Watching The Super Bowl Is Unethical. You Know That, Right?


I was going to call this post “Ten Reasons Why Watching The Super Bowl Is Unethical,” then “TOP Ten Reasons Why Watching The Super Bowl Is Unethical.” Ethical people should only need one good reason though, and while you can rationalize it away to slave your conscience and to avoid having to renege on that RSVP to tomorrow’s Super Bowl party, it is there, undeniable, and ugly.

So you don’t even have to argue that the fact that the most successful NFL team for more than a decade is also the one repeatedly caught cheating is irrelevant because “everybody does it,” or that the large number of felons, thugs and spouse abusers the teams employ (one ex-player—why, a Patriots’ ex player, in fact!—just went on trial for murder) doesn’t matter because the players aren’t really role models, or that the fact that the NFL corrupts and warps our universities by turning them into football’s minor leagues is overstated because such scandals as the University of North Carolina conspiring to let athletes take imaginary courses aren’t really the NFL’s fault. All you have to do is accept the fact that when you support the NFL, it’s TV ratings and the companies that profit from them, you are not merely killing people, you are cheering while you do it.


What the hell’s the matter with you?

Yesterday I rewatched the 2013 PBS Frontline documentary, “League of Denial.” (That’s the link to the video; the transcript is here.) It was more horrifying the second time, especially in view of how the NFL has managed to stonewall, tap-dance and delay its way through another season without seriously admitting the extent of its head injury problem. One could even argue that the Ray Rice fiasco and other scandals helped the NFL by deflecting attention away from its biggest ethical deficit. Today, CNN, which is duly promoting the Super Bowl all weekend, reported on Roger Goodell’s “state of the NFL” press conference. It didn’t mention the concussion issue at all, just spousal abuse. It’s working, Roger!

As thoroughly and irrefutable shown by the documentary and the book it was based on, football causes dementia and death. The earlier you start playing it, the worse the effects are. The NFL has systematically waged a public relations war of denial and deception, taking carefully calculated half-measures that will not address the problem, relying on America’s love of the game to allow the industry to continue making billions by paying young men to maim themselves. In hearings before Congress, U.S. representatives compared the NFL to cigarette manufacturers denying that cigarettes were addictive and that they caused health problems. The comparison is fair, but once the truth was known about tobacco, the non-smoking public quickly realized that it shouldn’t be cheering lung cancer on. Cigarette ads on TV were banned; programs that children watched were pressured to avoid showing characters smoking. But then, nobody gets a visceral rush watching human beings slowly kill themselves by puffing away: is that the difference? As long as you get a kick out of the process of athletes turning themselves into future drug addicts, depressives, neglectful fathers, abusive husbands, drooling imbeciles and suicides, it’s okay to keep watching and cheering?

Keep telling yourself that. It’s intellectually lazy and ethical abdication, and that’s all it is. Watching the Super Bowl can’t be wrong because so many people do it, right? You know, since you’re here, what’s the matter with that argument.

You can also try the argument that the players are accepting the risk, so it’s OK for you to encourage them, in fact help pay them to liquify their brains for your amusement. That would be employing three more rationalizations on the Ethics Alarms Hit Parade:

36. Victim Blindness, or “They/He/She/ You should have seen it coming.”

This is “asserting the rationalization of Victim Blindness attempts to shift responsibility for wrongdoing to the victims of it, who, the theory goes, should have known that their actions would inspire the conduct that caused them harm, and thus they should have either avoided doing what sparked the unethical response, or by not doing so waived their right to object to it.”  Victim Blindness is similar to “They asked for it.” but it applies even greater responsibility to victims: whether they asked for it or not, they should have known their actions would be met with this unethical response, and their ignorance,  carelessness or stupidity constitutes a waiver of ethics.”

42. The Hillary Inoculation, or “If he/she doesn’t care, why should anyone else?”


–“Because the seriousness of an ethical violation is not defined by who chooses to tolerate or forgive it…”

—“Because we each are responsible for making our own ethical judgments, and to delegate those judgements not only to a third party, but to a third party who is not objective and likely to be affected by conflicts of interest, makes neither logical nor ethical sense.”

47. Contrived Consent, or “The Rapist’s Defense.”

“This rationalization aims to cleanse unethical conduct by imagining that the victim consented to it, or secretly sought the result of the wrongful act…It is, perhaps, the ugliest rationalization of all.”

Watching “League of Denial,” I actually found myself weeping as I saw Junior Seau’s children and wife speak about how their brilliant, loving father and husband suddenly lost his composure, his sense of self, his ability to laugh, his rationality, his sobriety and finally his mind as the symptoms of brain damage began taking over his life while he was still in his forties, culminating in the former NFL star committing suicide. He shot himself in the heart, so his brain could be part of the research on what the NFL does to its players. The documentary showed Seau as a player talking about how he and his team mates “sacrificed their bodies” for the game, and how he expected to have trouble walking in his forties and fifties. Walking. Not thinking. Not loving, not living. He didn’t consent to that.

In his Washington Post column about “League of Denial, former NFL player Nate Jackson writes,

“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….A popular question presented to former players in light of the CTE findings is: Knowing what you know now, would you do it all over again? Yes, says the man with his finger on the trigger and the muzzle pressed against his chest, trophies and awards and jerseys scattered around him, a suicide note on the dresser. Yes, because what else is there and who else am I but this? Yes, because I achieved my dream. I did it. It’s done. So what else is there to do but die?…For non-football-players, this is an informative, intriguing and sobering book about power and control. I recommend it strongly. For football players, it reads as a death sentence. I encourage my brothers not to open it.”

Does that sound like informed, free and uncoerced consent to you? I’ve just scratched the surface of the rationalizations you can use to convince yourself that it’s not wrong to be part of the system that traps these young men into shortening their lives and cognitive health, so you can eat nachos and buffalo wings tomorrow. In addition to #1, “Everybody Does it,” and 36, 42 and 47, you will also find handy…

1A. Ethics Surrender, or “We can’t stop it.”

This is the rationalization that argues that if society is incapable of effectively preventing unethical conduct, for whatever reason, we might as well stop regarding that conduct as wrong.  It encourages moral cowardice and ethics complacency. “We can’t stop it” is a lazy capitulation that assumes cultures can’t change, and we know they can and do change, both for better and worse, all the time. This is certainly true of sports, where once boxing and horse racing reigned among the nation’s most popular sports. Boxing was eventually found to be too brutal and corrupt to endure, and as we watched it turn a beautiful vibrant athlete like Muhammad Ali into mute, shuffling old man, eventually the public—the responsible ones, at least–turned away. When Ruffian shattered her leg on national television, the veil was lifted from the public’s eyes about horse racing too. We can make the NFL stop crippling people and encouraging young men to be crippled…if we care enough.

4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”

The way pro football is currently played, it should be illegal. We ban dog-fighting and cock-fighting, and these are human beings.

13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It’s for a good cause”

This rationalization has probably caused more death and human suffering than any other. Applied to football, it means that football is so vital to the culture, economy and entertainment of the U.S. that it is worth the price in human pain and life. Do you really want to make that argument?

15. The Futility Illusion:  “If I don’t do it, somebody else will.”

This is the time-honored rationalization that sidesteps doing the right thing because the wrong thing is certain to occur anyway, although, as we know, if enough people join you, immediately or over time, this is not necessarily the case. Embrace #15, and you can claim that you might as well watch the Super Bowl, because you are only one, and everyone’s going to watch, so your principled stand won’t accomplish anything. The Futility Illusion is just a sad alternative to courage.

18. Hamm’s Excuse: “It wasn’t my fault.”

This popular rationalization confuses blame with responsibility. Human beings are responsible for each other, and the ethical obligation to help someone, even at personal cost, arises with the opportunity to do so, not with blame for causing the original problem. Yup, you didn’t make the NFL corrupt, deadly and irresponsible, but if you keep supporting it now that you know what it is and that it has every intention of staying that way, you are accountable, at least to yourself. The ethical rule is a simple one: if there is a wrong and you are in a position to fix it, fix it.

22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

Sure: you could be watching “Friday Night Tykes.”

34.  Success Immunity, or “They must be doing something right!”

We often hear this when a successful individual or organization is justly criticized for unethical habits, routines, tendencies or policies, and defenders recoil at the suggestion that a successful formula might be altered in any way.  Success Immunity twists common sense to avoid admitting that obviously unethical conduct is what it is: wrong.

39. The Pioneer’s Lament, or “Why should I be the first?”

How unfair it is that you have to be a role model and give up all that Super Bowl fun! Life’s a bitch. So, sometimes, is ethics.

That’s twelve good rationalizations, unethical all. Do you have another argument that will let you contribute to the mass maiming for another year? Congratulations, but I doubt that you’re fooling yourself.

The NFL has deceitfully, ruthlessly, cruelly and greedily constructed a culturally rotting form of entertainment that is too big and popular for the government to control. It will change, or go away, when it becomes less profitable, less powerful, and less popular. You have a role to play in that process, if you have the integrity to play it. I think you know what the right thing to do tomorrow is.

The question is, will you do it?

39 thoughts on “Watching The Super Bowl Is Unethical. You Know That, Right?

  1. There is no way we are going to convince anyone to boycott the game. The thing to do is to convince them to boycott the sponsors. If sponsors lose revenue, they will force the N.F.L. to behave more ethically.

  2. But what if we want to watch to know which sponsors not to patronize?

    Or rather… what if we’re watching… just for the commercials?

    • As I said, I know nobody will boycott the game. Even if you watch it for the commercials doesn’t mean you have to buy the products. In most product categories, you do have options. The advertising budget does nothing to make the product better. However, paying high dollar amounts for advertising does increase the cost of the product.

  3. Wow. This, to me, is one of the most powerful posts I’ve yet read on this site, primarily because I opened it not expecting to see anywhere near the amount of damning indictment of this. Gonna have to think more on this.

  4. I stopped watching football years ago and rooting for the home team when it became apparent to me that it was only about the money. Gone are the days when you would run into one of your favorite players at the supermarket.

    You can thank Bob Irsay for waking me up to this fact.

  5. I used to be an avid follower of football but haven’t watched a game in the last two years and I hadn’t planned on watching the Super Bowl. Being from Texas, I have no leanings or any type of emotional attachment (or whatever you want to call it) in a game between teams from Seattle and New England. Those teams have nothing to do with me and I have no sense of identification with either of them. But then came “Inflategate” and that changed everything for me. I really hate liars. So now I suddenly have an interest because I see an epic Good vs. Evil match-up which gives me an emotional investment and I certainly want to see Good triumph over Evil. But at what cost? Purposely choosing to be ignorant of the truth… that these two teams are minor entities in a much bigger picture which is full of exploitation, manipulation and lies which make “Inflategate” actually very trivial in comparison?
    Hey…but no one made Brady and that coach lie. Even if there are bigger things going on. Just because there are bigger lies does that mean we should just forget about the smaller lies? And is it not rational to want to see a team that does not cheat win over a team that does?

    • I agree with the general idea of what you write. Deflategate is, however, a lot more important than you think. This is the first instance of a team cheating on the field, being caught, and being allowed to play the next week as if none of it ever happened. As such, it is the first instance of a professional league, in effect, condoning illegal conduct that affects the outcomes of the games and billions of dollars in bets. The US Dept. of Justice should be investigating this with an eye towards filing RICO charges.

  6. I learned about the football head injury problem about 12 years ago in a book about the brain by a neurosurgeon. A couple of years later a student at a school I was working at suffered severe brain damage after taking a couple of hard hits. Though he returned to school, he was in real bad shape. They were doing car washes afterwards to raise money for him and his family.

    Suffice it to say, I never let my son, who was a toddler at the time, near football. I would also try to educate every parent I met who mentioned to me that their son was playing or going to play football. Few of them listened. It was interesting to watch the cognitive dissonance at work as they tried to justify allowing their sons to play after what I had told them.

    By the way, soccer is also surprisingly dangerous in regard to head injuries. All the headers, particularly in practice, add up. Each one causes a little bit of damage, and eventually you get clear signs of brain damage when viewed on an MRI. And forget about boxing.

    I do have a question, though: how do we decide what sports are ethical. In any sport there’s the possibility of injury. In any activity, really. Football is clearly over the line, but I’m curious where exactly the line gets drawn and how to draw it.

  7. I watched “League of Denial” too, and was horrified. Not only did the NFL put out phony medical research on the concussion issue (a study commissioned by the NFL and headed by an NFL staff doctor who was a rheumatologist, for God’s sake, and only one neurologist, who also, by the way, was a long-time NFL employee! — the neurologist has since recanted his opinions expressed in the NFL studies); they tried to discredit real neurosurgeons who were doing research on the brains of dead former NFL players; when the issue first emerged into public view they ALSO passed out brochures to all NFL players saying that concussions were of no concern as long as they were treated correctly! So NFL players are now our modern gladiators. Watching the Super Bowl (or any football game) is clearly tantamount to the famous “thumbs up-thumbs down” of whether to let a losing gladiator live or die…

    Especially moving was the relatively young gentleman who played football (and wrestled for the joy of others) and who is absolutely certain he is going to develop CST: He began working with Boston University researchers, acting as a go-between between researchers and NFL player families, convincing the families of players who died to donate the players’ brains for CST research. The NFL has repeatedly denied any findings from BU (“not enough evidence yet”), and convinced Junior Seau’s family to give his brain to NIH instead of BU — Roger Goodell’s opinion being that “it’s not up to the NFL, it’s up to science,” and “science hasn’t proven anything yet” and that “BU is not competent” — and guess what? Junior Seau was found — by the National Institutes of Health — to have CST! So, the “science isn’t there yet?”

    Only because the NFL effectively covered this issue up so effectively for so long, and only because of directed campaigns against the researchers who discovered and have tracked CST in ex-NFL players. (Incidentally, “League of Denial” goes back to the 1970s, when the Super Bowl ads all started with a graphic of two helmets crashing against each other and then exploding into flying pieces… now it looks live a naive and stupid graphic, because of course now we know it’s the brains that are exploding (or imploding, little by little), not the helmets.

    I think the idea of watching the Super Bowl ads on HULU and writing to the sponsors about boycotting them is a great idea. I’d like to do some research on the producers of “League of Denial” and find a way to get a national write-in campaign and boycott of companies sponsoring not only the Super Bowl but all the NFL teams. Yes, it’s billions of dollars, but someone has to start a grass-roots boycott and expression of outrage of what Americans are supporting and what their “football heroes” are risking.

    I caught “League of Denial” on Netflix — either in the “new to Netflix” or the documentary section. This was a PBS program in 2013: I wish they would run it again on PBS so it would be more available. If I had thought of it, I’d have written to them and ask them to show it TODAY. In any case, this horrific, sadistic, unethical, and immoral behavior on the part of the NFL — an all-American “institution”? — must get more coverage. And more action. If money talks, then the American people can talk — through boycotts of those funding the game.

    P.S. I’ve watched soccer take over Little League Baseball as the game for little kids. (My son hated soccer and football, fortunately, and played Little League until he aged out of it.) I know of a young woman who had SIX concussions playing soccer — from junior high through high school and her first year of college. She thinks she already has some signs of CST — and she’s 23 years old. So, folks, soccer isn’t exactly the “safe” game for kids either. Parents, think this through!


  8. Probably the easiest piece of slacktivism I’ll ever do. No Superbowl for me. (I’ve never really anjoyed football, which is why I find this so effortless) Although…. I might still eat nachos tonight,

  9. Boy, I’ve really become depressed talking to people on Facebook and elsewhere about the post. They don’t even pretend to have an argument. Just, “yeah, you’re right, but I like football and don’t want to think about it.” It’s not on the same scale of evil as slavery (yeah, I know, but we need the slaves to keep our lifestyle, so I don’t want to think about it) or the Holocaust (Yeah, but I don’t know any Jews, and the country’s doing well, so I don’t want to think about it ) or a daughter-molesting husband (Yeah, but he’s a good provider, and I love him, so I don’t want to think about it.) Sure, this is a game, but the process of self-delusion, corruption and passive acceptance of evil is exactly the same. Tell me how it isn’t.

    I guess slavery and the Holocaust didn’t have cool commercials, so that’s something…

  10. Let us assume, arguendo, that the idea that playing football causes head injuries is proven to the same extent as Fermat’s Last Theorem, that the NFL would know this if they had taken reasonable measures, and that they failed to disclose this risk to football players.

    Let us also assume, arguendo, that NFL teams employ “felons, thugs and spouse abusers”.

    How is culpability imputed onto those who watch the Super Bowl?

    There is no way that merely watching the Super Bowl either “orders, advises, counsels, rewards, or encourages” the NFL to engage in the unethical conduct described above.

    • What? The income the NFL gets from its billion dollar network contracts is directly related to Super Bowl and TV ratings, based on vewership. No viewers, no NFL, or a greatly reduced one.

        • Yup. The Germans supported Hitler in spite of the atrocities against the Jews, not because of them. People support Bill Cosby in spite of his rapes, not because of them, and cheer cheating athletes like Barry Bonds because of the results of the cheating, and choose not to think about the cheating itself. But the results were a direct result of the cheating—if you cheer one, you support the other.

  11. I just watched the documentary, wow…I don’t follow football, and had no idea so many players had such severe injuries. As for Dr. Casson’s continued denial that repeated concussions cause CTE, he had to have known. As I watched, and was listening to the rationalizations, I wondered ‘How long ago
    was this?’ and then they showed meetings in 2007, 2009, and I knew they
    were lying, and not just ‘doubting’. Anyone with a dementia patient in the family can tell you (and my FIL was diagnosed in 1999), that when the medical history of an AD patient is taken they ask you about a history of head injury, and that’s even one injury, such as a car accident or a fall. So if for a rank and file elderly man or woman with no connection to sports, one concussion is important information for their diagnosis, how can it possibly be not so for someone who regularly receives such injuries, multiple times what dementia specialists think might be causal ? How can the idea apply as early (in my experience) in 1999 and only to the elderly, and not 10 years later, when players are coming forward one after another with dementia in their 40’s?

    ” So NFL players are now our modern gladiators. ” Exactly. Sacrificed for amusement. It’s money, as usual. The losses would be enormous, from high schools to colleges, to teams, vendors and merchants. Americans spent 11 billion dollars on stuff for Super Bowl parties (TIME Magazine). 11 billion on food, shirts, and party goods alone. The Super Bowl’s a little Christmas in midwinter for everyone involved.

  12. We’ve watched the puppy bowl ever since that appeared, for we had a poker night for similar friends. The ads can be found later.

    I thought that Saturday night NFL honors show a laughable dog and pony, if it wasn’t so tragic.

  13. When Seattle Slew shattered her leg on national television,

    Seattle Slew was a male horse and lived a good life after he retired.

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