Ethics Dunce: Sportswriter Jason Reid

I really don’t care how bad you feel, Jason.

In designating national sportswriter Jason Reid an Ethics Dunce because of his sensitive, thoughtful, brave but ultimately unethical column this morning, I don’t intend to suggest that his ethical failing is unusual, or noteworthy for any reason other than the fact that it is universal.

Sometimes we are all like Jason Reid, I think. We all engage in conduct that we suspect is wrong, but we enjoy it. Gradually, truth breaks through our denial and we cannot avoid the conclusion that the conduct is wrong; still, despite the fact that we do not believe human beings should willfully do wrong, we persist in the conduct.

Because we enjoy it.

Reid’s column is titled “Seay’s Death Forces Uncomfortable Questions For Football Fans,” referring to the recent suicide death of former NFL star Junior Seau, the second suicide of a former pro football star in recent weeks. The uncomfortable question is the same one I raised on Ethics Alarms in November of 2009, which tells you how many NFL fans read ethics blogs. I wrote then,

“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?”

Sportswriters don’t read ethics blogs either, so in May of 2012, Reid has decided that this and related questions need asking. So he writes..

“How much responsibility does the football-loving public share in the physical devastation endured by players? We revel in highlight-tape hits, yet we know the object of our delight leads to life-destroying pain. Each time we applaud young men for knocking heads with reckless abandon, we’re possibly dooming them to early death, or a life so miserable they will be driven to end it by their own hand. With everything we now know about how the body responds to the NFL workplace, continuing to support the league has become a question of morals. Ticket-buying, television-watching fans provide the fuel for the professional sports’ second-to-none money-making machine (the league generates about $9 billion annually in revenue)… Although most of us may choose not to admit it, the violence is one of the league’s biggest lures. That’s what many of us crave. In a sense, we’re like the ancient Romans. Essentially, NFL players are modern gladiators. In front of huge crowds, they fight each other for the public’s entertainment, at great peril to their health…. So are we no better than the bloodthirsty crowds that filled the Colosseum?”

Reid concludes that the unavoidable answer is no. He nods to the popular rationalization that nobody forces the players to accept millions to cripple themselves, and, properly, discards it:

“But does that absolve those of us screaming from the bleachers? To be more painfully specific, does it absolve me, who has spent much of my career not only watching NFL games, but profiting from them? My work as a beat reporter, and now as a columnist, helps glorify the thrill of a violent sport, and perpetuates the economic engine that fuels it. I still can’t shake the unsettling feeling that it’s wrong for me to contribute to something I know inflicts so much pain on others, some of whom I count among my friends.”

It’s wrong for me to contribute to something I know inflicts so much pain on others, some of whom I count among my friends. That is what Reid concludes from his analysis, as he should. It is wrong. How could it be otherwise? Here is what I concluded after a similar analysis in the 2009  post:

“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.”

It is true that I don’t make my living covering football, while Reid does. On the other hand, his complicity in the injury of players is much greater than mine, for he actively promotes the game, while I am a barely perceptible blip in the NFL’s ratings statistics. Having established the harm, the moral and ethical wrongness and his own accountability in the NFL’s profitable human carnage, what is Reid’s decision concerning his future? This:

“I’ll continue to watch…but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel good about it. Or that I should.”

A human and common reaction that we call can identify with, but ethically and logically indefensible. Feeling guilty is not an ethical act, and feeling bad about your actions while you continue to do it merely eliminates the mitigating explanation that you didn’t know that what you were doing was hurting anyone. Reid has decided that what he is doing is harming people, and he’s going to keep on doing it. But he wants us to know that he’s going to hate himself in the morning.

You know Jason, there is no purpose in asking yourself uncomfortable questions if you are going to ignore the answers. There is no virtue in deciding that what you have been doing is wrong, and then to keep on doing it.

That only makes the conduct worse.


Source: Associated Press

Graphic: Washingtonian

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

3 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Sportswriter Jason Reid

  1. If being a football player is so dangerous a job that it’s unconscionable to watch NFL games than you must also give up living in a house using electricity and eating fish. If you don’t than the blood of all those construction workers, coal miners and fishermen that are killed or physically ruined by their work is on your hands.

    On a related note, I’m always amazed at what past generations were able to accomplish, fighting 2 world wars, inventing the airplane, walking on the moon, ect. Unfortunately modern day Americans are completely incapable of doing anything like that in large part because of our obsession with safety.

    • Please. Your analogy is flawed untilitarian nonsense. We need electricy. We need to win wars. We need to eat. We need entertainment,but there are thousands of kinds of entertainment, and many sports, that do not require paying young men to give up the last 3-4 decades of their life to pain and dementia,

  2. Wow. Reid wrote so compellingly. Until the very end of his piece. He even cited Muhammad Ali – the primary case in point for why I ceased watching boxing, and ceased saying a single positive thing about boxing, except about the benefits of donning gloves and punching bags, instead of other persons.

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