Player Dementia and the Fan’s Dilemma: Is Watching N.F.L. Football Unethical?

It is Sunday, and much of America is ready to settle in front of millions of  wide-screen, high-definition television sets to watch Sunday’s favorite entertainment: NFL football. The last thing football fans want to think about today is ethics, and today, perhaps, they shouldn’t have to. Although we are not there yet, the time is fast approaching when not only football fans, but the companies that buy commercials, the merchandisers that sell NFL-licensed jerseys and posters, the TV networks, and the nation itself may have to consider a difficult ethics question: is supporting pro-football unethical?

The NFL has begun to stir memories of the tobacco companies. For decades, cigarette-makers denied that their product was addictive and dangerous, challenging extensive studies that showed cigarette smokers at unacceptably higher risks of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. The dishonesty reached an infamous pinnacle when a panel of cigarette executives raised their right hands in Congress to swear that nicotine was not addictive. Now, as a major study commissioned by the NFL confirms what other studies and anecdotal evidence have long suggested, that NFL players suffer premature dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease at a vastly increased rate over the rest of the population, the league is doing its best Phillip Morris imitation. When the study results were released in September, the NFL’s spokesman, Greg Aiello, cautioned that it did not formally diagnose dementia, that the survey methodology was flawed, and that “there are thousands of retired players who do not have memory problems.”

Just like there are millions of smokers who die from traffic accidents, diabetes, or old age. The denial theme continued in Congress, as NFL. Commissioner Goodell stuck to the company line in hearings before Congress, refusing to confirm that there was a link between the repeated head-bashing that is to pro football what frustration is to golf. Doctors, the players’ union, former players and others told a different story: the studies probably understate the prevalence of mental illness and cognitive disease among former players, because the ex-players are proud and don’t want anyone to know that a former football hero is disabled and disoriented.

Goodell told Congress that the NFL’s first concern was the players’ safety, and that it was looking at equipment and rules changes to address head trauma concerns. This is so disingenuous. The league is doubtlessly concerned about safety, but it is primarily concerned about money, just like the players on the field who refuse to report their concussions are more concerned about money in the present than mental incapacity in the future. The NFL sells violence, and always has. Watch any NFL. promotional film, with its close-ups of 300 pound behemoths charging into each other like rival big-horned sheep. It is absurd to suggest that the sport can, or would, choose to eliminate head trauma, when the sport’s primary appeal comes from the same source as the injuries. Professional hockey could ban fighting, but it doesn’t, because the fighting is what many of its fans want to see. Football is no different.

If the studies are accurate, as they almost certainly are, if pro-football players suffer debilitating brain trauma-related illness 19 times or more the national average, and if nothing the game’s management can do will significantly lower that rate, professional football will be on the same ethical footing as professional boxing, with spectators paying to see athletes cripple each other. It is worse than that, in fact: as with boxing, spectators, corporations, merchandisers, networks and the teams will be inducing players to exchange their future health and welfare for cash and fame, so America can have its Sunday spectacle and Super Bowl parties.

I am absolutely certain that when it becomes clear that this is the case, many sports fans, probably a majority, won’t care, just as polls show that many baseball fans would be happy to watch steroid-inflated sluggers break home-run records for their viewing pleasure, even if the accumulated effects of the drugs killed the players before they reached 65. “It’s their choice,” is the popular rationalization. It’s their choice, just as it is the choice of models and Hollywood starlets to diet themselves sick so that magazines will put them on the covers and movie producers will pronounce them “hot;” just like it is the choice of fading celebrities like Danny Bonaduce, Anna Nicole Smith, Corey Haim or Scott Baio to subject themselves to public humiliation on reality shows so they can continue to draw paychecks.

It is a choice like the barroom drunk’s choice to dance for laughing patrons who promise to buy him a drink. It’s a choice like an addicted smoker choosing to purchase a pack of cigarettes. Professional  football players have been created in a culture that trains them only to play football. They have no choice.

For its part, the NFL. can be counted on to avoid the issue long enough to cripple a whole generation of players, by installing new equipment and attempting to detect concussions and then waiting to see how these effect the statistics in new studies, which they will challenge too. Congress will hold hearings, but it’s not going to force the NFL to ban head-banging in all its on-field forms like it was able to pressure baseball to get serious about steroid-testing. Baseball doesn’t need steroids; steroids hurts that game. Pro football without helmets crashing into each other isn’t pro football.

Simply put, it is wrong to pay money to persuade people to permanently damage themselves for our entertainment. No fight fan can watch Muhammad Ali today, recalling his nimble wit and amusing patter, and not feel complicity in his current near-mute condition, the result of being induced to box after his skills were eroded by time. When we know, and players know, that playing football in the NFL is going to lead to premature dementia for a significant number of players who will accept the risk if the money is right, can we ethically continue to provide that money?

As I stated at the beginning, football fans don’t have to face this ethical dilemma today, but the time is coming. Personally, I’m convinced. I’m not watching one more NFL broadcast or using any of my money to encourage healthy athletes to risk their brains for a couple of hours of weekend amusement.

15 thoughts on “Player Dementia and the Fan’s Dilemma: Is Watching N.F.L. Football Unethical?

  1. It’s probably not relevant to the ethics, but for me, the biggest injustice is that just about every baseball player gets paid more than even star players like Tom Brady. Baseball players play many more games, but they’re not always on the field like in football, and not in constant physical peril. But I don’t really like sports that much anyway. (I really don’t like the snobbery that says that rugby is somehow better than football because they don’t wear armor. How is the greater possibility of getting injured beneficial?)

  2. You’ll see that disparity change, for a while, anyway, when the NFL salary cap disappears in the off-season. It’s all rules and marketplace—remember that there are only 25 players on a baseball roster, and that baseball players have longer careers generally, which lets the salaries rise. Though people don’t like to admit it, baseball is just harder than football. How many baseball players come right out of college and are stars? None, really.
    There are more players capable of playing NFL football at any given time than there are players who can hold down a MLB roster spot.

  3. Once again you’re making us uncomfortable. Long ago boxing began to turn my stomach. Then hockey. I still enjoy football,especially college, although the fake amateurism troubles me. You’ve crystallized the ethical issue in football. I think I won’t be able to enjoy it much longer.

  4. Talk about on topic! I was watching my Donkeys with my wife and the topic of concussion came up. I told her that if a player got 1 concussion, they should probably never play again, but they do play again and end up with 4 or 5 or however many they want to have until they can’t perform or someone with a medical degree withholds consent.

    This is definitely a hot topic. Chris Nowitzki, of WWE fame, is a Harvard grad and gave up the WWE when he got a concussion. He then started a study of head trauma and dementia. Chris Benoit is one of the prime examples of how head trauma is so much more than amnesia.

  5. The thing is, it’s not all that new. Bryant Gumbel did a heartbreaking profile on the wives of several ex-NFL players who became invalids, insane, abusive or depressed as the result of head injuries. I see no indication that the fans care about the issue, and all the player’s union will do is agitate for better health benefits. Congress wouldn’t dare mess with football. Who will step up to do anything substantive about this?

  6. Jack,
    As in most cases, I can’t help but agree with your point that football is indeed barbaric, dangerous, and a general waste of time (at least for me); however, it seems wholly unfair to classify it as “unethical” outright.

    Like it or not, sports (and especially dangerous ones) have been with us since the beginning of time. For whatever reason, humans have an innate desire to see great feats of athleticism and skill, even at the detriment of others, and that’s unlikely to change. Moreover, you’d be hard-pressed to find any sport today which doesn’t involve and elevated risk of some kind of injury. Swimmers run increased risks of arthritis, tennis players often suffer from a variety of tendon issues, the list goes on. The sad fact is that to really excel at ANY physical activity, athletes are forced to push themselves and their bodies to extremes.

    Idiotic? Maybe; but life itself is a calculated risk and one that each of us takes just by getting out of bed every morning. Is it unethical for someone to take a job in construction, even though he has a higher risk of serious injury? Or for someone else to take a job in waste disposal despite the heightened risk of contracting disease? What about firefighters? While it might be tempting to argue that these are “necessary” jobs while professional football isn’t; except that they’re only necessary because we deem them to be.

    Quite simply put, life is a choice (or at least maintaining it is), and it seems wholly unfair to label sports players or their fans as being unethical simply because they’ve chosen a career which you or I may find abhorrent. And, since we’re on the subject, despite years of obfuscation and lies on the part of big tobacco, most people (even smokers) are aware of the health risks associated with long-term tobacco use, and yet they do it anyway. Frankly, I can’t see any feasible way to completely protect people, even from themselves, and still claim that we live in a free society.

    Or am I wrong?


  7. Unlike Mr. Dorr, I find several things unethical about football (and many other sports).
    •To begin with, not admitting the damage it is doing is unethical. The players can’t make an educated decision if they are not told the true risks
    • Secondly, anyone play pro football almost certainly played in junior high and high school, when they were a minor (unless they
    were some kind of Jeff Foxworthy joke). Submitting children to such a high risk of brain damage can hardly be called ethical. You could argue that if an adult wants to do something that they know can cause long-term disability, it is their right to be stupid, but you would be hard pressed to make that argument for a 12-year old.
    •Third, it requires physicians to be unethical. When all the risks come out, it will be impossible for a physician to realistically clear a player with multiple concussions to play again. The NFL isn’t going to say “We don’t care, we make our players play against doctor’s orders”, they will find physicians willing to lie.

  8. I think the kinds of injuries we are talking about with football related head-trauma is different in kind from most athletics-related maladies. Basketball and tennis wrecks the knees, and baseball pitchers’ arms hurt, but I put this in the category of writers getting carpel tunnel syndrome…job-related injuries that are treatable and that don’t significantly reduce the quality of life, except in extreme cases. Death and brain injury, like steroid-related cancers and heart problems, are something else entirely. It’s wrong to pay money that induces someone to take unreasonable risks.

  9. We should distinguish among football, boxing, and hockey. Hockey tolerates physical assaults with the stick, which should be cause for expulsion. Boxing has as its PRIMARY objective brain injury that causes the opponent’s brain to stop working, at least temporarily. Head injuries in football aren’t the point of the game. I’d hope that the NCAA and the NFL will own up to the problem and do what they can to alleviate them.

    I’ll give them some time to do this before finally branding the sport as unethical.

  10. That’s fair, Bob. Fair, but futile: as I suggested in the post, the mechanic of the game and the physics of steroid-fed 350 pound young men blocking, tackling, and knocking into each other at high speeds make head trauma inevitable. This is why the NFL has avoided admitting the issue, I think, because there IS no solution short of testing players for head trauma and de-certifying them for play after even one serious concussion. Realistically, do you see a billion dollar indistry permitting that? I agree that it’s fair to wait, except that the end result, in my view is not in doubt.

  11. Pingback: Super Sunday Ethics: Tim Tebow’s Pro-Life Superbowl Ad « Ethics Alarms

  12. To call watching football absolutely unethical is a gross exaggeration. Players due not play because they are forced to as you suggest, they love the game. Brett Favre finally retires last year after how long? He did not need money; he loved the game of football. If I could be paid millions to do something that I love the choice would be simple. Of course an immense salary is a great incentive to subject yourself to possible injury but, players understand the risk involved and as such they assume that risk when they step onto the field. Beyond that the NFL has made changes to protect its players. There are rules regarding helmet type and construction as well as a rule against helmet to helmet contact. Is it unethical to support our military because men and women are given a signing bonus to enlist even though that may lead to an early death?

    • I never said, nor do I believe, that watching football is “absolutely unethical.” I said that it is unethical to contribute money if it induces other human beings to cripple themselves. I did not say they are forced to play the game…obviously they choose to. Boxers love boxing too, and that love causes a lot of them to be cripples before their time.

      I wrote how fans would react; you just illustrated what I predicted. Risk in sport is natural and unavoidable, but the head trauma in the NFL goes far beyond that. I don’t need or want to repeat what I wrote…it’s true, and most physicians would agree that it’s true. What you are saying, bottom line, is that if athletes are willing to entertain you now, for the right price, at the cost of being mentally disabled and a burden on their families prematurely, you’re eager and willing to let them do it. I’m not. You tell me which is the more humane and responsible position.

  13. Even more disturbing, I think, is that the crimes of abusive players (Ray Rice is one of many) are covered up (or downplayed until a video emerges–as if a text description wasn’t sufficient), so that ticket sales and a team’s won-loss record doesn’t suffer.

    • Except that your comment doesn’t apply to Ray Rice, since one video was released immediately and the existence of this one was 1) known and 2) unnecessary. Is there another instance you have in mind? Off hand, I can’t think of one in which there was a cover-up until a video was found.

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