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Post-Bountygate NFL: Should We Still Be Entertained?

How much longer will this be the face of the alcohol-fueled blood lust of the NFL fan?  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
How much longer will this be the face of the alcohol-fueled blood lust of the NFL fan? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Over the years, I've developed a reputation as a "nice guy" around here. So, it would seem only natural that in light of that personality trait, and the Bountygate-driven discussion of hurting players for money, concussions, and violence inherent to the sport of football, that I might have to take stock of my NFL fanaticism.

For me, this self-reflective process began soon after the Bountygate news broke, and continues to this day. There was a feature in the on-line NY Times Magazine section "The Ethicist" a few weeks ago entitled On The Defensive, and in it, the ethicist (Ariel Kaminer), answers the following question from Jenna Bednar of Ann Arbor, Michigan:

Given the mounting evidence of long-term and even fatal effects of brain injuries incurred by professional football players, is it ethical for us to watch the games?

Make the jump for selected excerpts from Kaminer's response along with my own humble commentary.

Kaminer opens with a distillation of the crux of the issue:

The dilemma arises when the sport you love multiplies that risk recklessly - by using inadequate equipment, by celebrating the most dangerous plays and by pushing injured players back onto the field. The New Orleans Saints were recently busted for paying their defensive players bonuses to injure their opponents.

Of course, the Saints get mentioned...this will be a perfunctory add-on to any statement about NFL player safety from now on, so just get used to reading it.

After mentioning Malcolm Gladwell's 2009 article about the very damaging "subconcussive impacts" that occur to players repeatedly in practice and games, the author checks in with Gladwell about things now...

Gladwell is a huge football fan, and when I asked him about the ethics of his position, he compared it ruefully with being a fan of gladiator events. "Specifically because of the activity on the field that's central to the game and a huge part of my pleasure, some percentage of people are going to die prematurely," he said. "Quite prematurely." That pleasure, that eager attention from fans, gives coaches and owners a clear reason to encourage riskier behavior, which in turn gives fans a reason to cheer more loudly, and so on.

Kaminer then points out that you don't have to directly and openly indulge in the bloodlust to support it:

Even if you have no appetite for brutal tackles, you are implicitly endorsing them just by watching the games and arguing about them the next day and logging on to your favorite football sites. That's true regardless of whether you pay for a ticket or whether your television-viewing habits are recorded by the Nielsen company. By participating in the mass phenomenon, you reinforce on-field violence as a cultural norm, and you give the sport that much less incentive to reform itself.

Uh oh. I think I don't think I like to indulge in the lust for blood, but am I doing it anyway? I'm going to need to think about this some more.

And now here comes some framing of the issue and how you can think about it. Who doesn't need some good framework?

Of course, the players are grown-ups, and they went into the sport knowing they could get hurt. For that reason, you could argue that fans are relieved of any ethical responsibility and can do whatever they want with no concern for the consequences. But that would be cynical and self-justifying. At the other extreme, you might argue that players can't really make decisions in the interest of their health with all that money being dangled in front of them; so to protect the athletes from themselves, no one should be allowed to watch. That would be paternalistic. A third option might be called the sheepish realist: you know it's wrong to watch, but you do it anyway.

Every frame needs something worthy of being mounted in the middle of it, so how about this?

But somewhere between those extremes lies an option that has the virtue of being both ethical and simple: If you think the action on the field is unfair to players, just don't watch. Just choose not to participate. (Gladwell predicts that in 15 years or so, no reasonable person will admit to watching football.)

Or act like you don't participate. Kind of like saying, "We never watch TV," when in reality your 50-inch plasma TV is about to get burned out from being on 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.

And Kaminer concludes with a variation on the all we are is dust in the wind motif...

Turning off the TV won't do much. Only as much, perhaps, as voting, an act which in the singular is so small, it's almost meaningless, but which in the aggregate can change history. Your act may or may not help change football, but if you feel as your letter suggests, it will keep you from directly participating in something at odds with your own personal values.

* * *

I am quite conflicted about this. I don't want to see anyone hurt, much less maimed/crippled for life, but I do love me some football. I mean, I love me some football. I really enjoy watching it and studying it. And I love doing what I do with y'all here on CSC.

Am I just going to be one of those lying hypocrites Gladwell is predicting down the road? But part of my personality is that I'm a nice, honest guy, and I don't lie, so I think if I do keep watching, I'll probablyl be one of those cynical and self-serving dudes who quotes Airplane! to allow myself to keep watching the game of football...

Shanna, they bought their tickets, they knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash.

What about you? Are you worried about this? Am I the only one mulling this over? Vote in the poll and let's discuss below...