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 profanation: OUTRAGE
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  ‘violent’ attack
5 (a) notably furious or vehement  ‘violent’ denunciation (b) EXTREME,INTENSE ‘violent’ pain

6: caused by force: not natural  ‘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 itself.

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 discussed below.

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 participants violent?

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 individual participants).

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.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago