In Defense of Football – Sort Of

I wrote last week (well, two weeks ago, technically) of the controversy haunting pro football and the safety of its players. I suggested that, whatever the dangers of the sport, the ethical implications of being a fan of it are neither simple nor non-existent.

I recently devoted a portion of one of my Philosophy classes to discussing this issue: asking a group of seniors, most of them without professional sports allegiance, to discuss the morality of enjoying a sport in which you know someone may be seriously hurt. Many of the students who do not follow team sports are skiers and snowboarders, and at least one was present at this year’s X Games in Aspen, where Caleb Moore died after a snowmobiling accident.

For the most part their responses were thoughtful and measured – there seemed to be a consensus that humans are risk-takers, and that by and large this is a good thing, and that weighing benefits against dangers is not always an easy task. I think this is a fairly non-controversial starting point, and from it I take this step: watching someone else do something risky is not the same as doing it yourself, but it is also an inherent part of being human. We do not live in complete isolation from one another, and the process of sharing in someone else’s successes and failures, whether that person is a family member or an acquaintance or a stranger, is a fundamental component of what us makes us capable of communal living and empathy.

So where should the line be drawn? At what point do fans and spectators become complicit in something inexcusable? The question probably cannot be answered in a single post, but I can at least outline some of the factors that make it so vexing.

The first problem here is that there is virtually no sport – and no human activity – that is without risk. That fact does not give us carte blanche to enjoy any sport with a clean conscience, but it does mean that the mere establishment of risk is not sufficient to condemn something. There is a continuum between, say, golf and baseball and football and boxing, or hiking and backpacking and mountaineering and Himalayan climbing, and everyone is willing to place themselves just so far on that continuum and no farther. Deciding where everyone should stop on it is not an easy matter, and is perhaps a decision that cannot be made at all.

I would never attempt to summit Everest – and my wife has understandably made it very clear that she would never support me in such an endeavor – but I do not begrudge those who do their right to make that choice. If a friend wanted to do it, I would try to dissuade him: if having showed himself to be undissuadable, he asked me for money, I would find myself facing a howling host of claims and counterclaims in considering whether to give it to him. It is for each of us to decide what risks he or she will accept. Choosing whether to enjoy a particular sport is another and murkier form of that same decision: what risks are you willing to become emotionally involved in watching someone else take on? The answer cannot be none, because life does not afford us such solipsism. What risks are you willing to contribute financially to making someone else capable of taking on? The answer here indicates some of the complexity inherent in the issue: any moral system that insists that fans are morally accountable for the harm sustained by players has to acknowledge different degrees of culpability between, say, the majority owner of a team, and an avid fan who buys merchandise, and a casual fan who just enjoys watching the games on TV.

The situation becomes further complicated because the rewards of risk-taking in general – the benefits that accrue to us as human beings when we face challenges and develop skills and courage in response to them – are not necessarily the same as the benefits of participating in a given sport. Any answer to the problem of fandom has to be able to parse out the factors involved with enough subtlety to distinguish what is inherent from what is accidental. PZ Myers’ dismissal of football players as “specially fast meaty people” who are given “pampering and unwarranted glory” is unhelpful precisely because it sinks a distinction-smashing shovel into layers that ought to be teased apart with a trowel and brush.

Thinking that the reward that accrues to football players is that they are pampered is missing the point. Anyone who has ever had a moment of playing a sport well at the level of their peers – lining a double up the middle off a pitcher no one can hit, outsprinting a defender to catch the frisbee in a dive at the goal line, or whatever – knows the purely private thrill of doing something well. This is why people play sports that do not offer fame and fortune; this is why every sandlot and park lawn in the world has seen its share of pickup games and practice sessions. The level of athleticism and intelligence necessary to run even a simple play at the NFL level cannot be cavalierly dismissed: these games are affairs of the human body and mind operating at extraordinarily high levels, and even if the outcome is trivial in a broader sense – nothing really important is at stake – being able to do anything so well is what many of us live for. It is hardly profound to point out, as many adventurers and athletes have, that we feel most alive when we are controlling ourselves with exquisite precision in the face of risk. Such a reward is not a minimal one and may partially explain why many football players themselves balk at the idea of making the sport safer. At the same time, criticism can be leveled at sports that obscure or complicate the risk/reward evaluation by artificially inflating one side of the equation (offering wealth or fame as an additional reward) or by deflating the other (minimizing the players’ knowledge of the risks involved). It is this latter fact that makes the NFL debate especially frustrating: the lack of honesty and transparency by the League has created a problem that is both distinct from, and connected to, the larger questions.

I wrote last week that “when any activity becomes directly linked to death, the conversation must immediately shift to whether that death was preventable,” and that “once that possibility of prevention has been publicly established, we as fans assume a level of accountability by offering or witholding our support.” I stand by those statements. But accountability itself is not a simple concept: the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian and the drunk driver he was swerving to avoid are both accountable, but not in the same way. Our justice system recognizes this fact, however imperfectly, and philosophers have been wrestling with it for two thousand years without accomplishing much more than giving us a set of useful terms and scenarios to allow us to keep arguing about it.

I will watch the NFL to see how it handles the increasingly public body of research detailing the health risks of playing football, and there may well be a day when I can no longer justify following the Ravens. If football can be preserved by minimizing the danger, then let us have a conversation about how to do it. If it cannot be preserved in its present form, then certainly the mere insistence that it remain unchanged is not in itself sufficient reason to accept or to actively argue for the status quo. One thing at least is clear: my preference for exciting games is not a factor that carries any weight in the face of the risks players are being asked to assume.

I do not at all think that the complexity of this or any other moral issue is a sign that it is insoluble, or that people are absolved from addressing it. In fact, I am fairly certain there are some relatively clear conclusions that can be drawn that I have not even touched on here. It is absolutely and unquestionably true that if the NFL were disbanded tomorrow, no one else would die as a result of their involvement with the NFL: but that point overlooks too many other factors, among them the right of adults to engage in risky behavior, to put an end to the conversation on its own. If we can at least get to a point where the stakes are clear to everyone involved, we can get the debate to a point where it should have been a long time ago. And in order to do that, we have to push the NFL to address the concussion problem as honestly and thoroughly – and as soon – as possible.




About Brendan McKinney

Brendan McKinney teaches high school in New Mexico. He graduated from St. John's College and Bond University and is a former Peace Corps volunteer and record-store manager, among other things. He lives with his wife and an indeterminate number of incessantly prowling quadrupeds in Santa Fe.
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5 Responses to In Defense of Football – Sort Of

  1. Nick says:

    Caleb Moore died from a snowmobile accident, not snowboarding.

  2. Michael Schneider says:

    > “the drunk driver who kills a pedestrian and the drunk driver he was swerving to avoid are both accountable”

    As written, one can make sense of this, but I wonder if it’s the sense you were intending it to make.

  3. Bill says:

    The idea that we should quit something because it would make us and others safer is an idea I have trouble taking seriously. I find that what makes someone love or want to ban a certain activity in our culture largely depends on if we like the activity or not. It does NOT depend on risk at all. It can be very either very dangerous or very safe. Whether a sport is “too risky” depends on someones ideology. People who do not like sports (PZ Meyers) will probably hold up even the smallest risks as evidence that football is “too dangerous” and fans of the sport will probably dismiss CTE risks as trivial. A risks importance depends on whether or not the sport is loved. We take risks all the time (e.g. sex, driving cars, riding bikes, competitive running and heart problems, owning swimming pools etc.). But whether or not a certain risk ok is determined by what we think makes our lives worth living.
    Safety is properly understood as a tactic that we use to lower the risk of injury or death to ourselves and others. Safety is not first and should NEVER be first. Also, it is in fact moral to endanger other people while doing a given activity. Just because your activity has the potential to harm other people does not make it wrong. I regularly contribute to unnecessary child endangerment by doing the normal activity all of you do by driving my car. I don’t always drive for necessary reasons and yet every time I do, there is always a chance I may accidentally hit a child with my car. I also produce vehicular emissions that children are breathing all for the sake of going to a friends house. Yet I continue to drive my car for my own self interest.
    What makes risk taking moral or immoral is whether or not the risk is taken (not if) BECAUSE you want to endanger yourself or others. An example of an immoral risk would be “lets play Russian roulette with a revolver to prove your not a p****y.” Football is moral because while the purpose is to roughhouse, it is not intended to lead to injury. The goal of all contact sports is to roughhouse without injury.
    Don’t feel guilty about watching football Brendan. Regardless of the risks. The true battle is over culture and whether men should be socialized to be more feminine or not.

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