Football and the Warrior Instinct

Football and the Warrior Instinct

One of the last things we need is for young men to think that masculinity is defined by tackles and touchdowns. That would be bad. But it would also be bad if the world were bleached of tackles and touchdowns.

Why? Because while “warrior culture” is dangerous, warrior instinct is endangered, and football stands as one of the last bastions of its enduring good.

What Is Warrior Instinct?

Undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good. That is what I mean by warrior instinct. It’s a summary of the character Paul refers to beginning in 2 Timothy 2:3 — the character of a “good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Elaborating on the soldier metaphor, Paul tells Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” Get this: Paul, the experienced missionary, encourages Timothy, the young pastor, with the example of a warrior. What exactly is that example? It’s focus. Warriors don’t get distracted. They don’t get caught up with the wrong things. They are clear about their aim. Life and death are on the line.

Okay, you might be thinking, but what’s war have to do with football? Well, actually, war and football (sports in general) have some deep connections.

Paul himself sees a connection as he continues his exhortation to Timothy. After the example of the soldier, Paul moves on to the example of an athlete with the same kind of commendation (2 Timothy 2:5). If the soldier fights with focus, the athlete only wins if he plays by the rules. Both of these examples, along with the painstaking work of a farmer, represent the character that Paul says Timothy should emulate.

We shouldn’t see these as three unrelated illustrations, but as one total, connected picture of what it means to be a good soldier of Christ Jesus. In a similar way, Doug Wilson notes that all the “overwhelmingly positive” metaphors of sports and war in the Bible point to the same characteristics of “discipline, sacrifice, hard work, focus, intensity, and so on” (“Empire, Sports, and War,” 292).

This passage in 2 Timothy, serving as a sort of snapshot of these combined metaphors, can be summed up as undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good — what I’m calling warrior instinct.

Why We Need It

We need this warrior instinct more than ever because it’s increasingly rare in our society. We don’t have to look far to see that the ambition for an undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus has been compromised by a distracted, weaselly, self-obsessed directionless. The studies are out and the articles have been written.

Distracted Like Never Before

Distraction is a problem, perhaps like never before. One clever smartphone commercial has already capitalized on the commonality of it, branding itself as the “phone to save us from our phones” — and it was three years ago. Apple recently chimed into the sentiment with their latest video of a young boy buried in his phone during the holidays with his family. Aside from the pleasant twist at the end, they brilliantly played into a recognizable scene — and we get it.

We understand how easily it is to be caught up in a hundred little things which, in the end, are just trifles. It’s not an altogether new issue. People have always loved distractions — or diversions, as Pascal calls it. It’s just that the air seems thicker now.

Deceived and Deceiving

And we lie. Human beings are weasels. One researcher claims that the average person tells a lie one out of every five interactions. This study, which broke ground a couple years ago, says that all this lying amounts to us being lied to between 10–200 times daily. Again, this is not really news. Lying has flourished since the fall. But there is something to note about the accessibility of information we experience now.

If lying is a pervasive issue of humanity’s sinful nature, and people are saying more things publically now than ever, then we probably shouldn’t believe everything we hear. And most don’t. Partial-truth, spinned-truth, no-truth — it’s expected, and almost tolerated. Almost. Faking a bomb threat to dodge a final exam will still get you into trouble. And at least some of the baseball players who lied about steroids have faced consequences.

Deluded with Self-Obsession

What about self-absorption? Well, we are in a narcissism epidemic. Again, this has already been said several times. Secular journalists have already warned us about the consequences of popular self-obsession. And again, this isn’t completely new to our times — it’s just that narcissism has never had so much technology at its fingertips. “Selfie” becoming the word of the year didn’t happen out of nowhere, and like Geoffrey Nunberg writes, “When we look back on 2013, we’ll recall this not just as the year when everybody was posting pictures of themselves on social media, but as the year when nobody could stop talking about it.”

Overall, this distractedness, dishonesty, and self-centeredness work together to qualify a general lack of direction. Unprecedented in American history, 36% of the Millennial generation (and mostly men) still live with their parents, an important study by Pew Research shows. And while there are some decent explanations to account for this change, undoubtedly fewer adults would live with their parents if they had somewhere else to go — if they had a career, or a spouse, or any focus besides Halo that could wake them up from their domestic hibernation.

How Football Helps

So warrior instinct is not in vogue. It’s increasingly rare, and therefore more and more precious. When its witness in society is diminishing so quickly, we should keep our eyes peeled for those institutions and practices that promote it, albeit imperfectly. This especially means football.

There is something wonderfully refreshing about this sport. How many other places are there where we can go to watch squads of eleven men at a time line up for a unified purpose? It’s offense or defense. You’re either working together to advance or stop an advance, all under the authority of a play clock that reminds you time is a limited resource. There’s a strategy for which each team member on the field must buy in. Every play requires undivided focus. You can’t check your newsfeed while you’re listening for the captain’s cadence.

Football is also a game without guile. Not only are there rules to which players must abide, but there are seven officials meticulously placed on the field of play who enforce these rules. You only score touchdowns or stop touchdowns if you do it the right way. Where else do we get this? Cooperative aggression. Combative fraternity. The game is almost like a dream come true in a world full of so much fluff and façade — in a world that manipulates words as masks to hide behind rather than couriers of truth. You don’t wear shoulder-pads to hide behind them; you employ their protection precisely because hiding is not an option, even on the quarterback slide.

Football is also a team game that demands individual practice. Every player has a specific role that, when executed properly, leads to team achievement. And that proper execution is the result of extreme training. Behind every move of every player is hours of work — of drills and sweat and pain — that ultimately targets one thing: team wins. Seriously. Make no mistake about it. Integral to football is real, tangible moments when personal comfort yields to a greater cause. The team wins because the team members sacrifice. They wear out their bodies for something bigger than their pain.

The More Perfect Display

What other cultural entertainment shows us this? Where else do we find this warrior instinct on display? Of course, sinful distortions in the heart of man taint this ideal. But this is the design, and in order for football to work, this character must be in motion. The sport requires this kind of man, or at least a semblance of him. And I think that’s a good thing. It’s remarkable that God’s common grace provides this picture to engrain itself in a people’s pastime. But there’s even more for the Christian.

Speaking of focus, we Christians know one who embodied it perfectly — who came into this world for one purpose and set his face like flint until it was accomplished. We know one who was himself the truth — who committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. We know one who sacrificed — who though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor and sweat tears of blood, enduring the greatest agony because something even greater was set before him. We know Jesus, you see.

Jesus is the standard of warrior instinct — of undivided, straightforward, sacrificial focus for good. Which means, Jesus is the true and better football player. And while we are here, knowing him and making him known, it’s nice to have this game around.


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Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God, and is the lead planter of Cities Church in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their four children. He is also the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.