The moral consequence of watching football

Players are injured for our entertainment

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The Baltimore Sun

Malcolm Gladwell, the engaging writer who finds connections in the happenstance that help explain our world, started this discussion with an article he wrote for New Yorker magazine way back in October of 2009, titled "Offensive Play."

Is it morally acceptable to watch football when it is clear that the game is irretrievably harmful to those who play it? Is it ethical to watch injuries being inflicted for entertainment's sake?

"Watching a violent sport is not a morally neutral act," he said in the weeks after his article stirred the hornet's nest.

That was years before football players began shooting themselves in the chest with sickening frequency so their brains could provide evidence of what everybody suspected: That repeated blows to the head over years and years of playing the game — in which the head is one of the weapons — was causing brain damage.

Mood disorders, addictions, violence or aggression, impaired judgment, loss of basic cognitive skills, early dementia, suicide or the end of life in a vegetative state. That's what can be waiting for a football player.

The National Football League settled a lawsuit by players and their families in which the league was accused of knowing the dangers of repeated head trauma for years and keeping it from the players. The $765 million settlement, which included language specifying that this was not in any way an admission of guilt by the league, means that we will never know what the league knew and when it knew it. That would have come out at trial.

By accepting the settlement, some have argued, the players admit that they knew, on some level at least, what they were getting into. That they made the decision to play football — and accept all that contract money — despite the evidence around them that it was dangerous for all sorts of body parts.

Where does this leave the fans? What about us? What about me?

I was paid to cover football for years. It is my favorite sport. I am passionate about the Pittsburgh Steelers. I bleed black and gold. So do my children. What about us?

Bill Rhoden, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote recently that he is asking himself how he can "continue to cover these NFL spectacles knowing that in 15 to 20 years, some of the participants will probably be disabled or worse."

He said football fans are at a moral crossroads and have three ways to rationalize their choices:

"You love the product and don't really care about its costs.

"You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.

"You will walk away."

He concluded he would continue to cover football, and he offered the self-important excuse that he was a "cultural critic" and football is "evidence of erosion in the American soul." Please. The facts are that It is the most popular game in the land, and it is the most prestigious beat in sportswriting.

But he is right that football fans have to face up to the heartless reasons they watch the game. Or walk away.

Ian Crouch took up the argument in a recent book review in the New Yorker. He wrote about Nate Jackson's extremely entertaining football memoir, "Slow Getting Up," and he framed his review in terms of Mr. Rhoden's questions.

Writing about the six years he spent as a wide receiver and tight end — he was a slowish, smallish, white guy from a small college who was lucky to play at all — he acknowledged that the money and the attention were two reasons he played the game. But he also said that the violence, the hitting, was part of what players like, too.

He talked about the "ritual sacrifice" of the kickoff, the game's most dangerous moment, and said. "There is no feeling that will ever replace that moment in my life. I know that now."

He says that his passport identifies him as an "entertainer," and he describes football Sundays as pageantry. Fans have no idea of the reality on the field, he said.

"Consuming the product through a television screen, at a safe distance, dehumanizes the athlete and makes his pain unreal. The more you watch it, the less real it becomes, until the players are nothing more than pixelated video game characters…"

For me, this is much like attempting to rationalize my choice to be a carnivore. How can you continue to eat meat when you know how the animals are mistreated and sacrificed? Right, but sometimes you just crave a juicy steak.

How can you watch football when you know — and the players now know it, too — that your fellow humans are sacrificing themselves for your entertainment? Right, but just beat the Ravens.

Is that my answer? How can it be?

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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