Ethics Quiz, Super Bowl Edition: Justin Timberlake’s Integrity [UPDATED]

Justin Timberlake, who will headline the Super Bowl LII halftime show while I’m not watching, was asked at a news conference this week whether he would support his son Silas if he wanted to play in the NFL. said Thursday that he will not allow his 2-year-old son play football. Timberlake responded : “Uh, he will never play football. No, no.”

Let us assume, for the sake of the quiz, that the reason Timberlake will veto football for his son is that he does not want his offspring ending up with the IQ of his fellow Mickey Mouse Club cast member and one-time girlfriend, Britney Spears. So why, if the singer does not approve of what playing NFL football does to brains, is he participating in the biggest showcase of the most dangerous major professional sport?

Your Ethics Alarms Super Bowl Ethics Quiz is…

Is Timberlake a hypocrite to accept payment to promote the Super Bowl and participate in pro football’s biggest event, while stating that he would not permit his son to play football?

My answer: sure he is. This isn’t like the cases we have discussed in past posts where American performers have accepted huge amounts of cash to perform for dictators abroad. Those have been private events, and a performer does not endorse his audience. Timberlake, however, is actively participating in the promotion of football and the NFL, to to the nation, and particularly to children. The Super Bowl has always been equal measures of sport and hype, and the half-time shows are hype. If he believes football is dangerous, which it is, he should not accept a fee to make the sport attractive to kids, or help the NFL attract impressionable young viewers.

[Update and Correction: readers Arthur in Maine alerted Ethics Alarms that star performers in the Super Bowl halftime show are typically not paid, but do the show for publicity. This doesn’t change my answer at all.]

31 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz, Super Bowl Edition: Justin Timberlake’s Integrity [UPDATED]

  1. ”Is Timberlake a hypocrite to accept payment to promote the Super Bowl and participate in pro football’s biggest event, while stating that he would not permit his son to play football?”


  2. Not as simple as it seems, Jack. Timberlake is NOT getting paid for his performance; halftime show artists don’t get paid. The NFL covers expenses and production costs, but the artists themselves are betting on the come – the idea that the appearance will boost sales of recorded product (a pittance in these days of music streaming) and concert performances (which is where successful musicians can still actually make some bank).

    For the artists, it’s really a marketing endeavor – a way to get visibility for a potential audience of 100+ million. Does that constitute endorsement – or self-promotion aimed at future profits? Because those future profits are what the artists seek when they agree to perform for those dictators.

    • Even worse. Then he has no excuse whatsoever. Money is a non-ethical consideration, but at least its a tangible benefit that is subject to measurement. So Timberlake thinks kids playing football is deadly, because he agrees that its deadly for adults, but he’ll add his weight to the pro-brain-damage NFL for a possible career pump. Great. Like an anti-tobacco activist doing cigarette ads…for free.

      • So… realistically, you’re saying that the only thing that separates performing for a dictator is that the performance is private, vs. a public performance like a halftime show. Because you’re arguing that were he to make a bundle performing for the Emir of Cowfartistan, that’s okay because he’s not necessarily endorsing Cowfartistan’s dismal human rights track record.

        So how is he “endorsing” the NFL, particularly when he’s on record as saying he thinks the sport is too dangerous for his kid to play? A decent argument could be made that he’s actually subverting the league by leveraging his fame, doing the show, and pointing out the risks.

        • He’s endorsing it by being the face of the entertainment part of the event, attracting fans so the NFL can profit from the ads. His comments about football were 1) lightly reported and 2) unarticulate. Now, if his performance included a number showing a young man declining into drooling senility after playing football for a decade, that might be what you are talking about. This is closer to Leni Refenstahl telling one reporter she’s anti-fascist but making “Triumph of the Will”—for free. Because it’s good for her career.

            • “Would it be hypocritical for the AMA to advertise on the Super Bowl broadcast?

              No. Suppose the AMA bought ads highlighting the connection between football and CTE. By advertising during the Super Bowl they would be certain of reaching the demographic most likely to encourage their kids to play football and the kids themselves. I would see an anti-CTE ad campaign by the AMA as no more hypocritical than the FDA campaign to ban smokeless tobacco in baseball and other sports. What better place to show kids who hero worship football players and the parents of those kids the horrible danger they face. Additionally, while people may watch the Super Bowl to see Justin in the halftime show, nobody is going to tune in to see an ad featuring drooling men who had their brains scrambled playing football.

              • John, I would see an anti-CTE ad campaign by anyone being allowed on air by the NFL during any football game, never mind the Super Bowl, as no more likely than my discovering a cure for cancer while juggling and walking on water.


              • But that wasn’t my question. The AMA advertising, as in: “The AMA, protecting America’s health!” would be ridiculous. Public service announcements aren’t advertising, which is why they are often discounted or free of charge.

                • It would be ridiculous because the AMA has nothing to directly sell the public so anything they said would have to be in the nature of a PSA. What about a doctor, let’s say a neurologist, advertising? I don’t think it would be hypocritical. They would be selling a service for those who have suffered brain injury. The Super Bowl viewers, actually viewers of any NFL game, would contain a large number of former high school and college players who could potentially benefit. Their ad would have to contain some education on CTE so the potential customers would know who they are.The presence of the ad would not cause people to watch who wouldn’t otherwise. I would think the only negative would be that some of the money they pay for the ad would end up in the coffers of the NFL rewarding them. I believe the same argument would hold true for a personal injury attorney advertising for victims who might want to sue over their CTE (assuming that is something someone can actually sue for.)

  3. This presents me with a serious question about my own ethics. I have a community bar nearby, which I stop into periodically for a few beers. On Super Bowl Sunday, they always have, during the game, a fabulous buffet, supplied by the patrons and bartenders, generally Mexican food, and always free. I always go and stuff my face. I intend to do so again, this year. I am inordinately fond of Mexican food. I have no interest in the game whatsoever. I wonder, however, at the ethics of supporting the bar (buying some beer while I eat) as it is supporting the NFL. Sort os second-hand support. This may sound a little silly, but I think I’m asking a valid question. I’m learning.

    • I’m in a similar situation in that we enjoy going to the lodge style bar nearby for the Superbowl party food/drinks. While I admit American football has serious consequences for players, it’s also true there are many professions that pose serious threats to health like mining, being a police officer, working in chemical plants, etc. How many times a day do I benefit from people putting their long term health outcomes at risk for my benefit or pleasure? I’m guessing a lot. That understanding though could easily veer into ‘everybody does it so it’s ok’ territory, which is unethical.

      On this issue I wrestle. Especially because there is a tinge of anti-Americanism in some arguments against football. But I’ll keep thinking about it for sure.

      Slightly off topic -Has anyone done any scans on rugby players? Remember when they used to make fun American football players for wearing helmets?

      • Q, I think rugby players don’t use their heads as weapons because they don’t wear helmets. If American football banned helmets and face masks and plastic shoulder pad, I think the CTE problem would decrease significantly. Ironically, plastic helmets are a big part of the the problem, perhaps the root cause. Terrible unintended consequences.

        I’m so disgusted with football that I wouldn’t go to a super bowl party or buffet if I were paid to do so. Aside from the CTE, it’s just a vicious sport, not much better than cage fighting. Too many catastrophic injuries and horrible people playing it. Too gladiatorial.

        • I also think American football will need to become more like rugby if it wants to survive. I suspect it was more like rugby back in the ’40s and earlier before the introduction of face masks and plastic helmets in the ’50s.

          • But it would seem that when Football WAS closer to Rugby, we had dozens of on-field deaths (let alone postponing death to a later, but earlier than natural, time)…which is what pushed most of the reforms we see today that define modern football.

            What are the rates of CTE in Rugby?

      • The simple answer to that comparison is that we need a military, construction, fish, transportation, and fuel. We don’t need tackle football any more than we need dogfighting and the Tide pod challenge. It fails basic utilitarian and Kantian ethical principles.

        • I agree that with 99% of NFL players and 91% of college players showing CTE on autopsy there is no ethical justification for American football and we don’t need it. Do we actually need any contact sports? CTE has been demonstrated in participants in multiple other contact sports including basketball, boxing, ice hockey, rugby, soccer, wrestling, and baseball. Unfortunately, there is not as much information available about the rates of CTE in those sports. There was an autopsy study demonstrating CTE in the brains of 21 of 66 individuals who participated in different contact sports at various levels, but no CTE in the brains of 198 controls who had no history of participating in contact sports. A study looking at high school athletes who participated in various contact sports from 2005 to 2014 found that there were about 300,000 concussions annually. That study found that the sport with the highest rate of concussions adjusted for the rate of participation was girl’s soccer. A concussion does not mean CTE will develop but repeated head injury is the etiology of CTE.

          How much risk of CTE is acceptable? In the study that showed 21 of 66 participants in contact sports with CTE, if those who played football are eliminated from the study, the number with CTE is about 5 in 35. Is a contact sport ethically acceptable if only 14% of the participants will suffer brain damage? Is it ethical to allow high school kids and younger to play contact sports at all? There are definite physical and psychological benefits from sports and exercise but those benefits can be achieved with non-contact sports.

      • ”Especially because there is a tinge of anti-Americanism in some arguments against footbal”

        We need a uniquely American sport, one that, during its gameplay it alternately extols the virtues of individualism and personal achievement while simultaneously demonstrating an appreciation for a well oiled team working in concert and harmony.

        The game should permit fans to be close enough to interact with the players on the field to turn it into a community event.

        That’s what we need.

          • I’m bored to tears watching baseball, but I am coming around to teaching myself to appreciate it’s subtle side and greater reflection of American culture *than any other sport*. I do think a culture NEEDS some sort of sport.

            I think by the time my son will be old enough to play sports, I’ll have re-aligned my preferences to enjoy watching a game of baseball.

            I academically and mentally understand it’s superiority, I’m growing in assenting to it’s essential goodness as THE sport for America (of the leading contenders)…I’m just not at the deep emotional bond phase yet. But with internal discipline, I’ll get there.

            Making a single game take less time than it takes me to watch one installment of Lord of the Rings would help.

            • The thing is, baseball requires a person to really appreciate the subtleties of high level strategy…strategy that is hidden in the complexity of merely arranging your batting roster and anticipating that several games out. Football appeals to an appreciation of lower level strategy and the virtue of muscling through some problems. I can’t shake that *valid* appeal of football.

              If there was a way to maintain football while reducing the permanently debilitating aspects of it, I think I could get on board.

            • I will take you to a game. Let me know how and when. If I could help my wife become a hard core fan, I can help anybody.

              The sport is so American in its vibes and values. It isn’t a faceless army led by one player. Teams are groups of diverse individuals, blending their talents and strengths into a unique whole with a shared goal. The AL 2017 MVP is 5’5″. The runner up was 6’7 and almost 300 pounds. The demographics include short, fat, beefy and thin; it is the only pro sport with a mix of players that includes significant numbers of all races. As in life, it is the sport where a player’s weaknesses and flaws are often brutally exposed. The stars don’t dominate: in more games than not, it is lesser appreciated team members who win the games. The fans are close to the action, and sometimes directly affect the game. Unlike football, where the crowd is monolithic, baseball crowds never agree: players are cheered and booed simultaneously.

              Baseball, like the nation, has a rich lore and history that still have an impact on the game today. It began gaining popularity when it was played by Civil War soldiers, It is the only pro sport with such a major impact on the larger culture in its breaking the color line. Before that, baseball’s stand against gambling and corruption after the 1919 World Series began a culture wide crackdown. While football was dragging its feet on concussions, baseball had the courage to make rules minimizing the two major sources of violent contact: home plate collisions, and take-out slides at second base.

              Unlike basketball and football, baseball does not enable a corrupt college feeding system that undermines education and harms athletes. It has the only season that isn’t a sham, with a smaller percentage of teams making the play-offs than any other. There are more upsets, victorious underdogs and miracle teams, by far, than in football, hockey and football, in part because random chance and individual characters plays so large a part. Baseball is chaos. Like life. And the United States.

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