IS FOOTBALL VIOLENT?
Most sports are by nature physical activities; many are physical
contests between opponents (football, hockey, boxing, and wrestling,
for example). But where does one draw the line between the merely
physical and the truly violent? The more I consider the issue, the
more difficult it becomes.
I guess a good place to start would be Webster's New Collegiate
Dictionary, which defines 'violence' as follows:
1: (a) exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in
effecting illegal entry into a house) (b) an instance of violent
treatment or procedure
2: injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or
3 (a) intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action
or force <the 'violence' of the storm> (b) vehement feeling or
expression: FERVOR; also: an instance of such action or feeling (c) a
clashing or jarring quality: DISCORDANCE and 'violent' thus:
4: marked by extreme force or sudden intense activity <a
5 (a) notably furious or vehement <a 'violent' denunciation> (b)
EXTREME,INTENSE <'violent' pain>
6: caused by force: not natural <a 'violent' death>
It's also insightful to note the etymology of 'violent', coming
by way of Middle French from the Latin 'violentus'; akin to the Latin
'violare', 'to violate'.
Before I begin the actual discussion on violence, it's useful to
note that, as a society, we do seem to think there is something to be
said about intentions. That is, when evaluating an incident ethically
we take into account the intent of the perpetrator as well as the act
Consider: the law defines a spectrum of categories of homicide,
ranging from involuntary manslaughter all the way up through murder
one. The act in each case is the same (the causing by one party of
another's death); it's the intent which defines the difference. For
example, if I were being inattentive while driving my car down the
street, or happened to be operating at an excessive rate of speed, and
as a result accidentally struck someone and killed them, I would be
arrested and charged with, say, involuntary manslaughter by reckless
use of a motor vehicle. I would receive, perhaps, a 5 year prison
sentence, or even be let off on probation if it were my first
'offense', and I got an easy judge.
If, on the other hand, my boss fires me and I plot to exact my
revenge by running him down in the company parking lot, I would be
charged with murder one and probably receive a life sentence. The
difference in these two incidences is not the act (in each case I
struck and killed an individual with my car), but my intentions. In
the former case it was never my intent to strike anyone, much less to
kill them; in the latter, that was exactly what I intended to do.
On the other hand, neither does the intent alone define the act.
Perhaps it is my intent to cause the death of my former employer, but
maybe I bungle the attempt and he survives. In that case, I would be
charged with attempted murder only. Or if I chicken out at the last
minute and don't make the attempt on his life at all, but my intent
becomes known, the charge would be conspiracy to commit murder. In
both of these cases the intent -- to cause the death of my boss -- is
the same as in the murder one case, yet both attempted murder and
conspiracy are considered by law to be of lesser seriousness than
either involuntary manslaughter or murder one.
So, it would appear, we must take into account BOTH the act and
the intent when evaluating a given incident.
On to sports, then. To begin with, we have several different
definitions of violent and violence to deal with. (There were also a
couple of definitions I didn't include because they were irrelevant to
this discussion) Definition 1a, 'exertion of physical force so as to
injure or abuse', would seem largely to be dealing with intent, rather
than the act itself. Here we see physical force applied in the
attempt to cause injury or abuse. On this definition, it does not
matter whether the attempt is successful; the mere fact that the
intent was there and the attempt was made is sufficient to brand the
incident as violent. This definition would cover both murder one and
attempted murder, but not conspiracy, since, in that case, though
there was injurious intent, there was no accompanying exertion of
physical force (the actual attempt was never made).
Applying this definition then to sports, does football qualify as
violent? No, for although there is most certainly 'exertion of
physical force', by and large (with some individual exceptions), this
physical force is not applied 'so as to injure or abuse.' The left
tackle may apply a particularly forceful and physical tackle on the
quarterback, but his intent was merely to prevent a pass completion,
not to injure or abuse. (Of course, if it WAS the left tackle's
intent to injure the quarterback, then on definition 1 it would
qualify as violence).
Definition 1b depends on the definition of 'violent', which is
So much for definition 1. What about definition 2 -- 'injury by
or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation'? It is perhaps
time to note that injury in these definitions does not of necessity
have to be physical in nature. Thus, for example, though rape is a
forceful and physical act, the injury suffered by the victim is
normally much more emotional and psychic in nature than physical. Yet
that does not make rape any less violent.
Definition #2 strikes me as a much broader or more liberal
definition of violence than #1. While definition 1 seems to focus on
the physical, 2 would appear to extend the definition to include both
injuries of other than physical nature and means other than simple
physical violence. Coercive evangelism, as an example, is probably a
case of infringement or distortion, while rape is almost certainly a
case of profanity against women.
Note that there are also a number of important differences
between definitions 1 and 2. To begin with, definition 2 discusses
the injury itself, rather than the act which caused it (note that the
subject of definition 2 is 'injury', whereas in 1 it is 'exertion of
physical force'). Here, also, intent is apparently irrelevant to the
definition. It is the injury itself which is considered violence, not
the means by which the injury was achieved. Thus, for example, a
televangelist might employ ethically questionable methods for
accomplishing conversions -- coercion or distortion or something else
-- yet it is highly doubtful that his conscious intent is to injure.
Nevertheless, under this definition, he would still have done violence
to his audience.
Does football qualify as violent under this definition? At first
glance, at least, it seems plausible. If we are, in definition 2,
concerned not with intentions or methods, but only with the end
result, then one might be tempted to conclude that an injury is an
injury, whether intentional or not, and is therefore violent. Note,
however, that definition 2 does not define violence merely as injury,
but as injury 'by or as if by distortion, infringement, or
profanation'. Since it is doubtful that football contains any of
this, it does not seem to qualify as violence under definition 2.
Definition 3 switches track entirely from either 1 or 2. While 1
and 2 deal with issues of ethics, 3 is concerned only with the quality
of a phenomenon or act. When we speak, as definition 3 does, of 'the
violence of the storm', we are referring simply to the storm's
strength and destructive power; we are not attempting to pass moral
judgment on either the storm's intent or its result. Indeed, it seems
silly to even speak of getting morally indignant at a violent storm.
While the results of violent storms are often to be lamented, we
certainly do not become ethically outraged at the storm. Thus,
definition 3 is largely a descriptive definition.
Again, one may encounter a description such as 'he loved her with
a violent love', but again this is largely a descriptive device for
expressing the strength of the love with which he loved her. There is
no ethical condemnation, implied or otherwise, in such a description.
Is football violent under this definition? Perhaps. But even if
it is, it is only trivially so. Those who feel that football is 'a
violent sport in which people go out and intend to hurt others' could
not have had this definition in mind since this definition involves no
issues of morality. It is a descriptive definition only.
Let us look further, then, at Webster's definition of 'violent'.
Definition 4 defines 'violent' as 'marked by extreme force or sudden
intense activity'. Under this definition, football would seem
certainly to qualify, involving as it does many instances of extreme
force and sudden intense activity. But so, for that matter, does slam
dancing or mountain climbing. Again what we have is a largely
descriptive definition. Certainly one would not want to hold that
extreme force or sudden intense activity was inherently immoral. In
order to decide whether or not the 'extreme force' and 'sudden intense
activity' in football were immoral, we would have to go back to
definition 1 or 2.
Definitions 5a and 5b are closely related to 3a and 3b, and are
largely descriptive. Again, in this descriptive sense, football
could, seemingly, be considered 'violent'.
Definition 6 returns to a discussion of causation and, as such,
relates to definition number 2. In this case, however, in
contradistinction to 2, there are no ethical or moral issues involved;
6 is once again largely descriptive.
So where do we stand? IS football violent? It would seem that,
on certain definitions, it is. Those who believe it is are correct,
provisionally. But, unless one accepts their premise that football is
a sport in which 'people ... intend to hurt others', it is violent
only trivially and in such a manner as to involve no issues of ethics
as regards its violence.
With all this in mind, then, I offer the following criteria for
judging the violence of a sport. Note that, where I use 'violent' and
'violence' I am assuming either definition 1 or 2, the only
definitions which involve issues of morality.
1. Does the sport itself (apart from the motives of the
individuals participating) have hostile intent (e.g. boxing)? That
is, is it the goal of the sport as a whole to inflict injury or abuse?
2. Apart from the sport as a whole, are the intentions of the
3. Assuming there are violent intentions on the part of the
individual participants (criterion #2 above), are they pretty much an
inevitable occurrence, or are they avoidable? In other words, human
nature being what it is, is the situation into which the sport places
a participant such that it is difficult for the average human being to
avoid developing hostile intentions, or is the problem simply a lack
of self-control on the part of the player? Put another way, 'it is
inevitable that temptations come, but woe to him by whom they come.'
Are the individuals' violent intents the sport's fault, or are they
more due to lack of restraint and discipline on the player's part, a
failure to control his reaction to a given situation?
If the answer to 1 is 'yes', or the answer to 3 is 'it's the
sport's fault', or both, then I would say the sport is in itself
violent. The issue under consideration in question 2 is, by all
means, a cause for concern, but an affirmative response to #2 alone is
not sufficient cause for judging the violence of a sport. And keep in
mind that even if one answers 'no' to #2, this not does mean that the
sport as a whole is not violent. In other words, even if #2 were
'no', this does not mean #1 could not still be 'yes' (a sport could be
violent even if there are no violent intents on the part of its
Though this discussion has concerned itself largely with the
question 'Is football violent?', it is equally applicable to the
larger issues of violence and morality in general. The 3 criteria
given above could easily be generalized for use in ethical evaluations
of any instance of violence or violent activity.
Thus, to come back, after a rather long and arduous detour, to
the issue that prompted this discussion, I would certainly say that
there are both moral and immoral ways to bring about conversions. If,
in my zeal for evangelism, I apply unduly coercive persuasion
techniques which in effect force an individual to get saved, then
despite my good intentions I have possibly committed a violent act.
If a Christian ministry employs ethically questionable techniques,
then it's my duty to make it aware of that fact and, if it refuses to
desist, even perhaps to withdraw my support.
And if the scoring of points in a sport is achieved through
'inappropriate means' then we should probably refuse to participate.
I think in this case, however, there is the additional question of how
inherent these 'inappropriate means' are to the sport. In this
respect, this discussion parallels that of Christian involvement in
fantasy role-playing games or Christian rock or indeed nearly any
other subject one would care to name. Is the game itself (or the form
of music) inherently evil? Then by all means as Christians we must
refuse involvement. If, on the other hand, the game (or the music) is
itself morally neutral, and it's only the acts of individual
participants which are at fault, then perhaps it is possible as
Christians to participate without compromising our Christianity.
One caveat to bear in mind: the preceding discussion was based
entirely on the definitions supplied by Webster's New Collegiate
dictionary for 'violence' and 'violent'. No consideration was given
to the question of these definitions' adequacy in such a discussion.
Computers for Christ - Chicago
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