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.