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?