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Fair Trade Sports by Zach Smith

Just days before an appearance in the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks recently famous cornerback Richard Sherman has stated, “Running into each other at full speed is not what God intended for our bodies.” Indeed, this year has brought heightened scrutiny to the darker side of some of America’s favorite pastimes, forcing uncomfortable questions about the nature of sport and the ethics of participation in them.


But for a Church that increasingly values fair trade sourcing for its products and in a society where fair trade scandals have laid siege to some of America’s biggest brands (Apple and Nike to name two) there is a glaring lack of consideration for the sources of what is arguably one of cultures most universal expressions. As we approach our country’s biggest sporting event of the year, where is the Christian discussion of fair-trade sport?


Just this year the death count among construction workers preparing for the 2022 World Cup in Quatar is currently at 185 souls and is expected to reach 4,000 by the time the tournament finally takes place. Ironically, reports are that World Cup organizers are moving to hold the tournament in winter instead of summer because of fears that the intense heat is a health risk for players and fans—the same heat that current workers are expected to endure for the next 8 years while building the stadiums.


More directly sullying the “beautiful game” is the slavery of an estimated 4,000 - 15,000 African youth soccer players trafficked each year. These promising young players “rights” are often sold by their parents to unscrupulous agents who then ship the players off to Europe or Asia for training and trials—where they are abandoned if a team doesn’t take interest.


Perhaps more close to home for many Americans are the quite public issues afflicting the NFL this season.


For example, at a time when our national and civic debt is at an all time high, the NFL, of which revenues exceed $9 billion every year, receives special tax exempt status courtesy of Congress’ 1966 modification to Section 501(c)6 of 26 U.S.C., the Internal Revenue Code. Worse, 12 out of 32 teams have been shown to profit from public subsidies alone; that is, before ticket sales or TV revenue. Yet in spite of the gross profitability of the professional football enterprise, the recent settlement of $765 million has been suspended by a a judge for fear that it’s not enough to care for players who have suffered from the long term physical effects of football. In fact, if the award is split equally among the estimated 4,500 players currently signed up to be considered for damages, the average payout would be $170,000. Perhaps more damning is that if each of the 20,000 retired players were to join the settlement, the average payout would drop to a meager $38,250—for a settlement that is supposed to provide upwards of several million dollars for each qualified recipient, with awards being tied to particular injuries and symptoms. These figures beg the question of what the league believes these men are worth and implies these men are just another commodity resource to be expended for the enjoyment of the masses and the profit of a few. Sherman’s further comments are telling when he says, “The NFL always wins.”


There has been tension in the relationship between sports and the Church for about as long as the Church can claim a formal existence. The early fathers of the Church were no lovers of the arena, and the suspicion of the body that was bred from Plato’s dichotomist thinking encouraged a negative view of the body as “fleshly” and “corruptible,” casting a shadow over man’s embodied enterprises that lingers today even more than two thousand years later.

Yet sometime in the last century, the Church has undergone a shift in its position on spectator sport from one of critical reflection and hesitant engagement to a full embrace. Where once the Puritans regarded sport as frivolity and preachers railed against it as a vain and idol secular pursuit, sport has since come to be esteemed as a prime platform for the broad dissemination of biblical virtues. This appropriation of sport for the program of God has been aptly termed by sport historians as “muscular christianity”—currently illustrated by athlete personalities like Tim Tebow.

But for a Church that loves to talk about the intersection of faith and culture there is a surprising lack of discussion on sport—what is arguably one of culture’s most pervasive forms.

Whether it’s the continued influence of a century old muscular Christianity, or the belief that we need a cultural platform such as sport to peddle our gospel, it seems that for every voice that questions the morality of the Christian’s participation in sport spectacles there are hundreds of others ready to rationalize it. A quick glance through the comments section of the article “Our Shaken Faith In Football” by Dr. Owen Strachan is enough to demonstrate that sports is a problematic topic of critique for many Christians. While many of the comments were positive reflections on the points raised in the article, numerous justifications were proffered often centering around problematic ideas such as that manhood is tied to physical superiority. As one commenter put it, “…football is a man’s sport. It proves you are a real man.”

But regardless of popular consensus, we have turned our heads while gross injustices have been committed, remarking at the incredible stadia architecture of the Quataris, enamored by the deft footwork of a young Drogba, cheering at every bone crushing hit on the opponent’s quarterback. And instead of acting against these injustices we have participated in them and have allowed the Imago Dei to be commodified, brokered, traded, and consumed in the name of Das Kapital.

It might be easy for us as spectators to distance ourselves from these harsh realities. But as thinker Roland Barthes has mused, the spectator in sport is not “only a voyeur, in sport he is a participant, and actor.” In the same way that we participate in our Churches liturgies on Sunday morning, we engage with sport as spectators. We lift up our voices, cheering in vocal support of our team. We give our time, spending hours watching these games and offer up our hard earned money to don the latest fan gear. We give our unspoken affirmation—and, like all cultural forms or cultural liturgies as James K.A. Smith calls them, they shape us. Whatever the conclusion, we ought to at least pause to critically reflect on the parts we play in these dramas and reevaluate the Churches engagement with spectator sports. Whatever we say about it, rest assured that it says something about us.

Tertullian, writing at the beginning of the second century addressed a similar concern in his treatise De Spectalulis. Though the bulk of the treatise is written as a polemic against participation in the pagan idolatry of the public games, chapter 18 specifically touches on sport that employs intentional violence. Such sport is to be avoided, because “you will not refuse to admit that the things which are done there are not for you to look upon: the blows, and kicks, and cuffs, and all the recklessness of hand, and everything like that disfiguration of the human countenance, which is nothing less than the disfiguration of God’s own image.” Tertullian’s point to his catechumen was that the Christian ought not support any athletic enterprise that willfully damages the human “countenance,” for this “countenance” bears the very image of God. Beyond the immediate connection to intentionally violent sports like football and boxing, easy application is made to events and productions that compromise the human dignity and wellbeing of any person.

In light of this we must ask ourselves: is it possible to be an ethical sports fan? Can the Church interact with sport in a way that is redemptive?

As a life long lover of sport and one of its biggest apologists, I fully believe these things are possible. I’ve played soccer in the streets of Chicago’s La Villita, on cow pastures in Moldova, at a detention center in Romania, and the well groomed pitches of Germany. And somehow, despite the cultural and linguistic differences, we were able to relate through a mutual love for the game and respect for each other as players. Sport possesses a tremendous power to bring people together and to affect social change, and can be a wonderful celebration of our humanity.

But before we can explore how this might be done, we must unconditionally accept that the blatant disregard and exploitation of human dignity and rights will prevent sport from fulfilling any higher social function. Then, if we are to view sport as a site of cultural making, we must recover the sense of holism that Tertulian adduced. If we are to invoke sport for the common good, we must first be sure that it is a sport that can be good for all. Then we can talk about a sport that is prophetic; sport that, as Pope John Paul II has stated, “without losing its true nature can answer the needs of time: sport that protects the weak and excludes no one, that frees young people … that is a factor of emancipation … and helps to eradicate intolerance and build a more fraternal and united world; sport which contributes to the love of life, teaches sacrifice, respect and responsibility, leading to the full development of every human person.”

Whether or not Richard Sherman is correct that the brutality of football “is not what God intended,” watching bodies “running into each other at full speed” in Super Bowl this weekend should occasion a careful reflection on this assertion.