Of Black Lungs and Concussions: How Can An Ethical Person Be A Football Fan?

So now you know. And,,,?

So now you know. And…?

The worst thing about pro football is not its wife-beating, gun-toting, child-beating players, or that the league happily has been willing to ignore these little flaws while promoting such flawed men as heroes to America’s young. Nor is the worst thing about pro football the fact that one of its teams has a politically incorrect nickname. No, the worst thing about pro football is that it makes billions from inducing young men to cripple their cognition long before nature would even consider doing it to them, and corrupts its huge national audience by inducing it to not only cheer this process, but pay for it.

Sally Jenkins, in a frank, stark column for the Washington Post, compared the NFL to the coal industry of yore, when minors were dying of black lung and terrible working conditions, and the government had to step in:

Since the NFL insists on behaving like the coal industry circa 1969, the only solution to its problems is for Congress to step in and regulate the business of these 32 billionaire plunderers. This week, the Department of Veterans Affairs brain bank announced that 76 out of 79 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. The price for owning a team just went up. Jerry Jones, Bob Kraft, Dan Snyder, Steve Bisciotti and all the rest, if you want to enrich yourselves at the expense of the ravaged health of others, be prepared to pay for it. Your future is endless litigation and government interference.

The CTE thunderbolt follows closely on the league’s callous handling of domestic violence cases. A new raft of medical investigations and lawsuits say that CTE caused some of these devastating domestic explosions, such as Jovan Belcher’s 2013 murder-suicide. CTE leads to aggression, paranoia, impaired judgment and depression….Here’s the deal: Concussions are the black lung of the NFL. And the league knows it.

Sure it does, but my problem is, so do its fans. The nation needed coal, still needs it in fact, so regulating that industry was reasonable, imperative, and practical. The country doesn’t need to have a deadly sport to watch every Sunday (Thursday, Monday…). Once it could claim that it was innocent, that helmeted players were protected, and that the tragically crippled were aberrations. Not any more.


The NFL has become a public health issue, and that’s not an overstatement. Here’s why: The league is spending $45 million to sponsor tackle football for children. The league encourages small boys to participate in an activity that beats their heads to pulp and persuades parents that such a thing is okay in order to keep the participation pipeline going. Via the USA Heads Up program, it preaches that tackling technique can limit the risk of head injuries in football — despite the fact that not an iota of science supports that claim. On the contrary, the science shows that tackle football for kids is incredibly harmful. A Virginia Tech project demonstrated that the impact of helmeted 7-year-olds is similar in force to that of college players. Brain expert Robert Cantu has been insisting, in vain, for years that we need a helmeted age limit. The NFL has chosen to build its brand on the broken heads of kids.

I agree that, as this site notes often, when ethics fails, the law steps in. But Jenkins is wrong: the law can’t, or won’t, fix this problem by regulation. As it has in the case of cigarettes, it will, at most,  carefully, incrementally, slooooowly attempt to strangle a billion dollar industry with lots of voting consumers, and who knows how many will suffer horribly in the meantime? Congress and regulators don’t have the guts to make football acceptably safe, and the NFL is happy to keep destroying its players brains as long as it is obscenely profitable to do so. Rush Limbaugh and other conservative commentators, meanwhile, use their considerable influence to mock and block any efforts to acknowledge that what is happening on gridirons is a serious problem, calling criticism and calls for reform part of a feminist-driven, progressive war on football. Because it’s a guy thing, you know. Defense!

Football fans like watching athletes get hit, hard, including in the head. We now know, as we once did not, that helmets don’t protect the brain enough, and may even make some injuries worse. Taking away head trauma changes football into something else, something that won’t make nearly as much money for owners, beer sellers, fantasy football entrepreneurs, TV executives, sponsors and merchandisers. Changing football at the college level won’t be permitted by the fat-cat alums who live vicariously though their alma mater’s touchdowns, lord knows why. Maybe if mothers stand up to Homer Simpson dads and refuse to allow their sons—and maybe daughters—to be fed into football’s maw, channeling them instead into some of the many sports that don’t leave its competitors drooling at 45, there won’t be enough players to keep the game cruising profitably. I doubt it.

That doesn’t mean that you, dear reader, or I, or anyone else who can distinguish right from wrong, has any excuse for being part of the carnage.

By sheer coincidence, there is going to be a very engaging, complex and ethically provocative professional sport showing its very best on the television over the next month or so. It doesn’t cripple anyone, except for an arm or a knee now and then. Its players seem to avoid arrest with remarkable success, and the game itself embodies excellent cultural values. The sport is called baseball, and you can watch it without being ashamed.

74 thoughts on “Of Black Lungs and Concussions: How Can An Ethical Person Be A Football Fan?

  1. Remember when I wrote recently about my friend’s son who was solicited by several big universities for football and that it was his ticket out of poverty? Well, he’s one month into his freshman year, and he already has to go in for surgery. He’s out for the rest of the season. The only silver lining is that the university is not pulling his scholarship — although many schools would.

    • People who think athletic scholarships are a poor student’s ticket out of poverty are just plain stupid. If you look at them, they really seem to be a method of enticing poor students into crippling their own efforts to get out of poverty. Let’s look at the options:

      Athletic ‘Scholarship’
      Coach determines your major
      Coach dictates your classes
      35+ hours each week at practice
      miss classes
      miss exams

      No Athletic Scholarship
      Government grants to cover some of tuition/fees ($3000+/year)
      Waiting tables 2 shifts/week for $8000/school year (average $100/shift)
      Paid summer programs or summer jobs for $3000-$5000 each year
      Only 16-20 hours work/week during school
      Don’t miss classes
      Don’t miss exams
      Get to choose a major in a field of high demand
      Probably have some loans, but should be reasonable if the school is chosen carefully

      Which of these two options looks like it sets the person up to fail? What kind of degree is the person on the athletic scholarship going to ‘earn’. What kind of in-demand skills will they have? Look at what the same student could do if they didn’t accept an athletic scholarship? Athletic scholarships promise a college education, but do everything possible to get in the way of that goal. It is a bait and switch, much like some affirmative action programs.

  2. Ban hard helmets, limit hard padding to the body (if at all), and make sure it’s not more than 1/2 or 1/4 inch thick.

    I’m not saying that is the solution to everything, but once players and viewers are exposed to the actual forces involved in the game – with the accompanying VISIBLE injuries – things will change.

    Now who’s on point to do that? Congress, owners, the player’s union, state legislatures, DHS via executive action? There’s a reason I went into sciences and not politics.

  3. I dont see an ethical failure. I agree, everyone knows that playing in the NFL or other high level football carries a high risk of head trauma. Including the players. They are knowingly accepting significant monetary compensation for that risk, and theres nothing unethical about that. No one is holding them at gun point and forcing them to go out and play.

    The only ethical failure is in the NFL’s attempt to down play the trauma. Other than that, the trauma induced in the natural course of the game is not in and of itself unethical, nor is it unethical for the government to stay out of the business of consenting adults (we’ve already given too much nanny power to the state).

    • By that reasoning, could we bring back gladiatorial games — as long as the billionaires playing are made aware that they might be gored, lose limbs, or be beheaded?

      I find the ethical problem to lie with the spectators as well as the league. I’ve never enjoyed boxing for the same reason — or dog racing. It’s not fun for me to watch other people or animals get hurt.

      • I think that’s where the question lies.

        I think we can stipulate that the players, willingly choosing to play a game where they know they can and will likely be injured are not being unethical. They have chosen, knowing the risks and having alternatives available.

        So, it would seem the assertion is: wanting to watch others harm each other is unethical. But is it unethical? Maybe it’s just of questionable motivation… Who enjoys watching people harm each other? But is that enjoyment unethical or is the acting on that enjoyment unethical?

        Let’s say it is… Then it is the spectators that make the sport unethical from the harm angle. So where does that leave football?

        Undoubtedly most people enjoy football because of the strategy and plays and skills. Does knowing the likelihood of permanently disabling a player know automatically mean the spectators enjoy that aspect as well?

        An argument could be made that yes it does mean, knowing the livelihoods, that vicariously they enjoy that. If they say no, no, we enjoy the strategy and plays and skills, then they ought to be on board for reformations of the game that mitigate the damages.

        But I’m not sure if it’s a slam dunk argument the way I answered all the questions posed in these preceding paragraphs.

          • Ditto. But, you know, it isn’t the strategy. This is why hockey won’t eliminate fights at the pro level. Its the sound of 300 pound monsters crashing into each other, violent tackles and hard hits. Flag football has as much strategy as tackle football. Idiots like pro wrestling for the hits, even knowing that its staged.

            • Hockey is a territorial sport. I don’t know how you eliminate fighting. The one thing they could do is widen rinks to Olympic standards, which limits the value of body-checking and hand-to-hand fighting in the corners.

              Players feared going into the corner with Gordie Howe, as he was lethal with his stick.

              • College hockey eliminates fighting. Fighting is banned. Fighters don’t get the penalty box—they get thrown out of the sport. It’s easy. And, of course, hockey is no more a territorial sport than soccer, rugby or football.

                • I didn’t know they had. And as this writer suggests, it may not be the best idea:

                  “Automatic ejections for fighting in the U.S. junior-A leagues is a bad idea. First and foremost, I believe it will lead to more injuries, more frustration, more cheap shots, more on-ice mayhem — and generally LESS RESPONSIBLE hockey players. Just like the NCAA. Secondly, it further separates the best American amateur hockey from the real thing, the NHL. I’ve been covering college hockey since 1995 and absolutely hate the full face cages and severe punishment for fighting. It promotes cheap shots, gladiators on ice. Scores aren’t settled, they escalate because there is no outlet. Checking-from-behind, boarding, elbowing and two-handed chops are so frequent because players feel invincible with the facial protection, and know they won’t have to answer the bell and fight. I realize the NCAA is NEVER going to allow fighting, because it is higher-education at its core, but the USHL and other junior-A leagues like the North American Hockey League are 100 percent hockey, and USA Hockey wants to dumb-down the product and retreat instead of fighting for what it knows is right.”


                  • He’s wrong. That’s about the size of it. This is one reason Hockey has always been a regional sport, because the suits insist on courting the roller derby crowd. Baseball fights are fun too, but they are costly.

                    • It’s always been a regional sport because it thrives in regions where kids can play it. When I was a kid, lots were an acre, and you played pickup baseball in the back yard. You played hockey on a nearby lake in winter. Kids from Tampa can’t relate.

                      I’m not really qualified to judge whether a guy who follows the game for a living has a better insight into it than a Beltway ethicist who has probably never laced ’em up — but despite my bias against fighting in sports, I can see both sides of the argument. Hockey fights are rarely dangerous, as you can’t get a lot of leverage on skates; anyone old enough to recall the fate of Tony Conigliaro knows how dangerous retribution in baseball can be (I used to be an umpire, back in the day). Brushback pitches were a part of the game, too.

                    • I hail from Arlington, Mass., where hockey is king. Several friends went into pro hockey, and my college was also a hockey power on occasion, though not like BU and BC. And I did lace them up—everybody did. I was just lousy at it, and have deformed feet that make skates excruciating. But you can’t be a male in Arlington, where there are two ponds made by the Hockey God just for skating, and not play, and follow, hockey.

        • Tex, you used “slam dunk” in your post. Beware: the harm that can result from that particular play in basketball may eventually mandate that the play also be discontinued at all levels of that sport, under threat of severe economic damage via litigation and criminal prosecution.

    • Of course its unethical to pay people to harm themselves. This is the drunk-dancing phenomenon, like paying people to humiliate themselves. Money is power, and paying people to harm themselves, using money to convince people who can’t balance long and short term time perspectives rationally to make personally devastating decisions that adversely affect them, their children and their loved ones is an abuse of power. Are you really arguing that someone who uses millions to make someone do themselves harm…say, mutilate themselves for the pleasure of a sadist…has done nothing wrong? Think again.

      And the person who applauds that transaction is an accessory.

      Your rationalization is the most common one. It doesn’t fly. I hope it makes you feel better though.

      • Except they aren’t being paid to harm themselves, they’re being paid to play and compete, with a very high risk of injuring themselves, but with the accompanying (possibly misguided) assurance that it’s being made as safe as possible. THAT’S the risk assessment they’re making at it’s core. At least, unlike the black lung you mention above, they’re being fairly compensated for the risk, unlike the miners, who were forced into the mines by economic necessity.

        Now, the popularity, downplaying of those risks, and encouraging children are all their own separate issues. But if Johnny wants to put himself at risk to make money – be it on the gridiron, the oil fields, a fishing boat, or the boxing ring – as long as the risks are known and understood, I say fair play.

        I don’t actually watch much football, though.

        • But the children are NOT making an informed decision, are they? Nor could they. The whole point is that none of today’s players made informed decisions before they were in the middle of their careers. This argument has not been found persuasive in many of the tobacco law suits where there was insufficient warning, though substantial knowledge. People talked about cigarettes as “coffin nails” in the 1920s.

          As for this— “But if Johnny wants to put himself at risk to make money – be it on the gridiron, the oil fields, a fishing boat, or the boxing ring – as long as the risks are known and understood, I say fair play.”—my answer is the same as it is in other reckless conduct falsely called victimless. Get the informed consent of spouses and minor dependents, and we’ll talk.

          And you do not deal with the corruption of human beings—fans, consumers— who in effect pay to have these men cripple themselves. Because that’s the formula.

      • Football players play football even before they start getting compensated for it. The sadist pays a person to hurt themselves just to see them hurt themselves, and the person wouldn’t hurt themselves other than for the payment. The same was the case in gladiatorial games, the competitors were forced to subject themselves to the various horrors of the games purely to make a spectacle of themselves being maimed. Football players, and athletes who engage in other risky activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, surfing, boxing, etc. engage in them for reasons other than just monetary compensation. They do it because they enjoy the thrill and competition of the activity. And the government should not be imposing its “balancing of short and long term perspectives” on the rest of us.

        This, of course, does not mean that the NFL would be unethical for covering up such potential for injury, or failing to explore options to make the game safer. It just means that people should be allowed a certain degree of autonomy to make decisions about how their lives will be most fulfilled.

    • So who gets to sign the injury waivers for the jr. high and high school players? You don’t get NFL players without them.

      We don’t let anyone sign a waiver to allow children to work in coal mines…anymore.

  4. I listened to an audiobook about the brain about 10 years ago. One of the chapters dealt with head trauma in sports, and I’ve been telling other parents about it ever since.

    I can’t recall any parents whose kids were in or going into football being even remotely swayed. Maybe I was planting seeds that resulted in them pulling their kids from football sometime in the future, but I had the sense there was so much cognitive dissonance going on for them that their hearing just shut down.

    The other sport mentioned as dangerous in this book, by the way, was soccer. Apparently all the header practice causes brain damage as well. Each individual hit isn’t so bad, but the cumulative effects, with each one killing a few brain cells, can be devastating.

  5. The way basketball is evolving, wearing of helmets will become mandatory in that sport, too, sooner than any of us might expect.

    Rush Limbaugh et al may be fashioning illusions of red meat for conservatives to feast on, in ranting about the hostile forces organizing against American football. But you can’t deny that some of the hostiles are exactly who he says they are. Because (commence mantra) big money is evil, rich people are evil, having wealth is evil unless you own it by force of government, being famous for anything besides advocacy for what is politically correct (and besides holding power to dictate what is politically correct) is evil…

    Professional American football will pay off its shakedowners and evolve as it must – and it will remain massively popular and profitable, even if it must evolve to six-player, two-hand touch – with teams named Feminists, etc.

      • Emphatically agree. Cognitive Dissonance at work.

        2 + 2 doesn’t stop being 4 because Hitler says it is.
        Neither does subsequently agreeing that 2 + 2 = 4 make one a Nazi.


        • Sure, if impeachment is the objective. The objective should be a legitimate objective assessment of an argument. Bias is only useful to show why a position or opinion is flawed. Bias isn’t a flaw on its own. If bias doesn’t affect the conclusion—and an intelligent analysts shouldn’t allow it to—then it’s irrelevant to it. So an accusation of bias is often just a version of ad hominem. “You have a bias, so you can’t be trusted on this issue.” It’s an inherent insult.

          When official decisions may be affected by bias, ethics argues that the individual should voluntarily recuse, not because, necessarily, the bias will affect judgment, but because there will be no way to show it hasn’t, and that will undermine belief in the decision by people who themselves can’t imagine NOT being ruled by biases—which is the majority of humanity, unfortunately.

          • That was my position; I wanted to make sure we were in agreement here. The charge of bias is, technically, a circumstantial ad hom. However, in a case like that of Judge Stephen Reinhardt and Prop 8, precedent sets the standard. I could be biased against SSM as a hetero, just as much as a gay judge could be biased for it. As every line judge has a duty to hear the cases put before him (senior judges can decline for any reason, and some of them refuse to hear pro se cases), he has a duty not to recuse where precedent says that he shouldn’t.

            There’s an entire manual on this for judges; I have a copy somewhere in my files.

      • Jack,

        Whoa. I wrote, “Professional American football will pay off its SHAKEDOWNERS…” and somehow that got edited (not by me) into “…will pay off its shareholders and stakeholders…” What’s up with that?

        • It wasn’t shakedowners…I think it was “shakeowners” and I was trying to decipher it. Thanks…now I’ll fix it. The missing “d” was the problem. Ethics has a lot about “stakeholders.” I thought you were being astute…

  6. To be honest, I’m a little curious to see if rugby makes a comeback under these circumstances (or whether football itself goes back to those roots).

    Also, regarding baseball, this certainly puts the steroids disaster in a different context, doesn’t it? (Though your comment about injuries was more like rubbing salt in them for fans of certain teams). Also, “excellent cultural values” aside, the Dodgers are the devil until the end of this NLDS.

      • Funnily enough, I suspect much of the internet likes them more than they do my hometown Cards (whom, having neither the best record nor the risk of facing the Sox this year, should hopefully get a chance to work some post-season voodoo again).

  7. I would watch baseball, except for the fact that it’s an absolute grinding bore played by vastly overpaid weenies with biceps loaded with shark estrogen.

    Wait a minute. That describes most of football, too, except for the boring part.

    Would it be ethical to say that I think the wage disparity between football players and baseball players upsets me, and I think baseball players are paid too much, even just among athletes?

    • Ethical, but wrong. Baseball players provide 162 X 3 hours of entertainment and commercial sponsorship per season, not counting Spring Training, All-Star Games and post-season. Football players just 16 X about the same time. Ballplayers are the ones who are underpaid. Besides, a lot of baseball players could run a pattern and catch a pass. A typical NFL player couldn’t hit his weight in the minors.

      Remember how well Michael Jordan did when he tried baseball? The toughest sport of all.

      • But time isn’t the determiner of compensation.

        486 hours of baseball play time doesn’t automatically mean more compensation than 48 hours of football play time.

        Johnny Clumsyknuckles may be a master ping-pong ball dribbler and he may do that 4000 hours per year, but he’s still going to make exponentially less than Dr. Proprofsky who only performs 200 hours of surgeries per year…

        Because the market values one more than the other.

          • The real issue is changing the culture back to a baseball culture and less a football culture… then the market will start compensating Baseball players far more.

            Hell, maybe even have more teams.

            • I’ve heard that baseball’s fans are skewing older and older because they’re having trouble getting young fans because ballgames take too long. I’ve heard people propose a “pitch clock” so the game takes less time.

              At any rate, I guess I never got that chip installed that me think that baseball’s exciting, or that beer tastes good, or that children are tolerable, or that Olivia Munn is funny.

              I got the brain that liked all the freaking Tinker Bell movies.


      • “[Baseball is t]he toughest sport of all.”

        Just arguing with you, again: Hitting a baseball thrown by competent pitchers, to the tune of a .250 or better average over a six-month period of say, 300 or more turns at bat, is tough. Playing 100-plus games in six months is tough, even if your “work” consists mostly of standing in the field with occasional bursts of movement to catch and throw. Pitching across a six-month season with effective control of the other side’s hitters most of the time, throwing say, 150 to 200 pitches per week in live play, is tough both physically and mentally. Baseball at the professional level is one of the most physically tough sports, its toughness terribly underrated.

        But I will not concede on this: THE toughest sport of all to be truly good at, overall, at a level that is truly “professional,” is…[drum roll] GOLF. Its difficulty, largely mental, is and probably will ever remain the most underrated of all sports.

        • As someone who played to a scratch, I can speak with some authority to this topic. The gulf between a scratch player and a top-drawer pro is much wider than the scratch player and a weekend warrior. It takes 10 hours a week of practice — not play! — to get to a scratch if you are in good health, but a lot more to be a pro.

          More than any other sport, peak golf demands peak fitness. If you have an injury, you end up compensating.

          It takes a lifetime to master, but one brain-fart to forget.

  8. As for me, I lettered in golf. Only got hit twice. 🙂

    Football itself is a beautiful sport. You just don’t need to tackle people. But soccer doesn’t appear to be much more of a bargain, and rugby (they don’t use helmets) is no better. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/9523174/Rugby-concussion-dementia-risk.html

    The problem with baseball is that in much of the country, it can’t be played for six months out of the year. Playing football in two feet of snow in April (it wasn’t that cold) was one of the more memorable experiences of my life.

    • I’m not sure the six month comparison holds, Art. Hockey needs ice; soccer can’t be played in snow, and heat stroke pretty much rules out football in the summer. Even in the major leagues, the season runs from late March to mid-November, and with domed stadiums, you can play in the winter.

      But there’s a reason why most baseball players come from the South, Southwest, California and South America.

      • 1. The Phoenix Coyotes might take issue with you there, Jack.
        2. Kids can’t really afford domed stadiums. Once it gets below 45 or so, baseball gets dicey.
        3. You’ve obviously never been to a pro football training camp, where it is often 95 in the shade. Practice always starts in August, even in Texas and Florida.
        4. Another solution is lacrosse.

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