Super Bowl or Roman Colosseum?

After watching one of the most ritually-rich secular events in the world, what did we take from the liturgical experience? Was it the stunning aspects of the game? The intensity of our emotions as they volleyed to and fro? The hilarity of the commercials vying for our consumption of things we don’t need?

Or, did anybody get the idea they were watching a sham? An over-glorified modern-day version of Roman gladiators battling to the death to entertain our gleeful desires for violent entertainment?

Am I being cynical and irrational here? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean there is not an element of truth to my sudden criticism of a sport I have always loved watching.

You see, I’ve been experiencing an epiphany of late regarding the nature of football. The more I read about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and how much CTE is linked to repeated concussions among football players, and even from the repeated impacts that offensive linemen experience on every snap, the more I wonder if I should be excited about football anymore.

I’ve also recently come to learn that the Super Bowl is used to exploit large numbers of people, mostly women, in the business of sex trafficking. Human sex trafficking is a daily occurrence in our world, and becomes especially prevalent during major sporting events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl. In sex trafficking, people become subject to consumption, they are stripped of their dignity, and are enslaved to the whims of their pimp and clientele. The sexual exploitation of human beings does serious psychological and physical harm to victims of human trafficking. This reality is despicable on all accounts, but easily gets lost in the spectacle and bright lights of championship football.

But what can we really do about it? Law-enforcement increases resources and sting operations to try and limit the occurrences of sex trafficking in and around game day. But what about the 364 other days a year where sex trafficking continues to plague individuals from all walks of life? How can more people get involved in changing the culture where these atrocities are seemingly permissible – or at least where it is permissible to ignore them?

I’m thinking about the football players here as well. These players are paid pennies on the dime compared to what their owners are making, and what do they get for their labors besides an early death sentence in many cases, some by suicide? A gunshot to the heart like Junior Seau? Or a hanging like Aaron Hernandez, a former New England Patriot who hung himself at 27 after being imprisoned for murder and diagnosed post autopsy with the most severe case of CTE ever seen in a person his age? These are real consequences which substantially change the lives of players who are purchased for our entertainment. By in large, these changes are not beneficial for the flourishing of the tremendous athletes we just saw pour their hearts out on the field.

If football is to continue, then the way the game is played has to change. I’m not sure what it would look like, but something has to give. We are talking about human lives, not gladiatorial slaves!

Where does all this leave me? I just witnessed one of the best Super Bowls I have ever seen in my life, and I am torn between the magnificence of the performance by both teams on the field and the sad thought that the athletes and people in attendance are being used. There is no doubt about the power of sport to bring a city together. Philadelphia is flying very high at the moment. But this jubilation does not change the fact that the athletes who play the game of football are risking their physical and emotional health for our satisfaction. That might be OK with the players and owners and you the fans. But I’m not sure I’m OK with it anymore.

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Image courtesy FlickrCC user Alex Valentine.

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