Could you name the five most recent winners of the Tour de France? How about the last winner of the Hawaii Ironman triathlon or the Boston Marathon? Or who has won the most FIFA World Cup tournaments since its beginning in 1930? Most American sports fans would be unable to correctly answer any of these questions. But ask them who won the last five Super Bowls and you are likely to get an earful. Many people in the United States love sports, and in the United States, American football is the current king. For fans of the game, this is a good thing, as it gives them the chance to enjoy the sport they love. This is also a good thing, at least financially, for the players who are able to make it to the professional ranks in the National Football League (NFL).
Football salaries, as we all know, are very high. The median salary for a player on the highest paid team in the NFL in 2009—the San Francisco 49ers—was $1,325,000. The median salary at the other end of the spectrum for a player on the Saint Louis Rams was $488,640. Some professional football players also receive significant financial compensation from endorsement deals. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning tops the list of NFL players when it comes to endorsements: in 2009, Manning brought in $27 million in combined earnings through his athletic success on the field and his endorsement success off the field with companies like Sony, DirecTV, and MasterCard. Many fans enjoy buying the products their favorite players endorse, wearing their jerseys, and even keeping up to date on their daily lives via Facebook and Twitter. Some players in the NFL spend significant time and money on their image, branding, and online presence. Professional football players are celebrities, as much and often more than singers, actors, and others in the public eye. But is this a good thing for them? Is it a good thing for the sport of football?
The Goods of Football
Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre offers a useful distinction when considering what is valuable and good with respect to football in a discussion of what he calls a “practice”:
By a “practice” I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.2
According to MacIntyre, examples of practices include architecture, farming, music, chess, and the game of football. For each practice, there are goods that are internal to the practice, and other goods that are external to it. The internal goods are essential to the practice and in many ways constitute it. In football, the internal goods include the physical and intellectual excellence that can be developed and displayed via playing the game. A well-designed and executed game plan, a creative offensive play, and a perfectly executed tackle are all examples of excellence available to those who play and coach football. Most people would readily accept that football is a sport that requires physical talent and skill, whereas the claim that football demands intellectual excellence may meet more resistance. However, knowledge plays a key role not just for the coaches who design game plans, but also for the players. When running backs are on the field, for example, they must know the down and distance, time on the clock, when to go out of bounds and when to drive ahead for more yards, the defense’s assignments and skills, the protection scheme for the quarterback, all their team’s offensive plays, all the pass routes within those plays, and more.3
The external goods that are available through participating in football (and many other practices) include fame, fortune, status, social influence, and power. Football players at the professional level often acquire a fortune and some achieve a significant amount of fame. These goods are external to football because one could play football and even achieve excellence in the sport without receiving any of these goods. In fact, in the past this was true of many of the great players who excelled prior to the escalation of salaries and media coverage of the sport. They experienced football’s internal goods but not the external ones. This shows that the external goods are not essential to football.
What is the significance of the difference between the internal and external goods when considering the relationship between football and celebrity? As I will demonstrate, in football (as well as many other sports), the pursuit of the external goods by individual players can undermine the pursuit of the internal goods of the sport, some of which are grounded in a Christian understanding of the nature of God.
The Trinity, Virtue, and Dangers of Celebrity
God’s image can be reflected through sports. In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem discusses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, suggesting that as a trinity, God has both unity and diversity within himself. Grudem notes that the features of unity and diversity are also present in and reflected by a variety of human relationships and institutions, such as marriage and the church. Consider these other examples that he also offers:
On a more everyday level, there are many activities that we carry out as human beings (in the labor force, in social organizations, in musical performances, and in athletic teams, for example) in which many distinct individuals contribute to a unity of purpose or activity. As we see in these activities a reflection of the wisdom of God in allowing us both unity and diversity, we can see a faint reflection of the glory of God in his trinitarian existence.4
Grudem is not alone in his belief that “vestiges” of the Trinity are present in creation. Augustine, for example, advises us to look within ourselves in order partially to understand the mystery of the Trinity.5 When we do so, we find that we are, that we know, and that we will. We exist, and we are knowing and willing beings. A human person is one life, one mind, one essence, but this threefold distinction remains true of us.
From a Christian understanding, then, part of the value of football is that a team can faintly reflect God’s triune nature. When a diverse group of teammates works together for the common goal of excellence, they reflect God’s nature. When the welfare of the team takes priority over individual success, God’s nature is reflected. And when a star player sacrifices his personal statistics for goals such as victory, excellence, and team unity, he reflects God’s nature.
Fame and fortune can undermine the achievement of the internal goods of football. Imagine a star player in the final year of his contract. He has reasons based on self-interest (defined here as fame and fortune) to pursue better personal statistics, even if this happens to conflict with the best interests of his team. He might be motivated to be the highest paid player at his position and seek excellence on the field in order to achieve this goal. Perhaps he receives numerous offers and chooses to play in a market which will make him more marketable and likely to get a big endorsement deal. However, my contention (and that of many other philosophers of sport such as Heather L. Reid and Robert L. Simon), which is consistent with MacIntyre’s understanding of the goods of a practice such as football, is this: overvaluing the external goods of football can undermine the pursuit of the internal goods of football.
The star player who pursues individual statistics and is motivated by fame and fortune provides us with an example of the moral philosophy calledethical egoism, which is opposed to a Christian understanding of what it means to be truly and fully human. The ethical egoist believes that we should live in pursuit of self-interested goals, including power, pleasure, and wealth. For the egoist, there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of fame and fortune, as this can bring the kind of happiness we desire, namely, getting what we want. In fact, for the egoist, nothing is more right than the selfish pursuit of fame and fortune. Unfortunately, the names of players who embrace such an approach to the game and to life likely come to mind. This is regrettable. But it is not inevitable.
The way of Jesus is a different way; it is essentially a way of self-denial (Luke 9:23-25). To more fully understand what such a life looks like and how it connects to football and celebrity, I will turn now to some of the work of the great medieval Christian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas.6 For Aquinas, the point of human existence and the perfection of all of our capabilities are identical—both are identified with knowing and loving God. The point of human life, our true happiness and fulfillment, is to know and love God. Part of what is required for us to know and love God is that we acquire and practice the virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Each of these virtues are extolled by ancient philosophers as well as by the writers of Scripture, and they can be developed in the context of sports, including football.7 But they can also be undermined by the trappings of celebrity that often come to those who excel at the game.
Prudence, or practical wisdom, is a crucial virtue for the Christian life (James 1:5-7). It is something we ask for from God and seek to develop in our daily lives. Football players can develop this virtue via their sport. The prudent or practically wise person is able to make good judgments about what to do and to then carry out the proper actions. Football players are able to cultivate this trait not just in the context of football but in the rest of life as well. If they take some of the morally valuable lessons from the field to the rest of life, they exhibit prudence. For example, if a player learns that his welfare is bound up with the welfare of his teammates on the field and then realizes that a similar interdependence exists in his other relationships and the broader community, he is displaying prudence.
Yet examples abound of players acting in selfish ways both on and off the field that are detrimental to their teams and communities. One reason for this, I believe, is that a wrong view and valuing of fame and fortune can lead a player to make unwise choices both on and off the field. Some players possess a feeling of specialness or invincibility that can lead them to take risks and engage in immoral acts on and off the field. The attachment to fame and fortune might cause a player to seek to prolong a career that should end, given the various dangers inherent in the sport, especially the danger of long-term physical damage to the brain.8 The vice of greed can have disastrous consequences.
Courage (1 Corinthians 6:13) is a virtue often associated with football players, particularly given the pain, physical nature, and risk inherent in the sport. For Aquinas, “the virtue of courage rightly orders our reactions to bodily pain and difficulty so they do not deter us from worthwhile goods.”9Football can provide a place for developing this virtue, given the risk of injury and the likelihood of at least some physical pain on most plays for most of the players. If a player is approaching the sport in part as a way to cultivate athletic, intellectual, and moral excellence, then this can foster the growth of courage in the context of football. However, if he is approaching the sport merely as a way to achieve or increase his fame and fortune, he is not demonstrating true courage because true courage must be directed toward some good end, which is a criterion that fame and fortune do not meet.
Temperance (Proverbs 25:28) is also relevant to success in football and the life of virtue. According to Aquinas, temperance is the character trait that “directs our desires for bodily pleasures so that all these movements of the appetite support, rather than detract from, our pursuit of what reason has judged is good.”10 Many people have derailed their lives in pursuit of some physical pleasure that is not truly conducive to a good and fulfilling life. Many football players have done the same. The pursuit of fame and fortune often leads to a life of excess rather than temperance. Yet temperance can be developed in the context of football as a player trains, maintains a disciplined diet, and cares for his physical well-being.
Justice (Proverbs 4:18), according to Aquinas, is the virtue concerned with conforming the will “to reason’s judgment about the good and implementing its commands in action.”11 The just person’s will is trained to follow rational judgments about what is good in her daily life. Examples of such goods include friendship, our obligations to others, and the concrete actions we can take to contribute to the good of the community. Justice can be developed as a player befriends teammates; treats opponents, coaches, officials, and fans with respect; and makes use of whatever fame and fortune he receives to contribute to the common good. The self-centered, egotistical player does something irrational when he considers his own interests to be more important than the interests of others. Because of this, he does not experience true and lasting fulfillment.
I have assumed in this discussion of the four cardinal virtues that neither fame nor fortune is worthy to be an ultimate end for anyone, including football players. But why think this? To answer this, I will again turn to Aquinas.
Our highest good, or happiness, according to Aquinas, is found in knowing and loving God, and he argues, it is not found in fame or fortune. In answer to the question, “Whether man’s happiness consists in wealth?”12 Aquinas first distinguishes between natural wealth and artificial wealth: natural wealth includes food, clothes, drink, and other things that satisfy our natural wants, whereas artificial wealth, or money, was invented for the sake of exchanging and selling goods. Aquinas claims that the happiness of human beings cannot consist in natural wealth because natural wealth is merelyinstrumentally good. We seek food and drink in order to stay alive, but the purpose of our lives is not merely to stay alive. We live for some larger purpose—happiness. Because of this, natural wealth cannot be our final end. Next, Aquinas points out that happiness cannot consist in artificial wealth (i.e., money) because we seek this form of wealth for the sake of natural wealth. Following this line of argument, the conclusion is that happiness, which is the last end of humanity, cannot consist in wealth, because both kinds of wealth are sought for the sake of some other end. Happiness, however, is an end in itself. In fact, it is our final end, our ultimate aim in life. In view of this, Aquinas would argue that football players who make wealth their aim in football and in life are making a mistake; they are pursuing money as a final end because they believe this is how to achieve happiness. Money is only good for the sake of something else, and accumulating large amounts of wealth does not equate to being truly happy and fulfilled. True happiness consists of knowing and loving God.
But what about the fame and glory that can come to the football star? Is this the key to happiness? For Aquinas, the answer is no:
Furthermore, we must observe that human knowledge often fails, especially in contingent singulars, such as are human acts. For this reason human glory is frequently deceptive. But since God cannot be deceived, His glory is always true; hence it is written (2 Cor. 10:18): “He . . . is approved . . . whom God commendeth.”13
Glory and fame are deceptive, because they are examples of human knowledge. Our ultimate happiness, however, is grounded in God, and as such, it is neither deceptive nor dependent on the fallible powers of knowledge that human beings possess. Human happiness depends on the glory that humans experience with God, rather than on the praises received from other humans. Acts that God commends are those that are the fruit of true Christian character and virtues, including wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice.
Conclusion: A Christian Approach to Football (and Life)
Many professional football players are followers of Christ, and many are not. Either way, as I have shown, we can conclude that the wise path for a player includes making the internal goods of football his primary goal as an athlete, rather than the external goods of fame and fortune. He should strive for the athletic, intellectual, and moral excellence that can be achieved in the context of football. As he does this, he ought to seek to develop the virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. Fame and fortune may come, but they should be seen as byproducts that can be used for the common good as one pursues moral, intellectual, and physical excellence.
Many NFL players are active in various philanthropic efforts, giving of their time and money in order to serve others. Consider the variety of projects that players on my favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs, support.14 Jackie Battle is active in mentoring high school student athletes; Glenn Dorsey is the spokesman for the Toys for Tots campaign, which provides gifts for young children at Christmastime; and Brian Waters spends significant time and money assisting the economically disadvantaged in the community and providing numerous recreational and educational opportunities to children. This sort of community involvement is good for the player as well. Larry Fitzgerald, a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, traveled to India this past offseason with a friend to help distribute hearing aids to deaf children. The memories of children begging for food, clothing, and even a piece of gum have stayed with Fitzgerald, and the experience had an impact on him. “It humbles you,” Fitzgerald said. “Any time you go over there and do things like that, that means a heck of a lot more than scoring touchdowns.”15
What might this mean for fans of the game? It at least means that we should cheer players for their philanthropic efforts and not only for their exploits on the field. Fans ought to appreciate the moral and athletic excellence on display between the lines, rather than making idols of players who win without grace or whose primary claim to fame is their outlandish behavior on and off the field. Displays of sportsmanship are more praiseworthy than the self-aggrandizement that is all too common on any given Sunday.
In sum, this approach to the intrinsic and extrinsic goods of football will not only help players flourish on the field, but off the field as well. It will also enable them to focus more on the common good rather than their own narrow self-interest. Fans of the game who seek to understand the athletic and moral excellence that can be developed and displayed via football will have more valuable experiences compared to those who are merely seeking entertainment at the expense of excellence. This is not only a properly Christian approach to football but also to life.
2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 187.
3. Howie Long, Football for Dummies (Foster City, CA: IDG Books, 1998), 96-97; cited in R. Douglas Geivett, “Inside the Helmet: What Do Football Players Know?” in Football and Philosophy: Going Deep, ed. Michael W. Austin (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2008), 41-52.
4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 257.
5. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1960), book 13, chapter 11, 342.
6. The following draws from Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Colleen McCluskey, and Christina Van Dyke, Aquinas’s Ethics: Metaphysical Foundations, Moral Theory, and Theological Context (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
7. For more on this, see my “Sports as Exercises in Spiritual Formation,”Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3 (2010): 66-78.
8. Mike Freeman, “Brain study shines new light on late Henry, rest of NFL,” CBSSports.com, June 30, 2010,http://www.cbssports.com/columns/story/13583109/brain-study-shines-new-light-on-late-henry-rest-of-nfl.
9. Konyndyk De Young, et. al., Aquinas’s Ethics, 139.
10. Ibid., 139.
11. Ibid., 138-139.
12. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.II.Q2.A1.
13. Ibid., I.II.Q2.A3.
15. Associated Press, “For Some NFL Players, an Off-Season of Eye-Openers,” New York Times, July 3, 2010,http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/sports/football/04nfl.html?_r=1.