American Football is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States. Today, through the National Football League (NFL), it is also poised to further expand its global reach. Ustadh Sharif Rosen offers his perspective on why Muslims should steer clear of this sport, whether as players or spectators. He argues the harms inherent in football and the NFL, from violence and intoxication to the degradation of women conflict with core Islamic values, centrally the Islamic emphasis on avoiding detriment, and the need to preserve the safety and dignity of all individuals in a society.
You may dislike something although it is good for you, or you may love something although it is bad for you: God knows and you do not. [2:216]
Today’s discourse on the violence focuses almost exclusively on the political or religious dimensions of this intractable human problem. In doing so, insufficient study and reflection has been paid to the role of our cultures’ most popular venues for recreation and entertainment as promoters of sensationalized mayhem and destruction. Until now, what is commonplace are groups spurred on by religious or moral indignation who target their activism, understandably, against pornography, violent film and television programming, or video gaming. Yet, only in the last decade, has America Football, the U.S.’s most lucrative professional sport come under serious scrutiny as an activity built on a violence model.
I contend that the sport’s destructive nature and influence should place it squarely in the category of the aforementioned categories of social harms. For Muslims ever-intent on finding halal (permissible) outlets for recreation, perhaps it is high time for us to consider whether being spectators, paying customers, or even players of this sport is in fact permissible, on numerous grounds. While the issue of wasting of time [lahu] is one that bears upon the question at hand, this will not be the focal area of this article. For now, I will seek to underscore that American Football may fall into the area of the disliked [makruh] if not the unlawful [haram] based on its apparent violation of the axial precept in Islam derived from the prophetic teaching, “There is no harm, nor reciprocating harm.”
Here’s a snapshot history on American Football, hereafter simply referred to as football. The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920 in Canton, Ohio after the sport had gained a following in men’s athletic clubs from the Midwest to the east coast starting in the mid-to-late 1800’s. By 1925, over 18 professional teams had been assembled. The game’s popularity remained steady for decades, alongside Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, but in 1970, the NFL made the leap to sport as national spectacle. That year, for the first time, Monday Night Football was broadcast into tens of millions of American homes during the dinner hour weekly each fall. Since then, through television contracts that total just under $30 billion dollars annually, licensing profits from its merchandise, beer producers and others sponsors, these tell part of the story of how the NFL now dominates the national sports scene, and by extension, the consciousness of a majority segment of American culture. With annual revenue approaching $13 billion dollars, the NFL surpasses several professional sports combined, and is generating income roughly equivalent to another U.S. domestic social blight: the pornography industry. Today, the sport is also making inroads into Europe with several games now being played in London each year, and talks of moving an NFL franchise there are intensifying; the sad irony being that the most likely candidate for the NFL’s planned expansion across the pond may be led by the Jacksonville Jaguars, the league’s only team owned by a man of Muslim descent.
What draws so many Americans to the NFL is not one single attracting factor, but the confluence of appetites it satiates. At the top of the list is its showcase of violence and aggression that in nearly any other life context would be criminal. Hard hits are not a one-time feature of a game; nearly every play is built on punishingly severe contact. Colorful uniforms, helmets and pads not only provide the appearance of sculpted uber-men, but also of football being a safe, controlled, full-contact sport, that affords Americans – predominantly the working class – a voyeuristic violence experience that appears sanitized in relation to the graphic violence of sports like Boxing or Mixed Martial Arts. Pro teams, and the league work hard to manage these appearances. Teams have a battery of coaches and personnel on hand to assure that their players can perform the assigned tasks of their position; quite secondary are considerations about minimizing the clear and present danger to players on the field. The following quote is from Eric Kester, a former-NFL ball boy who is one of a handful of courageous individuals peeling away the illusions constructed by the NFL. He writes,
“A sniff of my salts would revive the player in alertness only, and he would run back onto the field to once again collide with opponents with the force of a high-speed car crash. As fans high-fived and hell-yeahed and checked the progress of their fantasy teams, and as I eagerly scrambled onto the field to pick up shattered fragments from exploded helmets, researchers were discovering the rotting black splotches of brain tissue that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Known as C.T.E., this degenerative disease is the result of players’ enduring head trauma again and again…
Cameramen know not to show players sniffing salts, and I participated in similar acts of cover-up. One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of “game-used inserts.” Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I’d put in a special bin for disposal.”
I share in your disgust.
In the fierce competition to hold a roster spot and secure a salary, many players feel compelled to undermine their own health by ignoring both acute and chronic pain, as well as the long-term risks. Jordan Reed, a current NFL player said after concealing his concussion symptoms from coaches and family, “[My family members] are always going to show concern and stuff like that because they care more about my health than anything, but I’ve got to take care of my family, so I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.” Perhaps a similar morbid calculus occurred to former NFL player, Andre Waters. Speaking on the frequency of his concussions, he said, “I think I lost count at 15. I just wouldn’t say anything. I’d sniff some smelling salts, then go back in there.” Waters committed suicide in 2004 amid the mental deterioration he experienced in retirement.
Yet, neither Waters’ condition nor his fate are an anomaly. He is only one of dozens of players who have been found after death with the degenerative brain condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Among the brains examined by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, she has found a staggering ratio of these former players had the disease. In their retirement, these men shared the symptoms of chronic brain injury: depression, impaired judgement, abusive treatment of self and family members. McKee’s researchers at the CTE Center at Boston University continue to make major breakthroughs in discovering strong linkages between the repetitive head trauma endemic to football with the development of CTE. In doing so, she and her research team have had to fight the league singlehandedly. As their findings emerged publicly over the last decade, the NFL went through periods of outright denial and evasion to its own offensive to counter the data — even publishing results that were later admitted to be flawed by the very doctors who had chaired the league sanctioned studies. A major turning point occurred in late 2016 when the NFL was ordered to pay upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to former players. For now, the league can take the financial hit, but through the wider exposure of evidence connecting football and CTE, the NFL is faced with the prospect that its only competition is not another professional sport, but that the very nature of the game itself will be its undoing. Even the recent introduction of rule changes that offer guidelines for “safer” hits and tackles may become moot, for as one sports writer put it, the NFL is, “trying to legislate safety for an intrinsically unsafe game.”
The scrutiny that professional football is now undergoing for its on-field brutality and its long-term effects on players would be cause for sufficient concern about its power and influence in our society, let alone its standing within Islamic Law. But the link between football and violence does not end with on the field competition. While violence on the field is sanctioned, violence occurring in the bleachers or parking lot is not, but on the rise. Fan fights and mob beatings are now a constant of the game day experience; one which can begin at the beer consuming tailgating sessions hours before kickoff. Unruly conduct and fan violence are such problems the NFL has mandated that fans seeking readmission to a league stadium after being ejected must take an online course. Consider it the NFL’s version of a time out in the corner, but one that does little to mitigate the on-field violence or the effects of intoxication from the alcohol being consumed profusely by fans amid the wall-to-wall beer marketing in stadiums and during commercial breaks.
And then, there is the NFL’s bizarre mixture of the macabre and the salacious. More than other professional sports played in the United States, NFL game day has become a venue for exhibitionism that revels in the erotic, obscene and demonic (and this latter point applies to far more than Raiders’ games). Religious and moral boundaries are not blurred but trampled on. Nearly nude female cheerleaders rev up the overwhelmingly male fan-base, tools of sexual fantasy fitting for the testosterone rage displayed on the field. Fan wives endure not only the time and money toll that the sport takes on families (tickets average about $93 per person), or the impact of gambling and alcoholism, they have to compete against a team’s objectified female dancers whose job is to feign loving the game almost as much as the men’s ogling.
NFL team organizations contribute heftily to women’s abuse and exploitation. As the NY Times reported in 2014, former cheerleaders from several teams have filed lawsuits for various employer violations. One woman, “Alyssa” is suing the Buffalo Bills claiming she received only $450 for over 800 hours of work. When not dancing on the sidelines, the Bills required her and co-dancers to add sexual ambiance to their team sponsor events by performing particularly degrading maneuvers (which I need not specify), again, in a near state of undress to fill the team’s coffers. If this is the culture the NFL promotes, is it hardly surprising that studies show that spousal battery increases in NFL-cities when the home teams loses.
Football is more than a sport, but has reached the level of a cultural phenomenon where violence, misogyny and our basest human appetites triumph. In its own way, each of these is its own violent assault on the dignity and well-being of every individual connected to the sport. The permanent physical, emotional and mental damage done to former players – and their families – is an incalculable price to pay for public entertainment.
As for having one’s own children involved in the sport, for all the counter arguments touting football’s role in teaching teamwork, physical endurance, and mental toughness, the recent findings outlined here reveal risk factors that far outweigh the perceived benefits; in fact, the game effectively undermines them. Moreover, popular sports like basketball, baseball, or soccer provide the best of what can be sought from competitive team sports — without the documented harms endemic to football. Even apart from the pros, head trauma, heat stroke and water intoxication have been the cause of death for a large number of high school football players in the recent years. Ben Carmichael, formerly of NFL Films puts it this way, “There’s so much posing going on, so much pretending that you can make this sport safe. How do you rationalize this roulette that we are playing with young men?”
America’s Sport is increasing in popularity with devastating costs. As someone whose early upbringing was steeped in the football fanaticism of a non-Muslim home, I witnessed firsthand the acute toll of this sport on my family’s life. Muslims seeking to live religiously-observant, for the sake of God, should thus reflect deeply into any investment of their time, money and emotional energy into any activity rife with violence and manifest indecencies. Today’s NFL fits this description to a tee. Between its incessant spectacle of brutal violence and providing a venue for the promotion of liquor and sexual license, one might ask what, if anything, within the realm of the religiously permissible is found with the NFL? And beyond the league, by all standards, football scores abysmally low on the holistic measures of health and benefit (maslaha) that constitute the basis of the Islamic ethos, one which often requires the faithful to swim against the day’s onslaught of harms. For as much as any detriment in our culture, keeping our Muslim communities NFL and football-free should be a priority. This can also occur while developing alternative outlets for stimulating health and fitness in our mosques and community centers, to improve our health outcomes and express our confidence in the prophetic teaching, “Whoever leaves something for Allah’s sake, Allah will replace it with something far better.”
Resources for seekers
- Do You Respect The Women Around You? – Habib Ali al-Jifri
- Tight or Revealing Clothing on Men and Women
- Is It Allowed to Wear Shorts While Playing Sports?
- Ibtihaj Muhammad: How A Champ Trains In Ramadan
- Can I Break My Fast If My Job Makes Fasting Too Difficult?
- Is It Sinful to Keep Exercising Despite the Pain?
- Wearing Sports Team and Traditional Caps
- Praying While Wearing Soccer Shorts With Compression Leggings
- Is It Permissible to Wear Items With Animal Logos on Them?