Ethics Dunces: NFL Football Fans

FOOTBALL FANSIn response to a question in a newly released CNN poll, a majority of football fans responded that the fact that the NFL intentionally withheld from its players evidence that repeated  concussions were inevitable despite the supposed protection provided by equipment, and that this would lead in many cases to devastating premature cognitive damage to players which would leave them disabled, depressed, violent, demented and/or suicidal until their early deaths didn’t trouble them at all, as long as they got their weekly Sunday football fix.

All right, that’s unfair. The results actually just showed that only 36% of respondents think that the NFL’s handling of the concussion issue has caused them to view the pro football league less favorably. No, on second thought, it’s not unfair at all.

I’m sure the NFL honchos who are determined to keep their billion dollar profit machine purring away, powered by the game’s consumption of the minds and bodies of young men lured by a short-term bonanza of fame and bucks, are whooping it up in their park Avenue suites. Yup, they did it! They have successfully converted much of America into crass, blood-thirsty sadists who are only different in degree from the Romans who cheered on Nero’s various bloodsports.

This morning I watched the sickening spectacle of CNN anchor Carol Costello and a male correspondent giggling and beaming over the disturbing poll results: isn’t it funny that Americans see nothing wrong with paying to watch athletes maim each other, whether they really understand what’s happening to them or not? Another part of the poll revealed that most fans believe players intentionally injuring each other was “just part of the game.” Costello and her colleague seemed to agree. Carol, whom I rank as a smug, shallow and biased journalist with delusions of competence, even offered this rationalization for the fan’s apathy, and hers as well: most of the players have their faces covered, and other than the quarterback and a couple of others, they don’t really know who  is turning their brains to mush for our enjoyment, right? So that explains why they don’t give a fig if these anonymous dupes end up on a slab at the age 0f 50.


This past week marked the publication of “League of Denial,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, the same sports journalists who exposed the PED abuse by Barry Bonds. The book lays out a level of greed-driven deception by the NFL indistinguishable from that of iconic corporate villains like the tobacco companies, the asbestos manufacturers, Enron and others. In his review of the book for the Washington Post, ex-player Nate Jackson writes,

“And never do I remember even a cursory discussion of head injuries. Our athletic trainers never brought up the subject. Our team doctors didn’t, either. Our trainers and doctors gave us one talk a year, at the beginning of training camp. They told us to report our injuries, to show up on time for treatment sessions and to make sure we passed the drug tests. This was guidance intended to keep us using our heads on the field — not off….The NFL sells violent entertainment but keeps it nice and tidy. Networks cut to a commercial when the actors start dripping blood. As long as no one sees it, there are no consequences: There is only the next play…. [Meanwhile] dead football players’ brains were being sliced open; diseases discovered; connections made; foundations and partnerships formed; academic papers published, republished, debunked, rewritten; grants awarded; more brains sliced; lawyers hired; and lines in the sand drawn over and over again between those at war over football brain damage. This debate was going on somewhere else, far away from those of us on the field. And whoever was involved didn’t think we needed to know. This book was depressing for me to read and extremely difficult to get through. Not because of the quality of the work — it is meticulously researched, artfully structured, engaging and well written. It is depressing because of the conclusion, which is fairly simple: Football causes CTE, and CTE causes severe cognitive impairment, including dementia and depression. For those affected, life unravels.”

And the reaction of football fans to all this, according to CNN’s poll? “DeFENCE! DeFENSE! Pass the Cheetos!” You have corrupted America well, NFL. You have earned your billions.

Some sportswriters are getting edgy; perhaps this is a good sign. Thomas Boswell of the Post wrote a recent piece aggregating the ugly aspects of NFL culture: thugs and felons among the players, racist bullying in the locker rooms, intentional injuries with coaches paying bounties to those who inflict them, cheating, drug use, sexual harassment, and, of course, ex-players shooting themselves in the chest so their brains can be autopsied. He pronounced himself, a lifetime fan, conflicted and troubled:

“If the NFL doesn’t alter its culture, it won’t be “America’s game” forever. Pro football isn’t going away any more than prize fighting has died. But status among sports can change — a lot. Is the NFL already so violent and infatuated with its own wealth that its phenomenal success will handicap it in facing the breadth and depth of its problems and prevent it from properly protecting its long-term future? On Thursday night, I’ll still be watching. What my late father and I didn’t know when we cheered the sport we had both played was that, someday, a game that linked generations would also be the source of so many ugly questions. Like millions, I grew up as pro football grew up. It has been part of my life. But in time, I can gradually change.”

Maybe. I hope so. Perhaps that 60% who don’t care if their money and attention underwrites a game that cripples and kills young men will gradually come down, with more athletes sacrificed in the process, of course. At this point, however, the CNN poll leads to the conclusion that it is the NFL that has changed us, and not for the better.

[  Ethics Alarms posts on this topic are here, herehere, here, and here.]


Sources: CNN, Washington Post 1, 2

Graphic: Dallas News

8 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces: NFL Football Fans

  1. I remember when it was posited that so many young pople were playing soccer that when they reached adulthood, they would prefer that to either football or baseball. I don’t think that is happening, although I know that soccer, as a youth sport, is growing rapidly. I suspect that the diffrence is a spectator sport rather than a participatory one. What made football rich was television, the same medium that glorifies violence on a daily basis. When watching football on television, particularly on the distance shots, I think there is a tendency not to see the players as individuals, but just as images on a screen. Hence, the violence perpetrated there is little different than the violence seen on regular televison so-called drama shows. As a youth sports official, I do know that the number of kids–some as young as six–who are playing youth football has not dimished much in the last five years. [I also know that many parents see their kid as the furture multi-million dollar NFL player; you woldn’t believe how often I hear from the sidelines “HIT SOMEBODY.”] How long the NFL will endure I don’t know, but as the rules change to make it less dangerous, I suspect that its popularity will decrease. But it will, I think, be a very, very slow process.

    • And those MMA ‘Ultimate Fight’ type fights where anything goes, and they kick each other in the heads and stomp on each other. How violent does professional sports have to get before it’s uncomfortable to watch?

      • I am with both of you, Beth and crella, about MMA and boxing. The older I get, and the more I watch American football, the closer I get to refusing to watch it. Actual war is one thing; the incorporation of the actual damages of actual war, and the preponderance of those damages, in what I believe an ethical spectator may rightfully presume to be a “field of friendly strife,” drive me to conclude that continuing to watch such competition is unethical.

      • Side note, MMA fights are actually less likely than boxing or football to produce lasting injury (generally). Most MMA fights are ended as soon as a fighter is unable to defend himself. A boxer knocked to the canvas has a 10 count to get up and start getting punched in the face again, a football player who gets his bell rung can shamble to the sideline for a breather then charge back out. An MMA figher who takes a single good shot and falls with his arms down is immediately stopped.

  2. I was struck by the parallels to the Roman gladiators, Jack. Of the two, modern football fans and the gladiatorial combat fans, I prefer the latter. At least the fans in the coliseums were honest enough to admit what it was they were looking for. The gladiatorial fans had a point. The combatants lived well, and were even pampered, by the standards of the day. If they died young, well, so did an awful lot of people. Modern football players also live pampered lives. But,by modern standards, a lot more pro-football players than actuarial tables would predict (relatively young, fit, no history of illness) are ending up in early graves. But, the modern fans prefer to ignore, and even to deny, the carnage that they allow to be carried out, in their own homes, on game day. Yet,either way, men were (and are) dying for the amusement of others.

  3. Ethics dunces: Alabama fans who gave death threats to the kicker who failed to kick the winning goal. We aren’t a third world nation that plays wretched soccer. Quit hanging your life worth on sports lest you wake up some day liking soccer and tin pot dictators.

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