Ethics Quote of the Week : NPR Sports Commentator Frank Deford On Football, Values and Brains


“A new study shows that almost one-third of NFL players will suffer long-term cognitive problems. Granted, that’s professionals, but obviously younger brains are at jeopardy on all gridirons. What mother or father can any longer willfully allow a son to play such a game with such odds? Verdict: Football is dangerous to your brain.”

NPR Sports commentator Frank Deford, in his weekly commentary, this time focusing on the deteriorating reputation and public image of pro football, and how football fans, so far at least, don’t seem to care.

It’s dangerous to your brain in more ways than one.

The NFL Vikings, for example, having decided first that sitting out one game with pay was sufficient to punishment for their star running back who beat his four-year-old son black and blue, then reinstating him for the next game, apparently on the theory that it had thrown a bone to critics, then pulled him off the roster again following new reports of an old story, involving Adrian Peterson allegedly beating another toddler son. (Peterson spreads his seed far and wide and with great generosity and abandon, having an estimated seven or more children with an equal number of unmarried women. The NFL and NFL fans have never shown any disapproval of this irresponsibility conduct, of course.) Now, we have no evidence in this latest allegation beyond text messages in which Peterson admits giving the boy a “woopin,” which is presumably the same as a “whuppin.” Peterson’s lawyer says nothing happened, and indeed, no complaint was made and no charges were filed. So what does the Vikings’ move mean? Is the NFL team concluding from this ambiguous incident that what Patterson did to his other child (that is, one of his many other children) was worse than the horrific photos already showed they were? How much worse could his conduct be? Is it sending the message that all corporate punishment is wrong? Who the hell is the NFL, which allows its players to maim each other, to tell me that I’m a child abuser if I spank my son? Or are the Vikings simply proving, as the league itself did it when banned Ray Rice only after a video showed him doing what it had to know he had done when it suspended him earlier for only two games, that it has no clue what’s right and what’s wrong, what is acceptable violence and what is unacceptable, what the public will ignore and what is so bad that it shouldn’t matter whether the public will ignore it or not?

Football is as dangerous to your values as it is to your brain.

Deford, in the first part of his commentary, notes that there is no indication than any of the revelations about their players’ disturbing proclivities, nor the league’s dishonesty, incompetence and moral obtuseness in reacting to them will harm the NFL’s popularity at all:

“If American banks, which nobody likes, are too big to fail, then the NFL, which everybody likes, is too popular to fail. Probably too big by now too. Despite all the negative news recently, has it really been damaged? …Do you see any indication that fans have, in disgust, turned to Gilligan’s Island reruns Sunday afternoons? Not to mention Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights…Do you have any friends who have sworn off watching NFL games? Have you?”

Well, yes, Frank, I have, and I also have friends who have. I agree that the NFL is an ethics corrupter, but a tipping point is on the horizon. Soemtimes the American public is slow, but it usually figures things out and does the right thing. I am old enough to remember people saying the same thing about boxing, that it was a great sport and that the public would always love it, because they always have. Then Mike Tyson became the face of boxing, and all the kings horses and all the Sugar Ray Leonards couldn’t save it. Quick: who is the Heavyweight Champion?

Yes, the public can be slow. Some pompous assassin writing  anonymously in a Washington Post comment thread recently attacked me, calling me a “nincompoop” because I wrote here in October 2012 that I was confident that Mitt Romney would win the election because Obama was a self-evidently a weak leader, and Americans historically and consistently prefer strong leaders over weak ones. (He also said I was a “self-declared ethicist”–you know how I love that one—and that Ethics Alarms was a “vanity blog”). The polls were very close when I wrote made that prediction. Yes, I was a nincompoop for not believing the public to be nincompoops. I did not predict that the press would successfully suppress the administration’s cover-up of Benghazi; I did not see Superstorm Sandy presenting a photo-op bonanza for Obama to appear presidential without actually doing anything in a crisis; I underestimated the African-American voters’ determination to make the election about group identification rather than leadership; I underestimated the foolish apathy of extreme conservatives, many of whom sat out the election because Romney was too moderate for them. Mostly I was wrong to assume that sufficient members of the public had figured out yet, as I had early in 2009, how hopeless and overmatched Obama was as President— after all, most of the media was working overtime to hide it from them.   I think they understand now, though. And Americans still prefer strong leaders, if they can remember what it’s like to have one.

But I digress. Sorry.

At the end of his commentary, Deford calls for positive steps to be taken to protect our brains from football, calling for “some brave college conference with high academic standards — like the New England Small College, the Midwest, the North Coast, the Southern California IAC — [to] have the courage to lead the way and drop football.”

I think it will happen, just like it happened to boxing, unless those who run the sport acquire some ethical values and the wisdom to know how to use them. That’s pretty hard to do with brains, however.


Sources: NPR, New York Times

15 thoughts on “Ethics Quote of the Week : NPR Sports Commentator Frank Deford On Football, Values and Brains

  1. Colleges will never drop football. Too much money involved, Coaches are paid millions. Alumni donations are the target. After all, have you ever heard an alumnus bragging that his college has a better newspaper?

    • As a Harvard alum? You betcha. As a student, I was much more impressed by The Crimson than the football team, even when it was undefeated in the 1968 season. Still am. A daily newspaper of substance put out entirely by students is amazing. It still amazes me.

      • But Jack, you are a rare bird. I always liked the VMI Cadet better then the football team, but I don’t think it garners a lot of almuni donations.

        • John R., random query (guessing that you are a VMI grad, for some reason). Did all of you have to go to Football games? Just curious.

          • Yes, I am a VMI alum. And the entire corps of cadets had to attend home football games. Just went back for my 45th reunion, and the corps was still in attendance, albeit some of the uniform requirements and socializing requirements have changed.

    • “Colleges will never drop football. Too much money involved, Coaches are paid millions. Alumni donations are the target.”

      For those very reasons, I think that more and more colleges will drop football, and sooner than any of us might expect. I think the costs are unsustainable to a great many schools even now. (I might be wrong.) Considering where our culture is going, I don’t expect alumni donations to keep up like they have been over previous generations, because I don’t expect alumni loyalty to continue as it has been. I can’t see advertisers continuing to support broadcast media providing entertainment to an audience that will begin to shrink, if it is not shrinking already. Add in inflation, and the costs of equipment, travel, facilities’ building and maintenance, and yes, security and legal support, will drive the sport into a fully commercialized league of NFL and minor league teams, with a much smaller and more plutocratic fan base. Wish I could live to see it, even as I wish it wouldn’t happen.

  2. Ha! Even when claiming to admire Harvard’s college newspaper more than the football team you resist bragging about the football team! “…even when it was undefeated in the 1968 season.”

    I agree with your commentary, but I think it’ll still be a long time before we see the end of football or see it become so unpopular it no longer dominates TV sports. I suspect college and pro teams will start kicking out the bad boys in an effort to save a sinking ship. Despite the appearance, I believe the majority of players behave themselves and not all football stars are criminal or violent off the the field.

  3. Well, if they perfect and get enough data from the PET scans to show damage in current players, that may change it. Imagine if they can see the damage before it causes symptoms and you can see it in current players. What is the liability on something like that? You could say “They are adults, let them sign a waiver”. What if you then check the college players and you can see the damage there? It becomes more challenging to justify requiring them to sign a waiver where they state they will willingly agree to a college scholarship in return for suffering irreversible brain damage at college (is this REALLY consistent with higher ed?). What if you check the high school players and you can see the damage then? They are minors. Would the law allow parents to sign a waiver to allow their children to suffer irreversible brain damage? I can’t see that begin allowed. I mean, we don’t allow children to work in coal mines…anymore.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.