Before explaining why I will not watch this year’s Super Bowl, I will first dismiss some of the more obvious possibilities. I do enjoy football. I was born in Pittsburgh, where the sport is a religion, complete with high priests, saints, tradition, and ritual. Love of the game runs deep in my family. My mother once dated Saint Myron, who bestowed upon us the holiest of relics, the Terrible Towel. I enjoy the athleticism, the excitement, and everything about the game. I don’t have anything against the teams playing this year. This has the potential to be a great game. And, I’ll be around. Nothing on my calendar prevents me from tuning-in.
I will not be watching the Super Bowl this year because I am now convinced that football is immoral and should not be supported.
Two thousand years ago, the dominant Western culture was the Roman Empire, and a popular form of entertainment involved gladiatorial contests, where combatants fought to the death. In more recent times, well into the 18th century, a popular form of entertainment in Paris France was “cat burning,” where about a dozen cats were wrapped into a net that was bobbed in and out of a bonfire. Bear-baiting continued in England until well into the 19th century. Dog fighting and cock fighting remain popular forms of entertainment in some cultures, although most of our society condemns these acts of barbarity.
It is noteworthy, however, that these earlier forms of entertainment were not deemed barbaric in their time. Barbarism is, by definition, conduct that is deemed offensive by contemporary standards. Gladiatorial contests were deemed acceptable by Roman society, largely because their attitudes concerning death differed from contemporary standards. Additionally, most of the combatants were slaves or convicts, whose lives were valued differently. Cruel treatment of animals can be largely ascribed to Cartesian beliefs that animals lacked a soul and therefore did not experience suffering, a viewpoint now easily debunked by any neuroscientist or anyone who has lived with an animal.
Morality is not a fixed concept; it evolves based upon changes in knowledge, and it is continuously re-examined in light of changes in knowledge and experience. Just within the past two centuries, we have seen society’s standards in the Western world change with respect to slavery, child labor, racial equality, and gender equality. In just the past few decades, we have reached a tipping point where a majority of the population now favors marriage equality, something unthinkable just a short time ago.
So, what does any of this have to do with football, a sport played by athletes who are voluntary participants of the sport, many of whom are highly compensated? I’ll answer that first by asking the question, “what is morality?” Dictionary definitions are not useful, as they rely on tautologies or circular definitions. In a recent book, Sam Harris argues that questions of morality are primarily concerned with the well-being of conscious creatures, and moral actions and positions are ones that generally seek to maximize that well-being. I generally accept that definition, which is entirely consistent with my highest value, i.e., to live an ethical life of personal fulfillment that aspires to the greater good of humanity.
So, the question in my mind is whether football enhances or detracts from the greater good of humanity.
Football is not, of course, completely devoid of positive values. It facilitates the cohesiveness of groups and unites communities. It provides economic and employment opportunities that extend well beyond the direct participants. The players exercise important rights of personal liberty when they voluntarily participate. And, football is an integral part of American culture that provides entertainment to millions. At the recreational and school levels, it provides important opportunities for youth and it provides academic opportunities for those who play in college. The revenues generated at the college level support athletes in many other sports, providing educational opportunities that otherwise would not exist. All of these factors contribute to the greater good of humanity, and the argument that football is therefore moral is a strong one – I do respect the opinions of the majority that disagree with me.
Yet, I fervently believe that centuries from now (assuming that we’re able to address certain long-term environmental, energy, population, and economic challenges), society will view football as barbaric, and I believe that the harm that it causes to participants outweighs the positive values. I reached the tipping point on May 2, 2012, the day that Junior Seau’s girlfriend found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. He was 43. The National Institute of Health has confirmed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain pathology that has been found in many former NFL players. Mike Webster, perhaps the best center to have played the game, also suffered from CTE. He died ten years earlier at age 50; he was homeless and suffering from dementia at the time. It has been estimated that Webster’s brain had suffered the equivalent of 25,000 automobile crashes during the 25 years that he played football at the high school, college, and professional level.
Although the NFL has made progress in reducing the damage from violent hits, the fact remains that a primary objective of the game is to knock opposing players down. This inevitably will cause injuries, and it has resulted in paralysis, death, and repeated hits to the head. It is now beyond reasonable dispute that football causes grievous harm to its players.
For those who believe that the positive values of the game outweigh the harm that is caused, here is a thought experiment. Would a professional Russian Roulette League be moral? Even if the “players” voluntarily participated and had economic opportunities that they otherwise would not, would you watch it? Are the deaths of Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and others any less the consequence of their sport? When you understand why you would not watch the Professional Russian Roulette League, then you will understand why I will not be watching the Super Bowl.