The Ethics of Football

The Ethics of Football October 10, 2013

The Ethics of Football

This may be one of the most controversial blog posts I’ve written yet. Who in their right mind takes on football in America today? Especially while living in the most pro-football state in America? And yet, that is exactly what an ethicist should do—challenge sacred cows. No, not kill them, but challenge them. Attempt to get people to think reflectively, critically, about them. And certainly football is one of America’s most precious sacred cows.

So why question football? Why raise questions about the ethics of football? I see a few reasons for it.

First, football has grown in importance out of all proportion in terms of the number of people who can actually play it. It is almost exclusively a spectator sport. When I was a kid growing up we played baseball in the good weather and basketball in the bad weather. Baseball was then America’s pastime. Basketball was the favorite high school sport in the state where I grew up. Most boys and men could and did play both baseball (or church league softball) and/or basketball. Sure, boys and men (and even some girls and women!) can play forms of football—flag football, for example. But not that many can or do play “real football.” It takes training, muscles, unusual coordination and equipment to play it. And yet, it has now virtually overwhelmed baseball and basketball in popularity which means most people involved with football are spectators who rarely, if ever, actually play the sport. I think a sport should stimulate people to play it, not just watch it.

Along with that, but secondly, football has become a sport ruled by money. Enormous sums are spent by school districts and institutions of higher education on football. Again, it’s a matter of proportionality. One sport should not be so important compared with other sports and no sport should dominate so much of the money, time, energy and attention as football tends to in educational life. Football players get too much special attention. Football coaches make too much money (in higher education). Anyone who just sits back and looks at it objectively, setting aside passion for the sport, cannot help but wonder whether the amounts spent on one sport are justified.

Third, and most importantly, football is dangerous to players’ health and well-being. A few months ago Readers Digest published an expose article about football and head injuries. This past Monday (October 7, 2013) the television documentary program “Frontline” aired an hour long expose of long-term, serious head injuries resulting from football. The clear indication is that brain trauma is routine, not just occasional, for boys and men who play football. And yet people who have vested interests in the sport are in denial about that—just as tobacco companies were for many years in denial about the deleterious health effects of smoking.

I have to wonder why there is so little outcry about head injury and football when the evidence is overwhelming. Why are health professionals, counselors, in colleges and universities, who dedicate a month each year to raising awareness of eating disorders,  not spending at least some time and energy attempting to raise awareness of head injury, brain trauma, for those who play or want to play football? Could it be because they are boys/young men? Could it be because so much is invested in the sport and it draws money?

Are boys who want to play football in junior high school and high school informed about the dangers of long-term brain damage? Are their parents informed? They should be.

Fourth, in today’s social climate, anyway, football seems to arouse inordinate and even dangerous passions among fans. Every time I have attended a collegiate football game I have witnessed grown men (occasionally women) screaming epithets at coaches, referees and players. I have seen and heard fans standing and shouting “Kill ’em! Kill ’em!” at their own team—about the opposing team. Cursing is common in the stands at football games. It is clearly not “just a game” anymore to many fans.

Sports should be about fun and fulfillment, not winning just for the sake of winning.

So what is my solution to the football ethics dilemma? I don’t suggest dropping or banning the sport—except for children not yet old enough to make informed consent decisions about whether they want to risk the injury to their brains. I don’t think boys under, say, 16 should be allowed to play tackle football. For them it should be flag football. And they should be offered alternatives such as soccer.

However, I think especially Christians should call for a ratcheting down of the intensity of the sport so that it is not so all-consuming in terms of finances, passions, favor (to players), etc. And I think every player should be fully informed about the likelihood of suffering long-term brain injury that is irreversible.

I also think high school and college counselors should promote information about the dangers of football to their student populations. Many college and university freshmen, for example, dream of “walking on” and becoming a star or just being on the larger team. Even if they never play in an actual game, however, they can suffer brain injury just from practices.

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