Is Watching Football Unethical?

Over at Reason, Stephanie Slade has a nice, thoughtful piece on whether watching football – providing the NFL and college football programs with revenue – is unethical, given the immense harms to players through traumatic brain injuries and the diseases they cause. A selection:

A person can believe an action is wrong even if she doesn’t believe it should be legally prohibited. As libertarians, we generally respect a person’s autonomy under the law to weigh risks against benefits and decide how to make a living. But we aren’t required to accept or encourage her behavior if we believe what she is doing is objectionable. Even if this particular example [prostitution] doesn’t strike you as immoral, chances are you can think of something you view as wrong without believing it should be illegal. Adultery is often a good example. Could playing professional football be one as well?

Now, adultery is wrong because it is a breach of the marriage contract. Even a “libertine libertarian” could acknowledge that. But I agree that there are some moral obligations that have nothing to do with respecting rights, like being kind and considerate to people, acting with beneficence toward those whom one can help, and, yes, respecting one’s own body and mind. If it’s immoral to do heroin, then a fortiori it’s immoral to play football, because football does much more damage to the mind than heroin, and the mind is what really gives us personhood and moral worth. And if it’s immoral for us to play football, it’s also immoral for us to encourage others to do so through financial incentives.

Would you watch a consensual gladiator show in which someone is killed? Or would you think it barbaric and wrong? If a gladiator show is barbaric and wrong, why not a football game? The argument against such a view might be that we don’t think coal mining or deep-sea fishing are immoral occupations even though they carry above-average risks.

To this I would pose three counterarguments. First, the severity of the risks of playing football were not fully known until quite recently. Thus, players have not been adequately compensated for the dangers. Second, even if they were adequately compensated, it seems wrong to accept extreme risks to oneself even for compensation. Would it be morally OK to pay someone to play Russian roulette for one’s own amusement, or to accept such a bargain? There’s good reason to think not. An elevated risk to one’s life – like the risks carried by deep-sea fishing or coal mining – is different from an extreme risk like that carried by football players (you are likely to develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy). What’s the line where risk moves from acceptable to unacceptable? I don’t know. We have to be comfortable with moral gray areas if that means not implausibly drawing the line at either the black or white extreme. Third, there’s something relevantly different between entertaining yourself by watching people injure or kill themselves (like paying someone to play Russian roulette or fight to the death or play football) and paying someone to do a risky job that results in a valued good or service. In the first set of cases, the viewer risks debasing herself by taking pleasure in the violent, destructive activity itself, not just in the outcomes of that activity (like a fish or a warm house).

Now a defender of football might say she doesn’t enjoy the violence of the game, but the strategy, tradition, and so on. One might say the same, of course, about one’s love of the Hunger Games in the imaginary world in which those take place. Isn’t there something chilling and sinister about all those people cheering on killing because of their fascination with the pageantry, tradition, personalities, and so on? To love football for its enjoyable aspects while consciously setting aside its brutal violence is to detach oneself from reality, to lead a life of self-delusion. There doesn’t seem to be any escaping the fact that financially supporting football by watching it on TV or otherwise is to subsidize an immoral and barbaric activity.

I myself stopped watching football and hockey a few years ago for precisely this reason. (Hockey suffers many of the same problems as football.) I hope others will join me.

(Note: A minute or two after publication, this post was updated with more on the “second counterargument” above.)

24 thoughts on “Is Watching Football Unethical?

  1. My adviser told me that people need a certain amount of violence and at least this keeps it in a controlled setting. It sublimates the need for war, he said. Without football, etc., they will turn to worse things.

    1. Could be…. But those people who enjoy violence are not going to pay attention to these arguments anyway. 😉

  2. “paying someone to do a risky job that results in a valued good or service” That’s what we’re doing. The valued good or service is entertainment. People value the entertainment they receive from watching athletic competitions. The comparison with Hunger Games or gladiatorial contests fails, if for no other reason that those people are coerced into participating. But also, there’s a difference between an activity where you’re supposed to get killed and one where you might get a concussion. What people enjoy is the well-executed play, the great catch, the perfect evasive move. People don’t say “wow, awesome concussion, wish there were more of that.”

    1. Right, but we could easily change the analogy to a voluntary Hunger Games or gladiatorial contest, which is what I had in mind. Wouldn’t we still think it would be wrong to support those activities, even if voluntary?

      Now, it may be that we oppose them because the whole point is killing, rather than a side effect. But still, I could imagine a real-life, Voluntary-Hunger-Games fan saying that she didn’t enjoy the moment of the double-tap (or whatever), but watched just for the alliances, responses to challenges, & other aspects of the tactics and psychology. Wouldn’t we still say that this fan has willfully deluded herself about the nature of the game and her support for it? In the same way (though to an admittedly milder degree), isn’t a fan of football or hockey willfully deluding herself about the fact that a majority of players go on to have psychological problems? (Or worse, not deluding herself but not caring.)

      1. Some of the contestants in the Hunger Games volunteered for it because it was considered an honor they trained their whole lives for in their districts. Of course, those contestants were portrayed as bloodthirsty goons…

  3. is it wrong to jump off a cliff wearing a wing suit? How about climbing a mountain for the sake of achieving it? In watching football, at least a good chunk of society gets a benefit (entertainment) from it, with very little cost (cost of ticket/running the TV, minor diversion of medical resources that the NFL pays for). But thrill seekers (yes, they post videos to YouTube, but the vast majority would still do it if there were no recording equipment) engage in an activity that provides few benefits to others, but runs the risk of incurring a high cost (rescuers retrieving them from remote locations, critical body trauma without pre-arranged medical support) to people who gain no benefit for the successful completion.

    ” But we aren’t required to accept or encourage her behavior if we believe what she is doing is objectionable.”

    This is the EXACT argument liberals are using to take away our freedoms, one by one. “I OBJECT to banning gay marriage; I will NOT ACCEPT a baker that refuses to make a gay wedding cake.” “I OBJECT to people getting thrown out of cars; I will NOT ACCEPT people who won’t use seatbelts because they fear being killed by them.” “I OBJECT to people who aren’t responsible enough to buy insurance; I will NOT ACCEPT an argument that they can’t afford it.” See?

    1. Some of those risks could be wrong. I’m not familiar enough with the research to say. In some ways football might be worse because posing a risk of severe brain injury might be worse than posing a risk of death. I often hear people say they’d rather kill themselves than live with advanced Alzheimer’s. But this is a more controversial point, & I don’t insist on it.

      It’s not the exact argument progressives (don’t concede “liberal” to them!) make: they want to BAN activities they disapprove of. To the contrary, I argue that libertarian rights require a moral foundation that also requires taking care of one’s own and others’ moral personality. If humans have strong libertarian rights in virtue of trait X, we also have strong duties to safeguard trait X. I say X=moral personality. Giving yourself brain damage degrades your moral personality. That’s wrong for precisely the same reason it would be wrong to legally prohibit you from giving yourself brain damage.

  4. But the point of the hunger games is killing, and I get why you’re arguing that that’s debased. But the point of football isn’t killing people. It’s scoring points by throwing or carrying a ball from here to there. It’s rough, to be sure, but that’s not the essence of the activity, and indeed there are many rules designed to circumscribe the kind of roughness that’s permissible. It’s not Rollerball. I’d be in favor of certain rule changes to reduce the likelihood of head trauma, but the contrasts to death matches just don’t work.

    1. Well, the rules aren’t very effective, if the recent research is to be believed. Would the Hunger Games be all that much better if the goal were to score points against the other team, and the two teams were outfitted with deadly weapons? In general, I’m skeptical of the “double effect” doctrine when it comes to foreseeable harms.

      1. Most of the rule changes just went into effect within the past few years (since the real dangers of concussions were just discovered-or just admitted, depending on your perspective, a few years ago.) So we won’t really have any idea how effective the rule changes were for a while now.

    1. I sincerely hope they change things significantly. In hockey there has been consternation that even relatively non-physical forwards have had brain problems, so I’m not optimistic, but still hopeful.

    1. Quite plausibly.

      Now, for other reasons, I don’t think nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions of learning should be subsidizing competitive, intercollegiate athletics at all, but this would be another reason to refrain from subsidizing sports like those two that have had such extreme risks.

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  6. I watch the NFL but not college football, in part because I partly agree with your argument. At least NFL players are making significant money, and although the rate of brain injuries is truly alarming, it’s still a lot safer than playing Russian Roulette, and the new rules and concussion protocols being observed should help minimize the problem. Then again, I suppose it’s also possible that I’m just being morally lazy…

    1. I hope you’re right! For myself, I’m going to wait a few years and see how things shake out. If I had a son, I wouldn’t want him to play football, & until I can honestly say differently I can’t in good conscience support others’ doing it.

  7. “Now, for other reasons, I don’t think nonprofit, tax-exempt institutions of learning should be subsidizing competitive, intercollegiate athletics at all”
    Totally agree on that one! 🙂

  8. People watch football and other dangerous sports because it’s exciting and involves feats of derring-do that perforce have risks of serious injury (cf. NASCAR racing, base-jumping, downhill skiing, Olympic-level gymnastics, and even baseball and basketball). Conflating those sports with with gladiatorial contests intended to end in death is a false continuum argument. But there’s something else that no one has mentioned: Football, downhill skiing, and other such sports are really, REALLY fun. Exhilarating, even. I remember my friend Steve, an M.D. then serving his residency; he had played high school football when his team went to the Florida state championships. I vividly remember him saying “It was so much fun, I’d do almost anything to be able to do it again” (he was then in his early-to-mid-30’s). FWIW.

  9. I’m not buying your argument, Jason, for several reasons (some of which have been raised above). But here’s another consideration that hasn’t been mentioned and that occurred to me in reading your post: What would the people who now play football be doing if they were not playing football? It strikes me that the kind of people who play professional football are not only athletically gifted but probably also have a strong impulse toward aggressive, even violent, competition. That impulse would presumably not go away if they did not have football as an acceptable outlet for it. Is it possible that if football were no longer available as an outlet for their aggression, they might expend it in other, potentially more destructive, ways? I don’t just mean more destructive to the rest of us, but more destructive to themselves?

    Football is typically played during the years of people’s lives when they are most energetic and most prone to taking risks, acting with aggression, etc. Might it be better to let them do so—if they choose—in a venue like football than wherever else they might do it?

    [Edit/update: I should perhaps note, for full disclosure, that I enjoy watching football, and I am a former hockey player. I also have two black belts in martial arts—is that unethical too?]

    1. Maybe, but what about another sport with less destructive outcomes? Rugby is in some ways just as violent, but my sense is that brutal head injuries are far, far less common than in US football. Martial arts too.

  10. Arguably, the increase in head injuries is a perverse-incentives consequence of the technological developments in helmets. Aussie footballers don’t have nearly the head trauma stats, and they don’t use our helmets. Maybe in addition to rules changes, we could abolish the helmets. Not holding my breath for that one though.

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