Christianity’s Concussion Crisis: Where Football and Faith Collide

A still from Concussion, starring Will Smith

A Nigerian-born Catholic has crashed the American wedding of faith and football by refusing to hold his peace. Bennet Omalu—who is played by Will Smith in the movie Concussion—believes that providence was at work in the series of serendipitous events that brought the bodies of former professional football players to his slab when he served as the Allegheny County medical examiner.

Mike Webster was a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who after his storied career lived an anguished life characterized by erratic and troubling behavior before his death in 2002 at age fifty. Omalu was initially shocked and puzzled when he found a peculiar tangle of tau proteins in Webster’s brain, a pattern of disease now referred to as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). After Omalu found abnormal protein patterns in the brains of other deceased players, he released research that had the potential to seriously undermine America’s most well-heeled national pastime, and which produced a firestorm of persistent opposition from the league’s medical consultants.

Beleaguered by the pushback, Omalu heard God in his sister’s insistent reply to his admission of weariness:

“I’m getting tired.” And she called me out immediately and said, “No, Bennet.” She is religious, too. She said: “You think it’s by chance that this is happening. Everybody has a calling, that the mighty God”—we are Christians—”doesn’t give you a cross to bear by reckless abandon. He gives you a cross to bear because he knows you can bear that cross. With your knowledge, you can help these people, and you’re even in a better position because you don’t have any direct or indirect emotional attachment to football.”

American Christians of various stripes, though, have long held an emotional attachment to football, and the claim that Omalu was divinely guided to expose the connection between concussions in football and brain damage potentially raises unsettling questions for those players and fans who have often uncritically used the sport as a vehicle for their religious messages. Omalu decries the damage done to bodies which in the world of professional sports are often treated as commodified weapons.

It is fitting then that Hollywood’s treatment of his harrowing story of the medical discovery and painstaking research that threatens a multi-billion dollar industry will be released on one of the most hallowed days in the Christian calendar, December 25.

For many Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation, the theological notion that God became flesh in the person of Jesus. Omalu is a man for whom flesh is at the heart of God’s work. Before his story had been scripted for film, in one of the first high-profile media pieces about his life, Jeanne Marie Laskas of GQ noted that Omalu

had always fancied himself an advocate for the dead. That’s how he viewed his job: a calling. A forensic pathologist was charged with defending and speaking for the departed—a translator for those still here. A corpse told a story, told in tissue, patterns of trauma, and secrets in cells.

As early as 2008, Omalu was writing a blunt message from the dead to the living in his book Play Hard and Die Young.

That book title also indicates Omalu’s awareness of the specific challenge his research, and that of many others,  poses for the NFL—namely, that widespread knowledge about the potentially long-term damage of football would cause parents to steer children and youth away from the sport, draining the pool of future NFL stars.

In places like Grapevine Texas, children still play pivotal roles in public mergers of football and evangelical Christianity. Beginning in September 2015, Fellowship Church, an evangelical megachurch, launched an entire month’s series of sermons under the theme of the “quarterback.” I learned of the event while driving by a billboard prominently displaying the smiling faces of the three stars of the series: former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman, and two current players at that position, the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins. Pastor Ed Young had made a pragmatic move to absorb, rather than compete with, the rival religion:

Football is essentially a religion in our country. And historically speaking, the new football season flattens church attendance—even at Fellowship. But we’re ready with this series! We want to show people that football can meet faith. You don’t have to choose one over the other. I’m going to sit down with these quarterbacks and show how some of the most notable men in this game are also men of character, strength, and yes, faith. But this isn’t your typical interview; I’m going to be talking with these guys like you’ve never heard before!

The series was broadcast via livestream to all ten of the church’s locations, including satellite campuses in Miami, Florida and London, England (an international market for the NFL where the league annually hosts multiple regular season game.)

The professional stars were only one part of an immersive football experience and in the fourth and final week of the series, Young interviewed ten-year-old Max, who had just begun to play tackle football. The transition from the non-contact realm of flag-football to the padded variety seemed to have instilled in Max an urgency to initiate hits. Pastor Young asked, “What do you think about when you see guys on the other team, if they are really big? What goes through your mind?” “I want to pancake them,” Max proclaimed gleefully. “Or they’ll pancake me and smack me down like a sack of potatoes,” a declaration which elicited an eruption of laughter from the congregation. The pastor clarified: “And a pancake means you flatten them? Boom!” More church laughter ensued.

Continuing to probe the gridiron instincts of his pint-sized interlocutor, Pastor Yong offered, “So if they don’t flatten you, you flatten them. So you better get to them first.” Max confirmed the pastor’s summary of the strategy with a still-smiling, “Yes.” It seemed from the congregation’s reaction that they found the incongruity of the image of a gleeful, blond-haired, white boy cheerfully describing his propensity for sporting violence to be decidedly cute. There was no pastoral intervention into the violent rhetoric, no reminder to remember the humanity of the opponent. It was as if the caretakers of American football had made a contract with the propagators of American religion, agreeing that football would serve religion, but only if it was granted immunity for the ways it could damage bodies, young and old.RDinboxConsider, for instance, the events that had transpired just ten days prior to the “Quarterback” series at Fellowship Church. On Wednesday, September 2, 2015, sixteen-year-old Jasiel Favors, a Junior Varsity running back for Stony Pointe High School in Round Rock, Texas, was reportedly paralyzed from the waist down in a “helmet-to-helmet collision.” Two days later on Friday, September 4, football led to tragedy in Louisiana, where Tyrell Cameron, also sixteen, of Franklin Parish High School, died after breaking his neck on a punt return. The day after that, a linebacker for Georgetown University named Ty Williams broke five vertebrae in his neck on a tackle that initially left him with partial movement and minimal feeling in his legs.

It is now impossible to ignore the risks of the game, but many evangelicals are also well-acquainted with the benefits football provides as a platform for cultural transformation. Benjamin Watson, an African-American tight end for the New Orleans Saints, and an evangelical Christian, recently wrote Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race—and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us, which was published on October 17, 2015. Exactly a month previous, the Erwin brothers, who have had rare box-office success with faith-themed films, released an evangelical football story about racial reconciliation in 1970s Alabama, called Woodlawn.

The film was based on true events recounted in a book of the same name, but the Erwin brothers ignored a telling detail in their cinematic adaptation. In the film, a chaplain (played by Sean Astin, who is perhaps most famous for his role in the 1993 football movie Rudy) spurs a religious revival among a high school football team once seething with racial tension.

The widespread evangelical conversions dissolve those conflicts and the spill-over effects lead the town to embrace their first African-American football star, Tony Nathan, whose faith propels him through adversity and self-doubt. The book, however, discloses that while the real-life Nathan had indeed had a public conversion experience with his team, “he didn’t exactly remember doing it.” Bennet Omalu would not be surprised to learn why Nathan had trouble recalling an event so pivotal to the faith themes of the film: Nathan had suffered a concussion earlier in the week of his conversion.

As moviegoers departed the particular showing of Woodlawn I viewed in Fort Worth, Texas, they were greeted with posters for coming attractions. The first I saw had a dapper Will Smith standing in profile in front of gleaming white football helmets, with his chin resting pensively in his hand. The words “based on a true story,” and “even legends need a hero” surrounded the title of the film, Concussion, and its release date was abbreviated by a holy day, “Christmas.”

The juxtaposition of a film that had just stirringly suggested that football creates heroes, on the one hand, with a poster alluding to a “hero” challenging the violence of the same sport, on the other, was a jarring reminder of the collision of callings that will continue to play out in the muddy mix of football and faith. Witnesses of both kinds of stories, and those attentive to the dueling applications of religion to sport they respectively represent, may be in for a moral collision of their own.