Is Watching Football Unethical?

Junior Seau’s death raises a question that’s going to gather momentum over the next few months: are we, the audience, partly to blame for football’s brutality?

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In 2006, former defensive back Andre Waters shot himself in the head. In 2010, University of Pennsylvania defensive end and captain Owen Thomas hung himself. In 2011, former safety Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest. A little over a week ago, former safety Ray Easterling shot himself. And yesterday, former linebacker Junior Seau shot himself in the chest.

We know for certain that, whatever their reasons for deciding to take their lives, the first three of these players suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a degenerative brain disease often referred to as post-concussion syndrome. Waters’ brain tissue resembled that of an 85-year-old man when he died at age 44; Thomas had CTE even though he died at 21. A conclusive diagnosis of Easterling has yet to be made, but for the last 20 years he had suffered from depression, insomnia, and, more recently, dementia.

All five men played football at its highest level. And football is a violent and abrasive game, the most popular spectator sport in the country. It might be killing people. We all agree on these things, right? We do. So, now what?

1. Do we acknowledge that these players are choosing to play of their own free will, and that they’re being compensated well for the risks they’re taking, and keep watching what is an exciting and complex form of entertainment?

Or:

2. Do we accept that football is the contemporary equivalent of gladiator combat, and that it is killing young men slowly, and that our loyalty condones this and makes it not only acceptable but also wildly profitable?

Both of these are true, in many ways. Nobody is being forced to play in the NFL, but at the same time, America has made the NFL what it is. And many players love playing football; think about the college kids in Division II, playing in front of tiny crowds for their own edification. Or the high school kids. Or middle school. Pop Warner.

Why are we letting children play this game?

Should we let children play this game?

Football might be among the greatest ethical quandaries of the 21st century. Here we are, worshipping a sport that destroys brains because of a fundamental flaw in the nature of the game. And the greatest governing body in the sport, the NFL, obfuscates the problem on a regular basis.

Case in point: Bountygate. Horrors upon horrors were revealed when the league announced that Saints players had received cash bonuses, handed down by their defensive coordinator with the knowledge of the team’s GM and head coach, for injuring opponents. Fines were levied, and suspensions doled out on an unprecedented scale. The NFL seemed almost gleeful in how enthusiastically it approached this punishment. Here’s why: Bountygate helped shift the blame. All of a sudden, we could point at the problem, the excessive violence, and say it’s all because of these guys; let’s just root them out, and it’ll be fine. Put Jonathan Vilma on the sidelines for a year. Keep Sean Payton away from those players.

Sorry, but Bountygate’s a farce. Bounties had no functional effect on how the players played the game, as was revealed when the Wall Street Journal discovered that there had been no more penalties lobbied against the Saints than against other teams during that time. Whether you’re rewarding them or not, part of the object of football is for defenders to legally remove offensive players from the game. It’s in the fabric of the sport.

Bountygate plays right into another myth of the NFL that the league perpetuates, in which offensive players are virtuous and defensive players are heels. All of the Bountygate violators played defense. The defenders are the ones who supposedly bring violence upon others. In culture, we praise those who advance and are suspicious of those who stymie progress. Offenses advance; defenses stymie progress. And by enabling this narrative, the NFL has a way to piss on the fire when one defensive player after another kills himself.

See, it’s the defenders, givers of the hits, are the ones who seem to suffer the steady, constant erosion of the mind that comes from constantly putting your head into objects. I’m not saying offensive players are less at risk, but this is the thing: the hits aren’t the problems in and of themselves. It’s the accumulation of contact over years, and when you’re a skill-position player — the ones Bountygate supposedly endangers — you’re only getting hit so often. Linemen on both sides of the ball and defenders using themselves as missiles — these are the guys who develop CTE. Or, these are the guys who we know develop CTE, because they keep turning up dead.

Bountygate wasn’t the NFL dealing with the problem. It was the league avoiding it. And until they admit that some fundamental aspect of the game needs to change — until Greg Schiano isn’t being embarrassed for suggesting that we eliminate kickoffs to make things safer — they need to be held at fault. As spectators, we are attached to what’s happening to these guys, on and off the field. We have to care about the potential consequences of what they’re doing for our entertainment.

So what’s our role in all this? We are either the catalysts, enabling this self-destruction, or we’re just along for the ride. The fact that everyone got so upset over Bountygate leads me to believe that, as a group, we, not unlike the NFL, like to think that we’re passive bystanders in all this. But that’s dishonest. We can feel the guilt nipping at us; we just aren’t ready to confront what dealing with that guilt might mean.

It seems to me that the issue of ethics in watching the NFL comes down to our desire for change. The responsibility of the viewer is to put pressure on the league to make the game safer, however that might be. We don’t know that it can be done, but we also don’t know that it can’t, and the NFL’s audience needs to require some kind of honest effort from Goodell and company instead of this smokescreen bullshit. The game is not static. It’s certainly not dogma. And if the NFL won’t address the sport’s systemic flaws, then we will continue to be complicit if we ingest what they’re feeding us each Sunday.

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