Is Football Ethical?
We’ve known about boxing for a while now. It’s been inescapable ever since Muhammad Ali’s head trauma reduced his lightning-quick repartee to a Parkinsonian stutter. You just shouldn’t have a sport in which knocking someone senseless is a good way to win. (Yes, yes, there are other ways to score points, and the sport is reformable, perhaps, but really only if head blows are penalized, I’d say. Hitting below the belt is illegal–why protect the genitals but not the brain??)
Now it’s inescapably clear that football has long-term neurological sequelae that include syndromes that mimic Alzheimer’s and ALS. (See today’s Boston Globe for one such report.) This is trickier–it seems that getting clonked in the head is unavoidable in the sport. Helmets don’t seem to help. And the problem isn’t only among the pros, where the guys clonking each other are often 300-plus lbs. of solid muscle, but even among high schoolers.
My question isn’t whether football should be banned. My question is whether, knowing this about the long-term risks, it is ethical to watch it, knowing that those brilliant young athletes have a many-times multiplied risk of truly horrific neurological complications in their futures. Should we switch the station and try to develop an interest in soccer instead?
One point of distinction–of course football players, like any athletes in vigorous sports, risk immediate and long-term orthopedic trouble, which can be very serious. (And I’m not against any risk–I follow women’s college hoops, where blown ACL’s are a common season-ending injury. Think also of the rate of Tommy John surgery among pitchers.) But I can’t help but think that life-threatening neurological damage falls into a different category altogether. And, sure, football provides a path to personal excellence, the chance of a college education (at least in college programs that actually educate their football players–but that’s another post…) and the prospect of huge sums of cash for the lucky few who get to the NFL. But is any cost worth the possible big payoff? Should we stop watching men take such chances purely for the entertainment we derive from it? A related question–would you let your kid play, knowing what we know now?
(I now will take cover under my desk to avoid being clonked in the head by fans of a sport beloved by millions…)