It’s very hard to justify how I can get so much joy from an organization that’s caused so much pain,” comedian John Oliver said during the buildup to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil. He was talking about FIFA, the notoriously corrupt governing body of world soccer. It was the kind of shrewd statement we could apply to any number of arenas, though sports fans in particular will find it all too relatable.

It may be getting harder to justify, but the vast subcultures that underpin these mammoth institutions are woven inextricably into our culture’s fabric.FIFA’s shenanigans were on full display in Brazil. The country’s fragile infrastructure groaned under the tournament’s weight. Stadium workers died in hurried and unsafe construction projects. Massive stadiums were erected which would never be used again after the World Cup was over—one Brazilian construction worker described them as “monuments to national sadness and waste.” Meanwhile Brazil’s own economy made little money from the tournament; most of the proceeds went to FIFA. Brazilians took to the streets to protest the corruption, sometimes resorting to violence that only increased the sense of helplessness and anger.

As bad as things were in Brazil, the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 — still eight years away — is already plumbing new depths of greed and exploitation. Ever since Qatar won the bid in 2010 (amid widespread allegations of bribery), it has seemed like a laughably bad idea. Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The Qatari organizers have promised to build air-conditioned stadiums, at an astronomical expense.

Most troubling of all, though, are the human rights violations already quietly taking place in Qatar. These futuristic, air-conditioned stadiums — monuments to hubris, it’s becoming clear, on par with the pyramids of Giza — are already claiming the lives of workers at an astonishing rate. ESPN’s E:60 series ran an expose on the working conditions in Qatar, and its findings were shocking. The workers, mostly migrant workers from places like India and Nepal, are being paid significantly less than they were initially promised, and with their passports confiscated and exit visas denied, they can’t go home. Their horrendous living conditions and overexposure in the cruel heat have led to over a thousand deaths already, and conservative estimates suggest that at least four thousand workers will die before a ball is kicked in the summer of 2022. Qatari officials have callously ignored calls for reform.

Soccer is hardly the only sport with deep-seated problems. The beginning of this fall’s NFL season corresponded with an ugly spate of physical abuse scandals among its players. First was Ray Rice, a Baltimore Ravens running back who was fired by the team after a surveillance camera caught him punching his then-fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator. Next was Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings running back and one of the game’s biggest stars, who was indicted on child abuse charges after allegedly beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch. Since then, several other players have been accused of similar crimes.

This comes in addition to the NFL’s other ongoing controversy, as studies continue to draw attention to the drastic effects of head injuries suffered on the field. A recent study suggests that about 14% of all former players will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and another 14% will develop moderate dementia. Last year, the league reached a $765 million settlement with former players seeking compensation for brain injuries suffered on the field. The case is ongoing and will be reopened this November.

Underlying all of these controversies is the simple fact that people will continue to be captivated by these sports no matter how unfeeling and corrupt their leaders prove to be. It may be getting harder to justify, but the vast subcultures that underpin these mammoth institutions are woven inextricably into our culture’s fabric.

Not that there aren’t exceptions. The last couple of years have seen a spate of op-eds written by people whose patience has run out. Among these is Steve Almond, whose recent piece in the Dallas Morning News describes in some detail why he has stopped watching the NFL. As he puts it, “Those of us who love [the NFL] are not innocent fans rooting for our teams to prevail. We’re consumers. Our money and attention are what subsidize the game.” For Almond, to be a fan is to support — even subsidize — a game that has spiraled out of control.

Almond’s reasons for why he quit watching football are compelling. Concussions that lead to degenerative brain disease. Domestic violence perpetrated by men who are role models for young people. The pipe dream, sold to many of our country’s youth, that football is their ticket to bigger and better things. It’s hard not to admire Almond’s willingness to back up his rhetoric with what was, for him, a sacrificial decision.

Is that it then? Can we no longer watch the NFL without compromising our moral fiber? Has FIFA’s corruption and exploitation ruined the World Cup for anyone with a conscience?

The problem with that argument is its inherent negativity. Its premises are the list of negative headlines that these sports have recently generated. But to only recite the litany of bad things surrounding these sports is to give a decidedly skewed version of the reality. There are good things about these sports, too. For all the bad decisions NFL players have recently made, there are also the very positive examples of players like Peyton Manning, London Fletcher, and Drew Brees — players known not just for lip service or a startup charity with their name on it but for active service in their communities over many years.

Meanwhile, amid the corruption of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, a number of the tournament’s biggest stars, including Mesut Özil, Lionel Messi, and Javier Mascherano, donated their World Cup paychecks to childrens’ hospitals in Brazil and Argentina. This is, of course, only to name a few of the countless examples of big stars using their platforms for good. We could also talk about the sense of global community that soccer fosters, which at its best unites people from all different walks of life. We could talk about the character sports can engender, the lessons in cooperation and perseverance.

In our world nothing is pure and uncompromised. Whether it’s a sport, the arts, politics, or the church, the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every institution. We can choose to see only the bad things and pull back in dismay — but if we do that, we have to ask ourselves what our reasons are. Are we motivated by justice, or by a self-righteous desire to be above it all? We’re only deluding ourselves if we think we can create and maintain a little undefiled corner of the world just for us. It’s harder — and more worthwhile — to look for and champion the good things in any institution or arena, enjoying them for what they are, and working to facilitate them. We can begin by drawing attention to the good: too often the bad things are sensationalized and grab all the headlines.

This is not to excuse for one minute the greed and systemic corruption so deeply ingrained in these institutions. Without question, they are long overdue for a close examination and a public reckoning. There is hope that increased media attention to the skeletons in their respective closets will lead to greater openness and accountability.

Even so these problems aren’t likely to be fixed anytime soon. But isn’t it possible to applaud and work for the good even as we condemn the bad? Isn’t that a basic part of what it means to live in a fallen world at all?


  1. I was not yet ten years old when I became aware of Yankee second baseman Bobby Richardson’s Christian influence in a decidedly not very Christian atmosphere. Today I remain aware of a number of such influences by professional athletes. It is hard to weigh this against the severe damage to individual athletes, their families, and our culture as a whole by the overall conduct of professional and college athletics.

    Ethan, I have read your article with sympathy and respect, as I have read books and articles regarding Christian influence on the broader culture by writers such as James Davison Hunter, Gabe Lyons, Andy Crouch, and Tim Keller. I have to confess that I am pessimistic about the aim to improve existing cultural influences. Without giving up that effort entirely, I suspect that more of our effort should be going into building alternative culture. I wonder what that would look like in the area of athletics. Could we build a sports network that operated through and through with Christian values? Would anyone notice?

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