This post was originally written on May 2nd after former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide. You can read the original post here and interact with the many comments it received, or you can read it here and leave a comment. Since writing this post I have continued to watch football, and I am thankful to see that the NFL is trying to make changes for safety, but it can be a bit haunting to think that the player I watch on the field this Sunday may suffer greatly a few years from now.
Is it ethical to watch football? For those of us who consider ourselves Christians do we have an obligation to disengage from the culture of violence promoted by college and professional football?
Today many of us have heard the sad news that former all-pro NFL linebacker Junior Seau appears to have committed suicide. I don’t know what causes Seau to take his own life if he did, but many are wondering if the impact of playing in the NFL–physically and mentally–had something to do with it. This sad event happened at a time when many are rethinking the sport of football. The NFL has done all that it can to protect players in recent years adding many rules that have offended purist, but with the ongoing news that an organization like the New Orleans Saints participated in a bounty program receiving payment for injuring players on the other team it seems like the culture of the NFL is one of excessive violence no matter how many rules are added. Many NFL players retire to a life of physical pain. Many suffer the consequences of numerous head injuries. Often this drains the finances of former players and many see their life expectancy decrease.
In a recent interview with Slate Magazine Malcolm Gladwell argues that college football should be banned (see “Head Games”). He was asked how he might respond to the claim that football breeds school spirit and results in much income for colleges and universities. He responded:
Football breeds school spirit and fundraising. But, I suspect, it breeds school spirit and fundraising largely for the football program. In any case, I find the notion that you can justify exploiting and maiming athletes because that raises money for the school they are attending to be a slightly appalling notion.
Some defend college football on the basis that it teaches teamwork, discipline, and other virtues. Gladwell replied:
They are absolutely right. Sports teach all kinds of virtues. I wonder if there is a way, though, to teach teamwork and discipline without maiming people. I mean if we could prove that coal mining taught discipline and teamwork and built school spirit, would we build coal mines on every major college campus?
In short, Gladwell doesn’t see a game like football as an appropriate activity for college students or something academic institutions should promote. What about the NFL? Should it be banned too? Gladwell says:
As long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated, then I’m not sure we can stop people from playing. A better question is whether it is ethical to WATCH football. That’s a harder question.
If people stop watching football it could go the way of “boxing” or “horse racing.” The NFL would need to take an economic hit to fold. This may seem impossible, but Gladwell alluded to an article by economists Tyler Cowen and Keven Grier that explain how it could happen titled, “What Would the End of Football Look Like?” Their argument seems to indicate that the NFL isn’t as invincible as it may seem.
BUT do we want the NFL to go away?! That is the question.
I admit that I like the NFL. I enjoy watching the games though over the years I have gone from a week-to-week observer to maybe seeing only a game or two a season. I am surprised to say this, but I can imagine a world without the NFL because I don’t pay much attention to it anymore, except the playoffs, or occasional articles on ESPN.com.
I find myself a bit confused by those who watch and enjoy Mixed Martial Arts. It is blood sport and savagery. I’ve told myself that the NFL is better. MMA aims to harm people. Boxing aims to harm people. The NFL aims to keep a ball from crossing the line, right? Well, maybe not the Saints.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor for The Atlantic who wrote in an article titled “Junior Seau is Dead” that the question of whether or not we should stop watching football is an easy one to answer: yes. But that isn’t the hard part: “Doing the damn thing is the hard part.”
Coates ends the article saying,
I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart–destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people whom I would not pass another words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It’s like losing a language.
He is right. That is the hard part. I don’t share a common bond with those who watch MMA. I do with those who watch the NFL.
Is the NFL the “gladiator games” of our empire? Is boycotting the NFL and college football the Christian thing to do when people seek to make money from violence?
I am torn, but Gladwell and Coates are right, the more stories like Seau we read the harder it is going to be to avoid these questions.
What do you think?