Is There An Ethical Reason to Turn the Football Game Off?

Is There An Ethical Reason to Turn the Football Game Off? September 12, 2023

Over the summer, I primarily watched baseball and a little Women’s World Cup Soccer. When we turned on our first NFL game this past weekend, I was overwhelmed by the sport’s violence. I have watched professional football for years, so my reaction surprised me. I started to question whether it is ethical to watch football because of the physical and mental damage the sport causes the athletes. Additionally, I wondered if watching a violent sport does anything to the viewers.

Even Contact Sports Do Not Need to be Violent

My favorite sports to watch are baseball, soccer, and basketball. People do get injured in these sports, but the game has consequences for violence.

Baseball is a sport that is non-violent for the most part. Of course, batters get hit by pitches, and pitchers get hit by batted balls. Players collide from time to time, competing to arrive on base first. Outfielders and infielders run into one another when they are not paying attention.

Soccer (futbol) varies as far as injuries and violence go. I often wonder how one referee can keep up with the number of slide tackles and multiple heads competing for the ball. In the United States, I believe that MLS and NWSL seek to make soccer safer. Ideally, the referees are handing out yellow and red cards to players who want to be rough or appear unconcerned about opponents.

Basketball is a contact sport but is not supposed to be violent. With such a small court, however, it is inevitable that multiple players attempting to retrieve a rebound would do so with some jostling. Referees for basketball give penalties for pushing and shoving that occurs.

A University of Colorado football player carries the football during a game.
By college, a football player has been tackled many times. If he goes on to the NFL, it will increase the number of tackles he experiences. Photo from


Aside from the fact that “football” does not describe this sport well, football is a violent contact sport. The referees do hand out penalties that often translate into yards lost by the offensive team. The sport has attempted to make changes to the rules to make the game safer. It used to be that NFL advertisements would highlight helmet-to-helmet collisions. This move is now illegal. The quarterback gets more protection from those who would rough him (in this case) up. Not all tackles are OK but most are.

The difference between football and some of these other sports is that a player can stop an opponent by pushing him down, tackling him, or running him off the field. Linemen physically compete to allow running backs through or defense to sack the quarterback.

Despite the rule adjustments, there is no getting around that playing football today is damaging to the players. A different helmet will not assist a player while his brain sloshes around in his skull.

Can We Ethically Support This Violent Sport?

The players on our favorite team are destined to suffer from the injuries they sustain while playing. Football players are more likely to suffer Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE causes nerves in the brain to degenerate. Whether players suffer concussions or subconcussive hits every game or several times, the head trauma leads to serious issues later in life. Former players with CTE can have cognitive problems, memory issues, agression, depression, and suicidal thoughts, issues with moter skills, and other effects.

Watching football is not like the Romans watching gladiators dying there and then. The effects of football and any injury or dying happens years later, out of the public eye. Most viewers, however, know the damage sustained by the players as well as the future suffering of boxers, persons involved in Mixed Martial Arts, and other sports such as rugby. Researchers have found CTE in 90 percent of football players studied.

Does a Violent Sport Affect the Viewers?

Studies have shown that violent movies and video games affect the brains of the people engaged with them. Significant exposure to this type of violence may lead them to be violent themselves or to have pro-violent perspectives. The cause and effect relationship between the content and behavior is challenged by some. The “General Agression Model” links them.

Researchers from frontiers in Public Health  showed football fans and non-fans  images of violence on the football field and in other settings. They used MRI to see how their brains responded.

“Fans of football show diminished activation in brain regions involved in pain perception and empathy . . . when watching violence in the context of football compared to more broadly violent images. Non-fans of football showed showed no such effect for the types of violent imagery and had higher activation levels levels than fans of football for the specified brain regions.” (“North American Football Fans Show Neurofunctional Differences in Response to Violence: Implications for Public Health and Policy”.)

More research would need to be done in order to discern whether changes in brain activity are due to football or other violent content subjects consume. It is possible that people who refrain from watching football may also avoid violence in other contexts, leading to these results.

Concluding Thoughts

If we know that football players will later suffer for the entertainment they are providing us, it seems like the more ethical approach would be to stop watching football. If, in the future, more studies suggest that watching a violent sport changes our brains and seemingly, not for the better, then that would be another reason to refrain.

As I stopped typing, I realized that I was wearing a Seattle Seahawks jacket. Great!  I am going to struggle with the decision whether to watch football or not because it is a weekly tradition in my family. Please let me know if you have thoughts about it.

Browse Our Archives