Is Football a Pro-Life Sport?

This is the time of year when US Catholic bishops and their allies police the sexual orthodoxy of graduation speakers at Catholic educational institutions. The most prominent of these efforts was the episcopal boycott of President Obama’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009.

But we’ve seen a string of similar actions this year. In March, the local bishop pressured Anna Maria College in Massachusetts to uninvite Victoria Reggie Kennedy as commencement speaker because of the positions held by her late husband Senator Ted Kennedy on abortion and gay marriage. In the Midwest, local authorities rejected a gay commencement speaker at one Catholic high school graduation and tried to prevent a gay-friendly foundation from awarding a scholarship at another. And Two Jesuit universities resisted pressure to retract invitations to Desmond Tutu and Kathleen Sibelius respectively, also over questions of sexual orthodoxy.

The problem with paying all this attention to the Catholic culture wars is that a person risks missing other significant events. Did you know that the National Football League is in a genuine crisis? On May 16, offensive linesman Jacob Bell resigned from the Cincinnati Bengals for fear of sustaining long-term brain injuries if he continued playing. On May 2, former San Diego Charger’s linebacker Junior Seau died in a suicide strongly resembling the 2011 suicide of former Chicago Bear’s safety Dave Duerson. Duerson intentionally shot himself in the chest, not the head, so his brain could be examined for a degenerative disease he feared he had contracted from multiple concussions. Subsequently he and twenty other former NFL players were diagnosed with the disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Since then, approaching three thousand current and former professional football players have sued the NFL, claiming it deliberately misled them about the long-term damage caused by repeated concussions. Increasingly, players and commentators alike are asking whether the sport of football is ethical at all in light of the early death and major brain disorders linked to it.

But football, as you know, is really not very far removed from Catholic culture. Students at Catholic colleges, high schools and even grade schools across the country play football. Ten of the twenty-three top US Catholic colleges and universities field football teams: Boston College, the Catholic University of America, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Marquette, the University of Dayton, the University of Notre Dame, Villanova, and Xavier in Cincinnati. (Anna Maria College in Massachusetts, recently protected from Mrs. Kennedy, also has a team.) In 2009, Notre Dame football made more than $15 million from its television contract, and returned $10 million in profits to the university budget. 

So here are my questions: Catholic sisters have recently been criticized for not speaking out enough about abortion and contraception. How many of these Catholic football teams do so? Has the bishop who boycotted President Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame called upon the university to stop fielding a football team because of the danger it poses to the lives and brains of its players? How many former football players now suffering from CTE began playing the sport at a Catholic institution?

This week Notre Dame University and the Catholic University of America, along with forty other Catholic entities, sued in Federal court to block the Affordable Care Act contraceptives mandate. Why don’t former Notre Dame and CU players who are part of the 3000 professional football players suing the NFL also sue their former universities for failing to warn them about CTE? And now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is investigating the Girl Scouts for involvement with ostensibly anti-life organizations like Oxfam and Doctors without Borders.

What I want to know is: when are the bishops going to investigate Catholic football for the lives it destroys?