Deen Chatterjee: It is time to ban football and its brutality

In other sports, violence is incidental. In football, it’s the essence of it.

(Jeff Dean | AP) The Buffalo Bills players pray for teammate Damar Hamlin during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin’s collapse after a routine collision during the prime-time matchup between the Bills and the Cincinnati Bengals brought into focus, once again, the unremitting brutality of football as a sport, raising the question of whether such a gladiator sport should have any place in a civil society.

The symbiotic relationship between the entertainment we receive watching this all-American spectacle and the physical horror that players face in the game and that remains with them for the rest of their lives casts a dire reflection on us as human beings.

The inhumanity of the game is not just the mere physicality of the game that is football. The physical altercations or injury in many other sports are a by-product of the game, whereas in football such violence is the very essence of the game. The resulting dehumanization goes much beyond the football fields. As we celebrate football, we take part in this dehumanization.

Even the look of a football player in his protective gears defies the look of a normal human being. The egregious masculinity that permeates such a look puts women on the sideline. We should think twice about a sport that privileges men and marginalizes women.

The overt display of masculinity in football and our cultural obsession with the game is not just a coincidence. Despite much progress over the years, our culture is still seeped in a sexual double standard where masculinity is synonymous with agency and where women are struggling for their autonomy. This cultural denigration of women has its root in religion. Ever since the myth of Adam and Eve in the Bible, where Eve is portrayed in a demeaning fashion, women have taken the blame for men’s problems and have been put on the sideline ever since.

One would expect that a great Christian reformer like Martin Luther would help change our traditional religious view of women. But he, too, perpetuated the same misogynic ideas that we find in the Bible. For instance, in condemning homosexuality as unnatural, Luther argued that men have a natural desire for women because men come from women and are reared by them.

Well, by the same token, women should have a natural desire for women, too. Why didn’t Luther see this? Why didn’t he see that the logic he employed to show that homosexuality is unnatural, hence deviant, goes against his own intended conclusion? This is because he assumed the passivity of women, so it didn’t even occur to him that women could be the agents of their own desire.

This view of women in various shades and forms still continues today, despite the Enlightenment ideals of liberalism, humanism and rationalism. Football is the emblematic expression of this religious double standard in our deeply seated masculine culture. There is a close bond between Christian faith, especially evangelical, and the football culture in America.

Football and faith, deeply intertwined, are the two faces of masculinity embedded in the American cultural milieu of violence. Public prayer is a standard ritual of football.

“It’s performed all the time by big, strong men, who in a few minutes are going to be knocking the crap out of everyone,” said Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, the author of “Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse.”

This ritualistic violence is symptomatic of the violent culture we live in, both overt and systemic, extending from America’s toxic gun culture and the pervasive gun violence to mass incarceration, destruction of the natural world, and massive militarization, to name just a few. Admittedly, these are big issues that require an ongoing rethinking of who we are as a great nation.

But we can begin with one issue, which is our national obsession with football and what it does to our humanity. I do not have any illusion that football would be banned anytime soon, or if ever, but the idea is a worthy topic of serious debate.

There is a quote attributed to former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau: “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

Let us prove him wrong.

Deen Chatterjee

Deen Chatterjee is a faculty affiliate at Oxford Consortium for Human Rights at the Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict at Oxford University. Earlier, he was senior fellow in the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah and a global ethics fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.