Will You Bow at the Altar of Football Violence?

Tomorrow, much of our nation will bow at the idolatrous altar of football violence as the Superbowl unfolds!  I plead with you now:  Please join me in doing something else, anything else!

A few days ago two former Vanderbilt football players were convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault against another student. The case absolutely sickens me!  For four years, while serving as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, I studied the values of Biblical literature at Vanderbilt before earning my Doctor of Ministry degree in 1992. For that reason I feel an extra measure of revulsion over the actions of Cory Batey and Brandon Vandenburg,  the two former Vanderbilt football players, who were both convicted on all of the counts of sexual assault with which they were charged, I hope they both spend many years behind bars for their crimes.

Sadly, though, it was not an isolated incident. One can only guess how many other women were sexually assaulted on college campuses and other places in the two years between when the Vanderbilt rape occurred and the day the guilty verdict was read. It is only because of the enormous courage and fortitude of the victim that justice was done in this case. How many hundreds of others have gone and will go unreported?

A lengthy letter to the Vanderbilt community by Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos begins this way:

“Earlier this week, a Nashville jury found two former Vanderbilt students guilty of a vicious attack against a fellow student. The victim showed exceptional courage and strength in pursuing justice through the criminal trial. At this time, we are called upon again to consider as a community how we can ensure that what happened to the survivor of this terrible crime never happens again.

The heinous conduct described at trial was not the product of Vanderbilt’s culture. On the contrary, such conduct is the very opposite of the values Vanderbilt stands for and our students hold dear. We abhor sexual misconduct, and we subject every student to the same standards.”

But you don’t “subject every student to the same standards,” Chancellor. Elite athletes live by different rules. And you know it!

Without question the actions of Vandenburg and Batey are the antithesis of what Vanderbilt and every university stand for. And yet it is clear to me that the culture of “King Football” which reigns on university campuses across the United States is complicit in the crimes.

Athletes who play major college sports are courted to come to their institutions and coddled while they are there. People have told them since they were children how great they are, and so they feel entitled to do whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want.

In addition, violence spews out of our television, movie and–perhaps worst of all–our computer screens. Why should people think it is wrong to abuse another human being, when they have seen hundreds of thousands of images of such abuse by the time they reach adolescence?

The combination of limitless violence and limitless adulation for student athletes is a lethal combination, and the game of football is the most visible result. Each week during the season millions of people watch highly trained athletes risk life and limb for their entertainment. Too many studies have shown that even when these gladiators walk away unscathed from their weekly combat, the effects accumulate in an alarming percentage of participants.

Look at the studies that reveal how many former NFL players die young. Look at the percentage of those who live out their lives after their short years of glory are over with life-long painful injuries. Look at the numbers who succumb to Alzheimer’s disease at an early age. These figures are shocking. But we don’t care!

We claim that in a free country, these people make the choice to take these risks, and who are we to stop them? We claim that we don’t condone censorship, so we dare not even ask the entertainment industry to tone down the violence that our kids see every day.

The New York Times has an “ethicist,” Chuck Klosterman.” Now, nothing in the man’s resume or education suggests any special training or expertise in ethics. So let’s accept that his column is for entertainment value only. Still, he has a very large stage and when asked about the ethics of watching football, he wrote:

“Any adult involved with football is aware of the risks associated with playing a collision sport … every head-to-head collision generates imperceptible ‘sub-concussions,’ slowly damaging the brain without the victim suffering the symptoms of an acute trauma. This means the players are being injured on almost every play … Football is a brutal activity …”

But that’s OK says Klosterman …”We love something that’s dangerous. And I can live with that.”

Well, when I see the effects of football both in the culture of entitlement it creates for players on the one hand and the devastating effects on their bodies on the other hand, I cannot remain silent. I don’t watch football any more.

Tomorrow they will play the biggest game of all, the Superbowl. Never mind that one of the teams participating, the New England Patriots, cheated to get there. We can’t jeopardize the biggest sporting event of the year over a little thing like that, can we?

I don’t watch football anymore because I realize now, after decades of watching, that each one of us is either part of the problem or part of the solution. We either contribute to the culture of violence that causes untold damage to minds and bodies or we do our small part to reverse it.

Which choice will you make?