My grandpa coached football for his entire career. He gave his life to the sport, playing it in college and then spending his retirement years watching local teams play wherever he lived. My dad played football in college, coached my brothers growing up, and then enjoyed watching them play in high school and college. My husband loves football, joining the many men (and women) mourning the impending end of the football season. Even our youngest son loves football, saying one of the few words he knows (“football”) whenever he sees a game on TV. I have been surrounded by football enthusiasts and athletes my entire life, even though I have only a small interest in it. But I appreciate it.
Which is why I was so bothered the other night as we watched the Sugar Bowl. I don’t follow sports news, but I heard the commentators talking about an incident between the Oklahoma football star and a female student back in 2014. Apparently he punched her in the face, was suspended for a year, and is now in the news again because the video has surfaced (which many thought would change the conversation about the incident). Some think the reason his punishment was so light (one year suspension versus dismissal from the team) is because he’s a valuable player. He’s a talent they can’t afford to lose. The coach and school officials deny this, but some still wonder since it seems that punishment for other offensive behavior at the school has led to worse consequences. Perhaps if he were a poor player, the outcome would be different. But like so many other areas in life, winning often trumps integrity.
Because I’ve spent my life around football players and athletes, I know that football doesn’t have to lead to this. If my grandpa were alive, he would be appalled by this behavior, just like he was appalled by much of the sports world as he aged. My brothers don’t hit women. My dad doesn’t hit women. But unfortunately so often athleticism and strength transpires into using that power in harmful ways. The case of this college player is not the first and sadly won’t be the last.
Football is a game of strength. You have to be strong to run fast and throw far, to hit another player with the full weight of your body, and to avoid being tackled. There is no doubt that God created so many of these men to perform at this level. He gave them their strength. In a world that encourages a hyper-masculine strength, that uses what you have been given for yourself, violence against women is just one more avenue for exerting your strength. But for the Christian man, strength isn’t to be used to advance your own agenda. It’s for the good of others. It’s for defending, sacrificing, and submitting to the needs of others. Strength should humble you, not puff you up.
I don’t know if my boys will love football as much as their dad, uncles, grandpa, and great-grandpa. If they do, I want them to have a healthy understanding of the sport. I want them to call out the lack of integrity when players are allowed to abuse women and behave badly. I want them to see that winning isn’t everything when God sees all and knows all. And I want them to come to accept that the strength they have been given is not for their own glory and advancement, but for humble service for the good of others. In a world where boys are expected to either belittle and dominate women or act like ignorant buffoons, I want my boys to expect something different of themselves. I want them to reject “locker room talk”, to not buy into the lie that “boys will be boys” (i.e. boys can’t help themselves sexually), and to believe that their strength is given to them to bring God glory and to honor women, not demolish them.
Football can be an outlet for cultivating strength. We can watch a game and marvel that God created athletes with such ability. But we also must acknowledge when it all goes awry. When it comes to violence against women, awry doesn’t even begin to describe what it has become. We can do better. We must do better.