At a recent conference, a physician panelist discussing NFL player head injuries said that if the average NFL player walked into a doctor’s office for a typical checkup, he’d be rushed immediately to a hospital for treatment.
The fact is slowly dawning on NFL management, the players and the public that pro football, indeed all football, is even more dangerous than everyone thought, and that normal, accepted play may still routinely cripple players in the worst possible place: their brains. The problem, ethical as well as medical, is that no one knows whether the sport can fix the problem and still be what fans regard as NFL pro football. It is a medical problem, because the data increasingly indicates that serious head trauma and long-term disability is frighteningly common. It is an ethical dilemma, because the very aspect of football that many of its fans most relish—the bone-crushing violence—is leaving players unacceptably vulnerable to depression, memory loss, personality disorders, rage, dementia, and suicide.
This was demonstrated by a strange policy being floated by the league. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants the NFL to reduce the number of offseason workouts teams are permitted to hold and restrict the amount of hitting done by players in practices during training camp, and even the regular season, emphasizing that the proposed measures are designed to limit the number of concussions suffered by players. When a professional sport’s idea of a safety policy is “play less of the sport,” it tells us something, much like President Clinton’s famous pledge to try to keep abortions “safe, legal and rare.” An activity that needs to be rare is one that requires constant examination regarding whether it is worth doing at all, given the costs.
Interestingly, the NFL’s concussion problems have flushed out the blood-thirsty among us. After the League instituted strict rules that fined players for especially vicious hits, many players, writers and fans complained that sport would “not be football” under such limitations, and was turning into “a sissy game.” A Rush Limbaugh caller noted that like it or not, NFL fans were like Romans cheering gladiatorial combat. They wanted to see people hurt, he said, and the players were paid so highly for their four or five years of play in part to compensate for the fact that they wouldn’t be able to count to ten or remember their careers by the time they were 60. Limbaugh agreed, calling it “the ‘chickafication’ of football.”
Will the NFL be able to maintain its popularity if it seriously reduces the violence of the game to reduce concussions? I have no idea. The more intriguing question is whether the NFL will have the courage to make changes in its game to protect the brains of players regardless of whether the public supports it or not. If, as some suspect, no improvements to the helmets can guarantee that one 340 pound lineman’s head smashing into another’s won’t cause either or both to be in diapers by 55, the game will have to be changed radically—if, that is, the NFL has the requisite courage and responsibility to do it. Some have even suggested reducing permissible padding and returning to leather helmets, on the theory that the less protected players are, the less likely they are to butt heads. The data suggests that head injuries increased with the introduction of the more protective helmets, because they allowed players to use their helmets as weapons.
I confess that I have always regarded pro football as a somewhat unethical sport precisely because so much of its appeal is based on the enjoyment of watching men hurt each other; just as many auto racing fans watch for the crashes, and many hockey fans watch for the fights. Nevertheless, I think most fans assumed that the on-field violence they so enjoyed caused temporary, rather than crippling injuries. When the time comes, as it well may, to choose between a “chickafied” NFL or to continue to knowingly pay young men to ruin the rest of their lives for the amusement of fans seeking bloodsport, what will the choice be?
I won’t leave that question hanging unanswered: I can say what the choice should be. It is unethical to pay people enough to persuade them to cripple themselves, and then cheer the process whereby they get crippled. Chickafied football may not be as much fun to watch, but it is more ethical, by a touchdown.
[You can read a previous Ethics Alarms post on this topic here.]