J. J. Watt, Injuries in the NFL, and Free Choice of the Will

J. J. Watt, defensive end for the Houston Texans, underwent back surgery this week and will miss the rest of the season. Watt was returning from surgery done during the off-season, and re-injured his back in the Texans’ 27-0 blowout loss to the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football, September 22, 2016.

Watt’s injury is a major setback for the Texans. He is generally considered the best

J. J. Watt in action against the Patriots, in what proved to be his last game of the 2016 season.

defensive player in the league, a game-changing force on that side of the ball. He has scored on fumble recoveries and interceptions, has led the league in sacks several times, and has shown a tremendous flair for big, disruptive plays. With Watt out of the lineup, the Texans will have to score more points than they have been scoring–they are worst in the league, averaging only 14 points per game as of now–without him helping the defense shut down drives by opposing teams. That is, if they want to win games.

Did Watt come back from his surgery too soon? Did the Texans foul up the decision of when to bring him back? It’s hard to know from the outside, but what’s clear is that the decisions about when to return players to the field after serious injuries are fraught with complications among conflicting stakeholders. Who decides? The player? The coach? The doctor? Saint Augustine? Given the twin imperatives of professional football–to win, and to make money–it’s hard to imagine a choice that isn’t encumbered with compromises. Even the player isn’t always motivated to do what’s best for his health. Is there any such thing as “free choice of the will” when it comes to injuries in the NFL? In the short term, having Watt on the field made the Texans a more competitive team, but in the long run, if he came back to soon and compounded a serious injury to his back, he may have ended his career or at least reduced his value to the team.

By establishing an enterprise dedicated to competitive and financial goals, it may well be that professional football creates an environment in which all such choices are compromised. These complications contribute especially to the vexing problem football faces when it comes to concussions and brain injuries, in which “informed consent” becomes an almost impossible goal (when the brain is injured, can the player even know what’s in his best interest?). As a human enterprise, of course, football operates in the fallen world bequeathed to us by our sinful ancestors, the Paradise Lost by Adam and Eve.

For those of us living a Christian life, it’s essential that we reflect upon, understand, and appreciate free choice of the will. In Farewell to Football? I cite Saint Augustine to the effect that “without [free will] man cannot live rightly” (p. 58). This gift from God allows us to manifest the divine in our lives, by exercising the power to choose rightly, but it also accounts for what the Church calls “the drama of sin.” God loves us so much that he gives us this divine freedom, but he also loves us so much that He cannot spare us from the consequences of our choices if we choose poorly (“the wages of sin”). This is the Christian answer to the question of “how can God allow sin and evil in the world?”

For more of this sort of “examination of conscience” concerning America’s favorite sport, check out Farewell to Football, which is available in paperback and Kindle format–click on this link to order your copy.


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