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What are the ethics of watching football?

Of all the things President Obama said in the long New Yorker profile-interview last week, I found it interesting how many people seized on his remark that he wouldn’t let his son play pro football. Syria? The ACA? Obstructionist Congressional Republicans? There were about seventeen-thousand other words to choose from, but with the two-week gap between conference championships and Super Bowl Sunday, maybe people were itching for something, anything, football-related to talk about (surely it wasn’t just another reason to criticize Obama for positing “imaginary” offspring and apologizing for America?).

The president said something similar this time last year, only then it was that he’d have to think “long and hard about it.” Of course, the twelve months between have served up still more stories of players now living with (and dying from) the effects of catastrophic brain injury tied to playing football, and still more data confirming the connection. So maybe it’s understandable that his position has solidified. And yet then came what he called his “caveat emptor,” that current NFL players “know what they’re buying into. It’s no longer a secret. It’s sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?”

Just how responsible are fans and viewers of football for the well-being of the people playing it?

Steve Almond writes that “our worship of the game has blinded us to its pathologies” and that the rationalizations we use in continuing to watch—that the NFL is trying to make it safer and that the players, on top of being highly paid, know exactly what they’re getting into—don’t hold water. I suppose I’m inclined to agree. Though the NFL this week stated support for new federal protocols on youth concussions, by many accounts it’s not doing all it can to make the pro game safer; new rules notwithstanding, the hits are still hard, the players leveling them still celebrated, the replays still repeatedly shown. And, while smokers have long since been educated on the dangers of their choice, they’re not on the other hand systematically enculturated, trained, conditioned, and finally paid to engage in it. Tobacco companies make their money mainly on purchase of the product by the people smoking directly harms, while the NFL will get $5 billion next year from television revenue alone. Does that make viewers at home complicit in the damage being incurred on the field?

Almond describes the “moral queasiness” more fans are feeling and says he won’t be watching the big game this weekend. But in terms of making an ethical choice, I’m not sure he quite connects the dots between this discomfort and the decision to boycott. Similarly Peter Beinart in the Atlantic, who’s considering whether to cut his eight-year-old son off from watching football now—thus breaking a generational chain and turning it into something like anti-gay bigotry and smoking, behaviors much less widely tolerated than they once were. “If he made it to adulthood without heartwarming memories of sitting alongside his old man watching other men pulverize their bodies and minds, he’d be more able to rationally decide whether professional football is something a decent society should allow.” Agreed. But are there criteria for such a decision? I’m not necessarily saying Beinart should have presented some in his short piece, but it does seem as if we’re at the place where someone might need to, if people are in fact serious about challenging the role hundreds of millions nonparticipants play in putting the long-term health of thousands of players at such great and provable risk.

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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As a matter of ethics, I think it's fairly complex to analyze.  Some factors to consider:

  • Of what type and degree is the cooperation of pro football fans in player injuries?  I'd think we'd use words like "remote" and "unintended" in describing this.
  • To what extent does the voluntary participation of the players factor into the analysis?
  • Do the many measures adopted to protect players and minimize injuries - equipment advances, rule changes, collective bargaining, medical research - ameliorate fan culpability?

Also - while lawsuits have proliferated, my impression is that quite a bit isn't known as to the extent and severity of the injuries.

Finally - at the risk of  perpetuating stereotypes, my guess would be that neither President Obama nor Atlantic nor NY Times writers spend much time watching MMA/UFC fights.  The blows to unpadded, unprotected heads really are appalling.  Not only is it worse than football, it's worse than boxing.  It isn't just fists: it's elbows, knees, kicks; and it seems quite lightly refereed.  The sight of a man using his knees to pin another man on his back and deliver repeated blows to the head with no intervention is really pretty hard to watch, but it's perfectly legal - and completely intended - from what I can tell.


What about ballet dancing? Care to look at what a ballet dancers feet look like? Broken bones and stress fractures. Addiction to pain killers.

How about modelling? I know of one woman whose daughter was a professional model. Smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, 8 cups of coffee, and downed Red Bull like water. All appetite suppressants or replacements for hunger. Had to go in to get her heart checked at the ripe old age of 22. Her defence was that at least she is not doing heroin and cocaine like all the other girls.

Should we stop attending the ballet and looking at the cover of magazines?





Bruce Lee is arguably the forerunner of mixed martial arts (Jun Fan Gung Fu)


Bruce Lee studied philosophy and always loved philosophy. It is not possible to understand mma and mixed martial arts without the philosophy attached.


Here is his daughter explaining him. A great man!

Once upon a time, in barely living memory, boxing was as big as foorball is today. Think of "I love a prize fight that isn't a fake," paired with rowing in Central Park lake in "The Lady Is a Tramp." Think of A. J. Liebling writing about The Sweet Science. Remember Gillette Blue Blades with the sharpest edges ever honed. Not that long ago, but I bet most Commonweal readers today can't name the reigning welterweight champion.

Because of its undeniable propensity to cause head injuries, football may be where boxing was not that long ago. Most sports can be dangerous. Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch in baseball, considered a sissy game by today's younger generation, and George D's point about the sufferings of ballet dancers is well taken. But I have been wondering about whether I want to continue to support football. Even as I write, I know I would be putting off this discussion until later if the Packers were in Sunday's game instead of those West Coast teams.


Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!  Many years since I watched boxing. The knockout like the homerun is the elixir that drives the wild sensation. Football has many  redeeming features. Peyton Manning is so good and so smart that he challenges the mind as well as the senses. To see him arrange multiple formations to counter the great Bellichick is a thing of beauty. To see him place passes in the most perfect place  where no defendor can catch it provokes one to soar into poetry. 

Football has made some progress. Not on its own but under pressure. I know longer yell "kill him" or "knock him out."  But I am not yet there where I will call it morally wrong. I did not let my sons play football either (at a time when I was an unconcienable fan). It is a great game. I suport making it safer. The comparisons with modeling, ballet are instructive. 

Aside from that there will be a statue erected right after the game in Indianopolis and Denver. is that idolatry?

There is no comparing the physical damage of ballet with brain damage diminishing the mind.  Boxing is the only comparison with football and look what it did to Mohammed Ali.  And for every pro who at least is well compensated financially and with fame, how many wannabes suffer these injuries for a lifetime but with no reward?

Stanley  and all: have you seen the news that Northwestern's quarterback, Kain Colter, is tryihg to organize a college football players' union?

It appears that player safety will be one of their top issues.  Arguably, college players are more exploited than NFL players.




Safety should can and should always be improved but sport, like music and art has always played an important role in the development of culture. And in sport, there is risk of injury. Hence the need for training, and where possible, protective equipment.

My point is that to boycott or ban sports due to risk of injury is naive. If there are upticks in injury, what other factors contribute. It has been said that sport today is faster, the hits harder than before. Yes, and the amount of performance enhancing drugs circulating in sports has risen dramatically.

i posted the interview with Bruce Lee for a reason. Martial arts is a form of creative expression. Fighting is natural. But it needs to be controlled and channelled. Removing philosophy from martial arts diminishes the art and craft of it.

in sport today, the camaraderie and the fair play that it is supposed to embody has been replaced by a win at all costs mentality. How many golds will we take in the games? That is the marker of our success. That also contributes to a mentality of faster, stronger, and yes even cheating.

As Catholics, our contribution to ethics should not be in facile moralizing but instead in talking about how ethics can be embedded as part of every aspect of human activity.

I don't think that it is simply the injury-risk of football (though that is hardly inconsiderable: when my son's neurosurgeon told us he could never play football, he added that he didn't thimk anyone should); rather, it's the combination of risk with exploitation and interminable profit-drive. Frankly, that should go for the ballet, as well, and lots of other like arts/sports (including the best: pro wrestling).

My prediction - the lawyers/insurance companis will end football on the pee wee and high school level thus starving the sport.  And good riddance to it.  Like boxing, it has lost its moral legitimacy.  But of course, it makes a lot of money for some people and provdes Americans with entertainment.  In our culture those realities provide all the moral authorization we need.

I know how to make professional football wither away in a matter of months.  Let the Hunger Games begin and may the odds be always in your favor.

There is no comparing the physical damage of ballet with brain damage diminishing the minds

I'm not sure I agree.  In both cases, you've severely damaged a body part so it no longer functions effectively.  So I'm not sure the moral case is different.  Though most of us would prefer a damaged limb over a damaged brain.

Ya think?

"He wouldn’t let his son play pro football."

If he had a son big and strong enough to play pro football, I like to see Obama try and stop him.

Stanly P Kopacz,  Or, we could popularize Jugger here in trhe US.

I would prefer Roller Ball or Running Man--fine sports, both.


Or Jai alai.

Over at On Faith, the chaplain of the New York Jets says, "Pound them for Jesus".

Men are weird.

For a book group I am currently reading (re-reading actually) Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and when I reached the bit about bullfighting at the festival in Pamplona, I immediately thought of football, and what might be the differences (moral or otherwise) between the two sports.

Not that I have any answers. I avoid football on TV mostly because it seems as if roughly two-thirds of the broadcasts are given over to stiflingly boring commercials.


Some people watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials. Cheerios will be advertised this year for the first time. They will show an interracial couple with an interracial child. Cheerios is celebrating this interracial marriage. I totally agree with this. Except, I am still suspicious of the motive. 

The Catholic Church famously sponsored youth boxing for many years, I believe under the theory that Marquis of Queensbury rules were better than street rules for youths who would fight in any case.  I just poked around on Google but didn't find any evidence that CYO boxing still exists today.  It did as recently as the 1970s.  


Surprised nobody has brought up Richard Sherman (if you don't know the it).


According to a now calm, composed, articulate, gentlemanly Sherman, football is:


"On the field we are playing a very barbaric sport, you can do as you please, That is when I take all my animosity, anger, and frustration on the field with disciplined football, sound football. It takes a different kind of person to turn that switch on and off and be the intense and focussed, angry human being to be successful in those environments....On the field I am everything I need to be to be a winner..."

I am not sure he is entirely accurate about that. He said what he did was in the lines of a football game.




Bruce Lee in an interview on art, philosophy, and sport. (I put this on my blog because I loved it so much)

If these comments by Brian Urlacher from a year or so ago are typical, then it seems that pro players are ruled by a sort of "morality of the arena" that sees knee injuries as worse than brain injuries.


Isn't there a big difference between a head injury and knee injury?

"Huge," Urlacher said. "Because a knee injury puts you out for a season, a concussion you may miss a game or two. Huge difference."

Then, he acknowledged the long-term impact of head injuries.

"That's why you have to judge," Urlacher said. "If you don't want to play if you get concussed, then don't play. It's your career. It's your life."


Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies. . . .

FWIW - voluntarily entering a risky profession like professional football, and subsequently suffering foreseeable and debilitating health problems, strikes me as roughly comparable to buying more house than can be afforded in a risky effort to make money, and then being foreclosed and evicted when the mortgage goes underwater.  Having health issues is a very bad thing, just as being without a home and buried in debt is a very bad thing.  In both cases, the "system", for good or ill, favors the big guy - respectively, the NFL and the financial behemoth that owns the mortgage.  

The word "victim" is applied to the little guy in both sets of circumstances.  In one sense, the word "victim" seems appropriate to describe a person whose health, or whose stability and creditworthiness, was severely damaged through no action of his/her own.  In another sense, though, they're not really victims.  If an airplane falls through my roof, I'm a victim.  If I stand in a busy intersection during rush hour and get hit by an SUV, it might be forgiveable if some people mutter, "It's his own fault".

Not taking sides here.   Just looking to highlight some of the ambiguity in figuring this out.


Jim - Not taking sides either, because I like my football. I'm also leaving the notion of "victim" out of this for now....

I guess my question continues to be: what is a fan's/viewer's complicity, if any, in the harm we know the participant suffers? Just because someone "knowingly" enters a risky venture or engages in risky behavior, does that free a nonparticipant to guiltlessly observe anything that may follow? To actively enjoy it? How reliably informed can players be expected to be, when, from the very first moment they step on a field, they are conditioned to ignore the risk and, at the professional level, also paid to do so -- in large part out of revenues generated through television? How does the transactional nature of viewing (or attending) games figure into the equation? Of merchandising? Of purchasing products advertised? I'm not sure I can think about this the way I think of people who make bad financial decisions; we don't tune in regularly to watch them throw money away, and they aren't coached, conditioned, and paid to continue throwing it away for our entertainment. I was taken with Almond's phrase "moral queasiness," but I feel it's only a starting point for the debate. So what might an ethicist have to say about it? 

Dominic - I think it's difficult to analyze the fans' complicity.  I suspect most fans don't watch football in order to witness injuries.  To try to get some help thinking about it, I googled "ethics of football injuries".  Several of the articles referred to this New Yorker piece from a few years ago by Malcolm Gladwell:

Gladwell invites us to compare football to two other 'entertainment' pasttimes, dog fighting and NASCAR.  NASCAR, he points out, had four fatalities the year that Dale Earnhardt was killed, and in response, enacted a number of safety measures, some of them probably pretty expensive, that have cut down fatalities to pretty much none.  

I guess my own view is that football is more like NASCAR than dog fighting, and the path for football is to follow the NASCAR playbook.  As with NASCAR, fans don't watch primarily to encourage injuries; they watch to see their team score touchdowns and prevent the other team from scoring touchdowns.  The ball can be run or thrown and caught past the goal line under rules that are lenient or restrictive with regard to injury-inducing behavior, and with equipment that is relatively more or less restrictive but safe.  I think our ethical responsibility as fans is to insist that player safety is a primary concern; that we expect the NFL to take measures to make the game progressively safer; and to let the NFL know that we will punish it if we sense that it is making player safety subordinate to the profit motive.


Is it logical to used the terms "ethics" and "pro football" in the same sentence? 


"Cheerios is celebrating this interracial marriage. I totally agree with this. Except, I am still suspicious of the motive."

And the motives of any commercial are above suspicion?  They have one and one purpose only:  sales.  If sacrificing virgins would sell breakfast cereal, they cry of "freedom of speech" would be trotted out so fast it would make your ethics quiver.

A key factor going forward will be if people stop signing their kids up to play pee-wee and other youth league football.  I played high school football forty years ago and had to have a parent sign for me then.  In light of the long term injuries that have come to light, I doubt my parents would have signed the permission slips.  It may take time but I think a large numer of parents are going to move their kids away from the game at an early age, and that will in the end reduce the popularity of the sport.

As someone who played the game, I have mixed feeling about this, but I think the medical evidence will just keep mounting and over time the public will move away from the game.

Joseph Bierman - I don't doubt you're right.  In the suburban area where I live, pee-wee age boys play organized soccer, baseball and basketball in greater numbers than organized football.  High school football teams around here, though, still get a lot of boys on the team.*  

Your comment raises an interesting question: the connection between playing football and being a fan of football.  It's possible that, even if the number of boys who participate in football declines precipitously over the next couple of generations, the NFL will still draw a large number of fans who simply want to watch football.  But I suspect you're right, and  there is some sort of connection between playing football and watching football, and if the one declines, the other also will decline.  I believe boxing, which at one time was one of the most popular sports in the US, is a precedent in this respect.

* FWIW, as an occasional prep football fan, I've noticed that the middle-class, upper-middle-class and upper-class suburban high schools have more boys on the football team than the poor and working-class schools.  Sometimes the disparity in numbers of athletes is pretty substantial: I've looked across the field to see teams with fewer than 20 athletes standing on the sidelines while the offensive or defensive unit is on the field; such teams barely have the numbers to be able to platoon.  Surely this is not the pattern that held true in my dad's and grandfather's day, when working-class, ethnic players from Chicago populated all those great Notre Dame teams for Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.  My supposition is that this is one small bit of evidence of the slow dissolution of working class and poor society: dads surely are extremely influential in guiding their sons into organized football; and I would guess that communities with high levels of parental involvement are more likely to have active football programs.  I believe the latter factor is a major reason why Catholic high schools do so well in football around here.


Ann O. pointed to this:  ‘Over at On Faith, the chaplain of the New York Jets says, "Pound them for Jesus" ‘.

This is not too far off from this:

Which, if any, was said with tongue in cheek?

If you read this you might come to believe that neither was said in jest:

OK, you conservatives, here's one for you.  But I must say I really like this article by Fr. Longenecker.  It doesn' answer our question, but maybe the question doesn't need to be answered?  Hmmm


Sport and the Uselessness of Worship - The Imaginative Conservative

Here's another basic question about sports  -- should we pray to win? The question elicits some deep ethical and metaphysical problems.  It really does.  Deep but trivial? Like "Is it ethical to watch football?"

Some people say that you shouldn't pray for your team, and that God doesn't care who wins. Here's why they're wrong...

I find Frankovich to be dead wrong. The philosophical issue is what is the character development aspect of sport. And as any good coach will say (and has said!), it has nothing to do with the score:

Friday Night Lights

Well I want you to understand somethin'. To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends.

Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn't let them down, because you told them the truth. And that truth is that you did everything that you could. There wasn't one more thing that you could've done.

Can you live in that moment, as best you can, with clear eyes and love in your heart? With joy in your heart?

If you can do that gentlement you'll be perfect

Hoosiers Inspirational Speech

And most important, don't get caught up thinking about winning or loosing this game. If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book we're gonna be winners!


That, it seems to me, is the "Catholic" perspective!


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