through more or less damage than baseball players. Nor was I claiming that football is somehow less physically impacting on players bodies. There can be no doubt whatsoever that football is inherently more physical on its players -- to such an extent, in fact, that (as you and apparently Jedd mention) professional football players careers aren't too long -- their bodies just can't take it.

2. What I WAS claiming was that football players do not as a rule intentionally set out to hurt one another. There may be exceptions, but intentionally injuring another player is by no means the norm of the game (just like it is not in baseball).

3. You were trying originally to make the claim that football players (as a point of difference from baseball) intentionally try to hurt other players. I was simply countering THIS claim. Just like in baseball (i.e. the Koufax example I gave), yes there are exceptions. But overall, football players do not intentionally try to injure one another -- hence this is not a significant point of difference between baseball and football.

The fact that football has many more injuries than baseball, as a by-product of its formal aspects, I cannot dispute. And THIS (the discrepancy on the toll on the human body) IS a significant difference between the sports. But I never was disputing that -- I was merely disputing your claim regarding intentionality of injuring other players as a point of difference.

More to come.

Unknown said...

An interesting argument. Your strongest point seems to be on the inherent violence of football. Yet that is exactly it's virtue. Football is one of our culture's ways of doing what all culture's must do- finding a way to harness our desire for violence and competition in a socially-acceptable form. Perhaps a philosopher can live a passive life of reading and conversation but most men seek outlets that are more active, competitive, risky and (to some degree) violent than baseball or golf or stamp collecting.

As culture seeks to emasculate little boys by eliminating dodgeball and substituting girlie-type co-operative games where "everyone is a winner," we should be seeking to preserve reasonable outlets (like hunting and hockey and paintball and football) for the testosterone gender to express their active natures. Suppression is not the answer, channelling is.