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.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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