Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it Ethical to Watch Football?

Longtime blog readers know that I'm a big sports fan, and for most of my life that has heavily involved football. Some of my earliest memories are of rooting for Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and the 49ers dynasty of the 80s, which extended to Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the 90s and beyond.

When I was in college I went to Pasadena to watch Stanford's Rose Bowl appearance on January 1, 2000, and have since cheered on legends Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck. Now the 49ers have returned to excellence and I was as excited as anyone.

But over the years it's gotten a lot harder to watch.

It all started for me later in 2000 when I was standing on the field across from the line of scrimmage when Washington safety Curtis Williams was injured on a running play. I heard the incredible hit and watched the paramedics rush onto the field and then rush back to the ambulance in a panic, saying, "Holy s***, they're bagging him." Williams was revived on the field, left paralyzed from the neck down, and eventually died at age 24.

But while that may be chalked up to a freak accident, a huge amount of information has since come to light about the effects football has on players' brains. The first serious dawning came from Malcolm Gladwell's influential 2009 article that compared football to dogfighting, which shined a spotlight on the horrific effects football had on former players.

Since then I've been grappling with how ethical it really is to watch football. Yes, the players are there willingly. Yes, they're well-compensated (at least the pros). Yes, the NFL has taken steps to punish helmet to helmet hits, which mollified me some. But should we really be supporting a system that incentivizes people to destroy their brains for our pleasure?

Now comes news that one of the greatest linebackers in history, Junior Seau, was found dead due to an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

While of course we shouldn't jump to conclusions until the facts are in and it's uncertain whether this has anything to do with football, it's impossible not to draw parallels to the circumstances of another troubled former player, star safety Dave Duerson, who also shot himself in the chest, leaving a note that he wanted his brain donated for study. It was later confirmed that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

Is it really ethical to watch a sport that by its very nature has such a horrific effect on its players?  Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has blogged eloquently about this topic. He now says he's out.

This past season I cringed as Stanford's talented wide receiver Chris Owusu endured concussion after horrifying concussion, and now he's going to give it a go with the 49ers. It's admirable that he wants to keep playing the sport he loves, and of course these are my two favorite teams.

I just don't know if I can watch.


Nicole Zoltack said...

I know what you mean. It's scary. So is hockey. Hubby and I have argued about whether or not we'll let our boys play football when they grow up. I vote no. It's too dangerous. And if I don't want my sons to play it, maybe it is unethical to watch it.

For now, though, I can't stop watching. I love my Eagles too much.

John Wiswell said...

In your conclusion you say that it's admirable for a person who has sustained such injuries to continue playing in this public sport. If that is an actual value judgment, Nathan, then why is it immoral to watch his admirable act?

I can understand wanting to stop watching any sport for gut reaction to effects. I've done it; there is little objectionable with picking your viewing habits based on emotion. The Seau story is depressing. But if you're talking ethics, then you can't skim over players performing willingly and for compensation, especially not in the attempt to make the point about "incentivizing" destroying brains, which the NFL does not - though at least one team did, and again could give you a viable emotional out. The Gladwell article was inflammatory at best - I picked that apart here back in 2009:

Matthew MacNish said...

This is particularly difficult for me to think about. Especially after poor Junior, which was almost certainly due to brain damage from football.

I played football for three different high schools, and I had some cousins who even went on to play Division I ball in college. I'm a huge Minnesota Vikings fan, and even like my home team Atlanta Falcons a lot too. But I can't deny, it's a dangerous sport, and the league does not do right by its retired vets.

Nathan Bransford said...


I admire the dedication if not the wisdom. And just because there are positive qualities on display doesn't make the whole enterprise good, no more than heroics in war necissarily makes war good.

I don't believe in taking away freedoms, and football players can make their own decisions. But I can also decide to be someone who doesn't contribute to that players' incentives.

Lori Ann Stephens said...

I haven't been able to watch for years. My partner is a neuro-scientist, and he's aghast that Americans let their children play at ALL. Studies will be published very soon that shows that people who play football at ANY age get Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases 3 years earlier than those who don't. There is no doubt among doctors and researchers that contact football damages the brain long term. It's really staggering, and as a sports-loving nation, I suspect we're going to see some interesting (and horrifying) reactions from colleges, fans, players, and the players' parents.

Rick Daley said...

My son played tackle football last fall and one of the team's running backs was out for half the season due to a concussion. Did I mention this was a 4th grade team?

My son is playing soccer again. This makes me happy, I will watch his games all day long.

I don't watch much football, or any other televised sports, mainly because I lack the requisite attention span. Football has too high a ratio of stuff-not-happening to stuff-actually-happening. It's a long series of "I missed it" moments. I do like the commercials, though.

I will watch the OSU Buckeyes, but after Tressel resigned, this past season was tough to watch. Next year will be interesting with a new coach, though.

Other sports, like basketball and soccer, are easier for me to watch because there's continual movement, but for basketball I lack a favorite team, and games are much less exciting when you don't care who wins or loses.

I would much rather go to a live sporting event, I love the feel of the stadium, or better yet play a sport, even if it's a simple game of catch or backyard baseball with my kids (and a bunch of ghost runners).

Reagan Philips said...

Tough question.

I don't watch much football, and I've been known to complain that the sport is so brutal that the regular season can only last 16 games per team.

I won't watch boxing because the purpose of that sport is to knock someone else out.

I do, however, watch hockey. It's not quite as brutal (and the season lasts almost the whole year!). But still, have you seen those guys smile? No teeth.

The thing that bothers me in any sport is the willingness for the crowd to glorify fights. Hockey fans are known to jump to their feet and bang on the glass like animals while the players doff their gloves, and spin in circles while slamming each other in the face. WHY?

Maybe if the fans didn't glorify the manhandling of opposing teammates the games would have a little different flavor. But, on the other hand, competition does things to people.

Bryan Foster said...

This certainly is a difficult dilemma. I do believe Goodell is making a substantial effort to improve player safety but he's constantly behind the curve as the speed of the game rapidly increases. There is no denying though that the current standard is not good enough and it's not right for our modern society to just say, "Hey they're gettin' paid (Big Time), they know the risk, it's their choice." As fans of the game we have a responsibility to believe it's important to protect the warriors we love to watch

Wyndes said...

I stopped watching when I realized I would never let my son play. For me, it wasn't so much the long-term damage for the highly-compensated winners -- it was the long-term damage for the multitude of players who don't make it to the NFL. It's as if the Hunger Games held auditions, country-wide, and we all cheered on our children in their attempt to make it. If there wasn't huge money in football, kids across the country wouldn't be racking up half a million injuries a year (from a 2007 study in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.)

Isaiah Campbell said...

Ooh, I love a good question of ethics! (I even blogged about a writer’s code of ethics last week)This question is particularly interesting to me, as I too am a huge football fan.

This question obviously has the active and passive connotations:
1. Is it ethical to WATCH FOOTBALL? (This is what I do actively)
2. Is it ethical to CONTRIBUTE to the INCENTIVES that drive football players to ignore their own health and the health of other players in their quest for wealth and fame? (This is what I do passively, as a result of my active decision to watch. Whether I’m buying a ticket, contributing to the Nielsen’s ratings, or generating buzz online, I’m contributing to the incentives (salary increases and public recognition) that professional football players strive for)
The question is not “is it ethical for football players to ignore…” That’s a whole other ball of wax.

As with any question of ethics, we have to look at motives and outcomes. Are the motives pure? Does the outcome retain the purity of the motives?

What’s my motive in watching football? If it is to see football players get injured or ruin their lives, then I would say that’s an impure motive. (That’s why I don’t watch boxing) If my motive is to watch a well-executed sporting event with anticipation of the score and how it will affect my favorite team, then I would say that’s a pure motive.

To put it another way, watching football for the hits = BAD. Watching football for the season results = OK. (From a motive perspective)

What about the outcome of me watching football? More money is added to the team coffers (if I bought a ticket) or to the NFL pocketbook (If I helped make the game a more valuable prospect for advertisers by raising the Nielsen ratings), and more fame is given to the players I talk about and generate a buzz over.

We, as fans, generate the currency of football. That currency is then used in a lot of different ways. Some good (think of all the charitable organizations assisted by player’s fame and fortune, or of the kids who might not have a future if not for football, or of the thousands of jobs the NFL has created) others bad. Thus, the outcome is not as pure as the motive. There are still good, pure elements, but there are also negatives.

What happens if we all stop watching football? If every fan denied the NFL the currency we create that they depend on? All of the bad stories will end. There will be no more suicides as a result of brain damage, nor will there be stories of men unable to care for their drug addictions, or families upended by career destroying injuries.

There will also no longer be any of the good stories. No more NFL jobs, no more players as role models, no more star for athletic kids to shoot for. The charities and community organizations those teams contribute to will take a serious hit.

So, perhaps the way to purify the outcome isn’t by ending my action. Perhaps the way to purify the outcome of watching football is to demand more input in how my currency is used. Vilify coaches who place bounties, or who encourage players to play through concussions. Boycott games when teams have shown a record of mistreating their players. Engage the owners, coaches, and stars through correspondence to have stricter restrictions on medical evaluations and care.

But that’s just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

"Is it Ethical to Watch Football?"

It's just a personal thing. I'm sure many would argue it is ethical.

But you are adorable for bringing it up.

Kat Sheridan said...

I'm going to echo Reagan. I don't watching boxing because I have no interest in watching people get beat up for amusement. And as much as I'm a born and bred OSU Buckeye fan, I'm losing interest in football because I've seen the toll it takes. For all those young me taking it on the skull every week on televion, there are thousands more who never made it that far and will suffer for a lifetime with blown knees, head injuries, shoulder/arm injuries, etc. To a young man in his 30s that may not mean much, to a man in his 50s who is in constant pain from arthritis and can barely walk anymore, it's going to mean a lot.

I've always been grateful my son was something of a klutz who much preferred swimming and photography to getting his bones crunched for "fun".

D.G. Hudson said...

We're having the same discussion in Canada about the tough guys in Hockey (the enforcers) who suffer brain damage, depression, etc from taking and dealing out hits in the line of play.

As for football, I quit watching it entirely after seeing a similar hit (maybe the same one) as you describe. The high salaries don't justify the body damage. Look at what Mohammed Ali looks like now.

Interesting question, Nathan.

Mr. D said...

As a former football player and coach, football was my passion. (Now it's writing.) but when I played I always hit with my shoulder, and that's what I coached. Since helmet to helmet contact is now against the rules, then the penalty for violating that rule should be such that it doesn't reoccur. Even if it means suspending violators indefinitely.

Breda said...

In college, I took a neuroscience class with an elderly professor. Several years before, armed with the knowledge of what repeated concussions do to the brain, he'd tried to get our school to shut down the program. Now, I went to Brown, which means that our football team is neither impressive nor important (we occasionally win the Ivy League!) and that our entire reputation rests on the intelligence of our faculty and students. But still, the football program is one of the few sports that actually brings in money, and the school all but laughed in his face. He still believed in it so strongly that he brought it up several times in class, despite the fact that we were studying the evolution of language.

I don't watch much football anyway, but I can't get that out of my head when I do watch.

Marie Loughin said...

I suspect the concussion problem is even worse in hockey than football. I was appalled when Daniel Sedin returned to play so soon after what was obviously a major concussion. Play-offs or not, his coach shouldn't have allowed it. Young athletes think they're indestructible...until they're not.

LadySaotome said...

Wow - I've never been a football fan but I discovered hockey this year. Now I'm going to have to rethink my support.

Michael Pickett said...

I find that I'm having this conflict too. I played in high school, and have been a fan ever since. And every year I tell myself that I'm not going to get sucked into it (the 49ers sudden rise to excellence didn't help last season). I don't know if I will ever stop watching (what other connection to I have with my alma mater?) but I'll try not to encourage my kids to play.

abc said...

And let's not forget Jason Street!

I am not a sports fan, so I'm not sure if it is fair for me to comment, but I do understand the ethical dilemma. I have often felt the same regarding boxing. There just seems to be something wrong about watching people beat each other up, especially when they are overwhelmingly minorities or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It doesn't sit right with me. I get a flicker of gladiator type stuff.

On the other hand--some of these same sports provide so much good. A way out, self-esteem, community, discipline. I don't know if it is right to take that away.

Not that there is any chance of it going away, really. Not on this country. Not football. But you are right, we can at least chose to look away.

Sooooo, in conclusion, I have no conclusion. As usual.

Laura said...

I love football. I love that it's violent, but these 'men' know what they are signing up for when they play the game. I think it's terrible that concussions can have long-term implications. Most likely Junior Seau along with Dave Duerson had CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).

Chris Nowitzki former Harvard football player and Wrestler co-teamed with Dr.Cantu to start the research program at Boston University. Chris also wrote a very telling book Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis. He's been on the news here (I'm in MA) and he is such a big proponent to stop the head shots. A former Patriot Player, Ted Johnson has struggled with depression and violence, most likely due to all the concussions he suffered. He came on the radio to explain that there were times when he just could not get out of bed. He would forget things, like where his keys were. He honestly thought he was going crazy.

The public didn't know anything about this until he was arrested on domestic violence charges. For such a respected player and person in the Foxboro area (I remember having breakfast in the same place with him and Tedy Bruschi when Ted Johnson' baby was very little).

Junior Seau's death has now brought this factor to the forefront,and it's been speculated that his brain will come to Boston for testing. If it's conclusive that his brain had the protein CTE, then the NFL has a lot of problems on their hands.

cheyennehill said...

@ Isaiah Campbell, excellent post! I do miss my ethics and philosophy classes at uni... Really enjoyed reading that :)

Nathan, I think your question is legitimate, and definitely a point worth considering. I've enjoyed watching NFL games all my life (though some years more so than others... I grew up in Buffalo *shrug*). Now I live in the UK and can rarely see games.

I would never say, "Oh, they know what they're in for and they get paid to do it, so who cares," but I do think that they're not being forced, and we're not watching the results of some torturous ordeal they're undertaking at gunpoint. These are grown men choosing to take part in a game I would assume they all love to play, and I wouldn't think most of them choose to play in order to repeatedly bash their head in. Any player who gets numerous concussions and carries on needs help - and the coaches and staff should be putting doctors in his face telling him carrying on will result in irreversible damage.

I would say it's unethical to be supportive of the people in charge, who aren't putting enough rules and regulations and checks in place to stop such life-altering injuries from racking up. And if the way to do that is to continue having discourse like this, then great. But as far as the reason for watching, if it's for a love of the game (despite the constant rule changing that's kind of making it less than it was, IMHO) and the teams and the sportsmanship (what there is of it), I don't think I feel that's unethical.

People can and do get hurt in ANY sport. Running. Another death in the London Marathon this year, from a seemingly athletic and healthy 30-year old woman. A world champion 20-something swimmer dies. People die in downhill skiing, snowboarding, cycling... you name it. Now I agree there is a difference between being educated and making educated decisions about one's safety and health, and when to stop... and the people who just carry on blindly. But I guess what I'm saying is people love sports, and most will continue to pursue their chosen activity despite the risks. We don't have to watch it, you're right. But I don't think it's unethical to, if we're sharing in the love they have for the *sport* (not for bashing their head in while playing said sport...)

Philip Heckman said...

Seau was the most recent member of the Super Bowl Chargers to die young. Here's list of teammates who've fallen to what is calling "The Curse of the 1994 San Diego Chargers."

Anonymous said...

I admire you for bringing up what is sure to be an unpopular topic. The sad truth is, I think the majority of people will not change their mindset that football == America == manliness, no matter what the cost.

I grew up in Texas, and high school football was something you never questioned. No matter how many injuries there were to young kids who had the rest of their life ahead of them.

Despite the popularity of the Hunger Games and its an indictment of the sickening voyeurism that enabled the brutal games, I don't think football will devolve anytime soon. It would take a generation or more to do so, but every time someone draws the comparison from football to barbarism, perhaps we are getting a little bit closer.

So thanks for sticking your neck out!

Salima said...

This is a very interesting post. I used to work as a massage therapist and the worst injuries I saw by far were the ex-football players---guys who had to retire at very young ages due to massive hip/shoulder/head injuries. And it was clear they'd suffered a lot of emotional trauma as well. I live in Texas right now, which is a HUGE football state and where it's deemed kind of crazy to wonder about the potential long-term effects of the sport. But based on some of the guys I worked on, I came to the same conclusion as you---it just doesn't seem worth it. *ducking, waiting for fellow Texans or football players to throw tomatoes*

Anonymous said...

I've been wondering the same thing about hockey. Two hockey players (Wade Belak and Rick Rypien) committed suicide and another (Derek Boogard) died of an apparent drug overdose. Concussions and dirty plays seem to be increasing, despite tough talk by the NHL. Last year's Stanley Cup featured a late hit to Nathan Horton that resulted in a concussion, and a unpenalized hit that broke Mason Raymond's back. And this year's playoff run already involves one 25-game suspension. That's not "sport." It's dirty and ugly.

Lauren Monahan said...

The high school where I teach is pretty torn up about Seau's death. We're San Diego's top sports high school & Junior's nephew, Ian, graduated from here last year. He was one of our football stars and is now playing at Kansas State. When the news broke, I thought about Ian, and more specifically, Ian's brain. I adored teaching Ian; he's bright, funny, charismatic, and often spoke about how his uncle had been a hero to their family, and how much he wanted to follow in Junior's footsteps so he could help take care of his family, and the community (Junior did a LOT of good for the community). I know that if I asked Ian if he would trade being able to accomplish what his uncle did for a good life later in life he would undoubtedly take the early success. Granted, he's young now, but I don't think that his decision would change with age. That said, I wonder if he'd trade his future for only a tiny shot at success now? I think he still would. Is that because it's a "hunger games" thing as was suggested? Or a love of glory? Or just a love of head-butting? Is there something primal that requires societies to engage in intentional barbarism? I don't know, but it does seem quite different than the reductive logic Gladwell so eloquently uses when he equates the sport with dog fighting. Ian would smile when I reminded him to be careful about protecting his brain, and rush willingly at his opponents; doesn't sound like the dogs were smiling. That said, I like that you posed the question to remind us to step back and question the status quo, especially when science reveals information that can lead to more educated decision-making. And maybe even help protect the brains of my fantastic former students:)

Nancy Thompson said...

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be football players!

ce3 said...

Oh come on-- we're talking about football here. Right??
or have we become nambie-pambie about it too?

Nathan Bransford said...


Yes, I confess to being a little nambie-pambie about people shooting themselves in the chest due to neurological degeneration related to playing football.

Sophia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sophia said...

Nathan, thank you for posting this. I think a lot of people don't even know about the problem of head injuries in football. And it doesn't end with head injuries. My husband played football in high school and he suffered a head injury and a back injury (at separate times) and both still trouble him to this day. It's such a shame to allow kids, who don't have the reasoning yet to make better decisions, to play in a sport that may scar them for life. I will fight to keep my son from playing. As for whether watching pro football is ethical or not, I'll go with not, because glorifying this sport makes it that much more attractive to young people. When we watch, we spike up ratings. We give advertisers incentives to continue giving athletes incentives. And this sport, which ruins bodies, continues.

Hillsy said...

I'm a football fan from the UK. As such I also watch soccer, rugby and Cricket.

There are a few parallels between the sports. One issue is that the games have prgresssed physically faster than the rules have caught up. Certainly Soccer (I'll continue to use the americanism as much as it mains has seen an astronimical increase in the number of serious leg injuries, certainly ligaments and foot breaks. Why? Definately a major contributing factor is the speed of the game, aided by the quality of the pitches and the lightness of the equipment. It allows players to come into contact at greatly elevated speeds really riding the brink of control. Look at the youtube footage of Aaron Ramsey's legbreak and see how bad a minor misjudgment can be.

Players now are also very, very highly tuned athletes. Again in my mind this makes them condusive to injury. Here in the premiership you can list a good number of players who have all had chronic hamstring problems. These tend to be also the players who were the quickest. You tune a pro to that level and it'd be like an old F1 qualifying engine, built to rip itself apart in the pursuit of a few extra seconds off a lap. My opinion: the reason we are seeing more and more young sportsmen who've succumbed to serious illness or injury is because of 'professionalism' - they are so highly tuned that a minor mishap blows the whole thing apart.

Therefore it's imperative that as the game moves towards the pinacle of professionalism, the game moves with it. As a player of many sports at an amatuer level, I enjoy seeing the blood and thunder of good physical confrontation (within the laws). But I play where mistiming a tackle is far more unlikely to cause serious injury because it's sunday park soccer. Yeah it hurts, but I've been playing football 20+ years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of serious injuries I've seen. Hell, the worst I've ever sffered is busted ligaments when my own keeper fell on my knee as I was making a clearance.

Which brings me to cricket. This is a sport where it's perfectly legal to whizz down a 6 ounce ball at somewhere between 80-100MPH at a persons head who may of may not be guarunteed to avoid it. I do it alot. I'm an amatuer but I still nudge 80MPH, and I've actively sought to scare/hurt someone in order to get them out. The difference is that the game in the late 70s (when there was a big jump in the pace of surfaces) realised the game had taken a step forward, and led by Dennis Amiss smpent the next decade pushing saftey. It's now ahead of he curve, such that even with more and more 90MPH bowlers in world cricket, players are safer than ever before.

So if you really wanted to change it, you need to slow the game down. Why does rugby have so few concussions? Look at the rules: no hitting above the abdomen, players have to be one side of the ball at all times so you almost always see the hit coming, players run into tacklers rather than the pair hitting each at speed. The game is less explosive by its very construction. Does it make it as spectacular as Football? No. But it's something to think about.

Saying something is unethical because people get hurt regularly by the construction of the game is the thin end of a very long wedge. I appreciate that tennis elbow isn't the same as CTE, but it got it's name from somewhere.

As for Seau, my heart goes out to him. But I'd also look to, as a contributing factor, the hype and pressure of a more and more professional game pressing down on human beings, not all of which are capable of handling it. Just because you are a great sportsman, doesn't mean you're autmatically equipped to be a sporting great. A number of soccer players here have suffered serious depression? Why? When the highs get higher and higher, day-to-day life becomes a low.

.....I'll get back in my box now

Anonymous said...

While I was watching "Hunger Games," I kept thinking of what a parallel it was to our identification via socialization that is centered around professional sports. The immorality question has certainly been on my mind with the last month in hockey. The risks of playing football and hockey have superceded the limits of safety for the players. Why don't the NHL players wear cages on their masks (as is required all the way through college hockey) or keep their chin straps snug enough to keep their helmets on during a collision with the boards or other players? So that they are prepared to fight in front of the roaring crowds and television viewers. Why do we tolerate boarding, charging, open ice destruction, cross-checking? One need only watch the 'highlights' in any sport to see that the dramatic and fearsome hits are the things that are 'expected' to draw the audiences, rather than intelligent strategy and the displays of skill and speed. The NHL has 'taken a stand' against the violence in hockey - and promptly forgotten that stand for playoffs. As much as I LOVE the game itself and the absolute beauty of a perfectly executed play, when the players are called upon to risk their lives and/or their futures by constantly increasing the stakes to capture more viewers, then 'Yes' it is immoral to support the 'Games' with our viewing. And my daughter's knees are both torn; my son's back gives him pain every single day. They are only in their 20's and both were injured in the sport they loved.

Other Lisa said...

I am a native San Diegan and have watched the Chargers all of my life. Seau was one of the more beloved athletes in the community. It's just a tragedy.

And yes, I have been wrestling with the ethical implications of watching football since the articles about long-term brain damage started coming out of the last couple of years. This death makes it harder for me to justify.

Laurel said...

I am a huge fan of college football. I'm not sure I could give it up...ever. And for YEARS I have been the chick in the "It's ridiculous how much professional athletes make" argument saying it is justified by the demand on their bodies and the effect on their lifespans.

There are sports where the OBJECT is to inflict injury/brain damage on the opponent. In boxing or Ultimate Fighting, for example, the fastest way to win is to knock out your opponent. Otherwise, you win by landing the most blows with the most force.

In football, the object is to move the ball. Yes, absolutely, coaches and players make it their mission to injure the opposing team. But that is not the object of the game.

To my way of thinking, if the players are willing and the objective is not particularly to hurt other people, I'm fine with it. (I also live in the Deep South, where badly injured players get massive support.)

Rachael W said...

I think this is an interesting question. When I was teaching high school and coaching the softball team, I suffered two concussions in less than a year's time. That second concussion messed my mind and body up for four days (couldn't stand up for very long, couldn't walk in a straight line, couldn't remember things), and even though those are the only two knocks I've taken, I'm still worried about what might happen to my brain further down the line. I can't imagine taking that kind of hit to the head on a regular basis.

That said, I think the idea that men CHOOSE to play this game is a somewhat debatable one. I think the reality of that choice depends on a player's background. I taught in an inner city school, and many of my male students talked about football as their path to college and/or a better life. Sure, a lot of them loved the game and there were a lot of pipe dreams about the NFL, but most of what I heard was "I'm going to get a football scholarship so I can go to college." Right or wrong, they saw this as their only way of getting to and paying for college, and if young athletes have only that one option, then there's not much of a choice about it.

While I realize that football is, in reality, not the only path-to-college option available to our underprivileged and under-served young men, many of those young men aren't familiar enough with the college admissions process to know about academic grants and merit scholarships. And I'm going to stop here, because this issue is far more complex than this comment space will allow room for.

Also: add me to the list of Buckeye fans who apparently read your blog. O-H-I-O, everyone!

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should just all watch soccer instead:) Oh, I really mean football.

E.B. Fyne said...

You can question if it's ethical to watch horseracing also. Both jockeys and horses have an incredibly hard life. Jockeys starve and break their necks. Horses are ruined. The jockeys have some choice.

Kristi Helvig said...

I was called "over-protective" by some because I didn't let my then 7-year-old play tackle football (I allowed flag football instead). A 7-year-old in the area who was allowed to play "real" football has already sustained two concussions. I'm not sure if those parents realize that the damage from concussions is cumulative. As a psychologist, I've conducted neurological testing on people with brain injuries and it's heartbreaking. My son chose to play soccer instead of flag football this year which made me happier--until I saw the story about a World Cup player dying on the field. Now I hope he takes up basket-weaving.

The NFL thing is hard for me because I'm a huge football fan, and have been a long-time admirer of Junior Seau. I'm still stunned by his death. I heard his neighbor say in an interview that Junior said he'd had a headache "for years." I agree that the players chose to play the game and realize that there is risk involved, but my hubby who played football in high school and who was offered several scholarships to play in college said the mentality drilled into you is that "you're a warrior and you don't think about yourself. You get up and keep going because it's about your team." These NFL guys are also getting paid millions to get up and keep going, which adds a whole different spin to it. We debated not watching this year, and my hubby likened it to the Roman Colosseum and said there will always be people willing to watch. I'm just not sure I'll be one of them.

Bryan Russell said...

I hear you. I was a serious athlete when I was younger, which was ended by a serious ankle injury. Now, on the other side of my playing days, I have one completely shot ankle, a shot knee, tendinitis in the other ankle, one hip, both wrists, and one elbow, as well as a bad shoulder and a back that occasionally acts up. I'm 34. It is, sometimes, hard to get out of bed in the morning, in a purely physical sense. I doubt those joints are going to be feeling much better in 20 or 30 years.

And, the thing is, I now have small kids who are starting to get involved in sports. And while I love sports, and would like to share with my children some of the experiences and values that sport offers, I find myself somewhat ambivalent; I both want this and don't want this for them. Only now do I have some inkling of what my parents must have felt like watching me, absorbing injury after injury. It's been seventeen years since I walked without pain. That's half my life. What is it I'm inviting my children into? And yet there are many joys and gifts, too, things that have helped shape who and what I am.

I want to be happy and healthy, and yet I still sometimes dream of the winning goal...

Anonymous said...

uh, I don't care? I'm a figure skating fan.

wendy said...

Thank you for this, Nathan! How ghastly for you to have been there when this poor player was mortally injured. And how tragic for this young man and his family.

Well, okay, I admit I'm not a sports fan, but the sensitivity you've displayed, and the kindness, is uplifting. As I've never watched a game of anything in my life - except wrestling when a child - I had no idea it was so dangerous. Actually, I can't understand why people get so excited about watching other people play with a ball. Why don't people get as excited about a fabulous musical with charismatic actors spouting witty dialogue and singing glorious songs that reveal a fab story?

But I digress.... lol

Yes, I agree with you, Nathan, that given the statistics and potential danger, watching football and thereby encouraging people to put their lives and health on the line, might be on a par with watching gladiators or boxers. *sigh*

At least Spain has recently outlawed bullfighting in that country. I'm a bit ashamed to admit I wasn't so much aghast for the matador but for the animals that were cruelly and slowly slaughtered.

Perhaps, in the future, the rules of football could be changed to make some (or all) tackles illegal, therreby at least lessoning the chance of permanent injury.

Shari A. Brady said...

I'm not a sports fan in general, and in my opinion, football is barbaric. I don't watch it.

Holly Michael said...

As a mom whose son just signed on with the New Orleans Saints, it's scary. My son Jake is also a diabetic. I watched on TV, during one of his games, the camera panning to him lying on his back on the field. I knew he didn't take a hit. I was in a panic until I saw him back in the game. It was muscle cramps. I thought it was diabetes related. I've watched him take hits that he didn't remember later. Scary stuff for a mom. But, it's where he feels God has him. Good Christians need to be in all arenas. Jake feels his diabetes is something God is allowing him to have for a greater good. He feels it's all a part of where he is now. That perhaps God is using him to help others. We both believe making it to the NFL is a part of God's plan for his life. It's all scary. Even for Jake. Reality is hitting him now. I told him you are like Peter, walking on water, you have to keep your eyes on Jesus or you'll sink. Because being a diabetic and in the NFL is like walking on water. Jake assured me he is keeping his eyes on Christ in faith, for protection, for His divine guidance, and for Him to keep him from drowning in these scary waters.Please keep Jake Byrne with the New Orleans Sainst in your prayers.

Anonymous said...

Your comments have reminded me of my own father this morning. He was a football player in high school and became an all-state all star player…this was a very long time ago, even before face masks and proper pads. He complained mostly of knee injuries later in life, they were due to his football injuries. He went on to become a jet fighter pilot in the Air Force. I was probably the only little girl in my neighbor who could count on her daddy flying over the house every afternoon at 3PM to waggle the wings of his T-38 and sometimes leave a long arching contrail high in the sky. When I was six, I figured all the dads could do that sort of thing. My father flew F-4’s in Vietnam, he was one of only two pilots in his squadron to return from that war, he was awarded a Silver Star. Nobody really wanted to know about heroes in those days…which brings me back to football in a roundabout way…my dad was a born hero. When I was still in high school, we witnessed a wreck on the freeway ahead of us. We stopped our car, my father jumped out, lifted up the back of a burning truck with one hand and pulled the fellow pinned under it free with his other hand. It was remarkable , but even more so because my father had just been released from the hospital. He had undergone an open heart surgery and his entire sternum was literally stapled together at the time. The fact was, he didn’t put much stock in physical safety. He didn’t like to look too far forward or too far back in life, he really did live in the moment. He liked the “rushes” in life and never used his considerable intelligence to avoid a dangerous situation. He was a quiet, humble guy and he lived to be sixty-eight years old. He died of Leukemia. I asked myself what my Dad would have thought about what you wrote…he probably would have lifted an eye-brow and replied, “Nathan makes some very good points and no matter what, I’d defend to the death his right to say it….as for football…well…I’d defend to the death my right to play it.”

Sarah said...

Hm, that is definitely something interesting to think about. It almost reminds me of the Hunger Games. Does anyone else think it is kind of weird that pro players are paid so much even though they spend all day playing games and being on tv? They are glorified for playing games... whereas those who work their butt off all day get paid very little. said...


This is an interesting post to me. Not only did I just finish writing an article on kids and sports injuries, my middle school boys play football, and my husband was a QB in college. I love football. However, things like bountygate and concussions make it difficult. I'm hopeful that all this press will keep the NFL on track to protect the players' heads. Knee injuries, etc. happen in many pro sports but the number of concussions in football is something else. Still, I know there's a lot of good in the game and good people. I'm not ready to give up!

Tapper said...

If we decide that watching a sport where people are injured is unethical, then we can't stop at football. An 11 year old boy was killed by a baseball to the throat in the middle of a game two weeks ago. Nascar is out. My daughter is an equestrian- that's out. Not to mention air shows, boat shows, mountain climbing, white water rafting, kayaking... Gymnasts and dancers are plagued with anorexia and bulemia. Runners drop dead in the middle of marathons. I think life is about more than not dying. We have to let people live.
I would never judge someone who didn't want to participate in sports and hope the same courtesy will always be extended to those who do.

Nathan Bransford said...

To be clear, I'm not saying that people should be barred from playing. There are any number of activities people are allowed to do that may bring them harm, and I'm supportive of their right to do so.

What I'm talking about is whether it is right to provide incentives (in the way of ratings, tickets, etc.) for people to harm themselves. And with football, it's not just freak injuries, illegal hits, and bounties and the like. Studies show that the more pernicious danger are subconcussive hits that occur with stunning regularity just by playing the game.

Is it ethical to give a kid $100 to hit himself in the head with a hammer? Don't you bear some culpability if you're giving someone an incentive to greviously harm themselves, even if it's their own free will to go through with it?

Obviously there is danger in everything and injury and even death is possible in nearly every sport. But we have to weigh risks, and it seems like football has particularly endemic problems that affect the very most important part of a human being - their brain.

Ryan said...

Time to change it fom the NFL to NFFL. The National Flag Football League!

Our lives our filled with hypocrisy and choices that question our ethics.. Tough to know where to draw the line.

LorieB said...



Truth is - you either play professional sports because you love it, or you continue because you need the money.

I truly hope that all professional athletes do it because they love the game.

And as a person who has MS, I'm sad that a sport robbed them of the quality of life.

Prayers for all those effected. Thanks Nathan, for addressing the issue. Please don't feel guilty for watching sports. Your a guy -- that's what guys do -- and they can't help themselves.

Sports rein eternal - even over politics and I'm fine with that.

Go sports - you rule.



treeoflife said...

Over the years Nathan, my favourite posts of yours have had little to do with fiction. This one is a good example of that.

As a Canadian I've watched hockey for as long as I can remember. This year, I've turned it off and refused to watch it. I wouldn't say "forever", but at least until the sport takes a major turn. The intentional head injuries is at a ridiculous level, and the league refuses to give more than a slap on the wrist as punishment. You ruin someone's life with an intentional crippling concussion, and you might have to sit out three games.

Too many lives have been ruined, and not just the million dollar professionals. What about the countless thousands of kids who've screwed their lives up just trying to make the big leagues? Who don't have a deep-pocketed sports league to help them out later in life? The professional athletes are just the tip of the iceberg.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

I just want to throw something out there - as someone who has suffered several concussions, I think it's nonsense to suggest that Owusu's not at a higher risk for subsequent concussion. I know he is.

I've spent my entire life with horses. I've galloped racehorses, played polo, evented, fox hunted, broken and trained young horses - you name it, I've done it. (For the record, I only drag hunted, which means you just pretend to look for fox - you don't actually kill anything.)

Over the years, I've broken my back and have had several concussions. It used to take a pretty good knock to the head to hurt me, but now it takes very little for me to feel concussion-like symptoms. I also feel I'm not as mentally sharp as I once was, and that my short term memory has suffered. Whether this is natural aging (I'm 35) or a product of injury, I don't know.

But you know, it's tough. Horses taught me how to be a leader, how to be brave, how to be tough, how to handle a crisis. In my opinion, what I've gained far exceeds what I've lost. And I'm still out there doing it, and it's hard to imagine giving it up. Granted, I'm not getting on racehorses anymore, but I'm still the first person to get on young horses here and again, and that's not exactly safe, either.

Recently, one of the stars of our sport - a two-time Olympian, in fact - died in her sleep. Her friends believe she died of a brain injury. She, too, had suffered many concussions, and had a bad fall not long before she died. But having known her, I can tell you that there's nothing else she would have rather done with her life. She lived life to its fullest extent, and she was free to do so.

It's hard for to argue that people shouldn't be free to play the sports they love. At the same time, I hate the the idea of the powers that be exploiting players. At the very least, players need to be made aware of the risks they are taking.

Victoria Noe (@Victoria_Noe) said...

I've never been a football fan, but I've been a hockey fan since high school. Back then, the finesse and skill were paramount. People actually booed when a fight broke out because that's not what we paid to see. Only one player on those early St. Louis Blues teams wore a helmet (Red Berenson), and Glenn Hall was experimenting with goalie masks. It was a different game.
Flash forward to 2009. I suffered a concussion in a car accident. It was "mild", but devastating. Had to change careers (a good thing, but...). Still have residual effects and probably always will.
I can't watch hockey anymore, not even on TV. When a player goes down, like Marian Hossa of the Blackhawks recently, it's like PTSD for me. I can feel it all over again.
What I've suffered is nothing compared to what Duerson and Seau and Hossa and Toews and thousands of others have suffered: not just pros, but high school kids, too, boys and girls alike.
All I can do is refuse to watch, refuse to support the culture that glories in this kind of pain. Not enough, I guess, but boy, these stories just tear me apart.

Mira said...

So, I've been thinking about this post for a couple of days, and reading the comments. I thought Bryan's post was especially poignant.

I also want to acknowledge this must be alittle heartbreaking for you, Nathan, to consider giving up football, and I identify. It's really hard to let go of something that gives you so much joy because you see it in a new light.

Although, I do think ethical actions are complicated. Some people may feel they have to completely separate themselves from the sport in protest, others may feel that they can enjoy the sport as long as they actively advocate for change and improvement.

I've been fascinated by ethics, and I've come believe that ethical judgements come down to values. For example, the old ethical question of: "Is it okay for someone to steal a loaf of bread if they are starving?", pits the value of the right to life vs. the right to property and livelihood protection, along with the value of social order. Whether one value is more "right" than another is something that is hard to prove objectively, it can really only be proven by other values.

That's what makes ethical decisions so complex. The decision about football puts several conflicting values out there:

a. The value of protecting players from exploitation.

b. The value of protecting players from dangerous and damaging conditions.

c. The value of not equating cruelty and/or violence with entertainment.

d. The value of self-determination; the right for people to choose their lives if they know the risks.

e. The value of protesting class inequity; not all participants are facing the same choice because of their background.

f. The value of realitively safe ways to channel and contain man's violent and competitive impulses.

g. The value of encouraging and demonstrating courage, honor, intelligence and teamwork.

h. The value of bonding and community through friendly competition.

i. The value of having arenas where people can demostrate the highest of skill and dedication.

j. The value of allowing people to do what they love, despite risks.

k. The value of society protecting people from doing things that may cause them irreversible and irreparable damage, even if they love them.

l. The value of protecting children from life choices that may shorten or diminish their life.

And probably some other ones.

And then - to make it more complicated, we can agree with one or more values that conflict. I think the ultimate decision has to be a weighing and measuring of what values feel most important to you.

Whether there is an objective right answer - I think that's a really interesting question, and one that is currently beyond my ability to answer. :)

But I do think there is a right answer for everyone - for themselves.

I hope in the future, technology or game rules can be created to make the game more safe. I'm sure the public pressure right now is a very good thing, and I hope it makes some changes to any sport that is dangerous.

Marilyn Peake said...

Great question. Personally, I'm totally uninterested in watching sports played like this. Within recent yeas, concussions have increased, in both professional football players and children playing sports. The average life expectancy of an adult male is now 75 years; the average life expectancy of a retired NFL player is now 53 - 59 years. Knowing all this, I find the sport too negative an experience to watch.

Marilyn Peake said...

I forgot to add that one of the most serious problems with sports today, from children's sports to professional sports, is the valuing of competition over regard for physical health. Sports are played rough, and players are frequently sent back into the game after signs of concussions when they shouldn't be sent back in. I read about a situation in children's baseball in which adult coaches were telling elementary school children to throw the ball hard and aim at the chests of children on the opposite team when they were up at bat because they'd probably jump out of the way and miss hitting the ball, but many young children weren't jumping out of the way in time. Healthy competition is great; but when competition is the be all and end all of life, I think society has taken a turn toward the worst with some very questionable values.

Anonymous said...

Well obviously Nathan you've broached a subject that has baffled philosophers and learned men. I doubt we'll find answers here.

I won't pretend to have a definitive answer, I'll only say that in my mind, the question of whether it is ethical to "incentivize" people taking risks is a moot point.

People incentivize themselves. Since we're talking about football, I'll talk about Peyton Manning. As far as I'm concerned, he's had one of the best careers of any player in history. After failed neck surgeries, I'd hang it up. But see, you don't become Peyton Manning unless you can take that dare. 'I' didn't incentivize him. And I didn't incentivize Junior Seau. Those guys would do it with or without us watching.

And the thing is, I can take this example far beyond sports. How many actors, successful and aspiring, have had the Hollywood life destroy them? Have we judged the ethics of watching movies or TV? I could ask the same question about musicians. Does the fates of Cobain, Winehouse, Jackson, and Houston make us complicit in their deaths and mean we should chuck our playlists?

The entire world watched and cheered the men of Apollo 11; even though a little over two years earlier three other men literally burned to death on the same launchpad.

Consider writing. How many people have lost years and money trying to get published? How many people have been driven to divorce and/or depression as they struggle with their manuscript? Would you discourage your child, or spouse, or friend from writing still?

My point is, whatever your feeling, we have to truly evaluate where our culpability, if any, lies in allowing others to pursue their dreams if we're going to ask about the ethics of being spectators.


Nathan Bransford said...


Disagree that professional players, and even many amateurs, would still play football even if no one was watching. We are providing the incentives with eyeballs and tickets. People don't incentivize themselves. I really like my job, but if they stopped paying me I'd stop showing up.

We're also talking about risks that appear to be endemic to the very nature of the sport rather than cases of accidents or mishaps. There is risk in everything, the question is where you draw the line as an unacceptable level of risk. Given the increasing amount of data that football players are at risk merely from repetitive subconcussive and very legal hits I think it's safe to say that it's crossed the threshold for me. But it's up to everyone to make their own choices.

Anonymous said...

*I* wouldn't stop writing just because I wasn't getting paid. There is no "unacceptable level of risk." They'd have to kill me first.

I think that's the definition between a job and a passion.

Anonymous said...

First let me say that I adore football to the point that one of my best buds believes I'll be the first female head coach in the NFL. While that's not likely to happen, I do however think that the sheer violence of the game is one of the reasons it is so popular. I have always equated football players to be our present day gladiators. Humans, on some level, need that forceful outlet. If it wasn't football, it would be some other high contact sport that would take its place.

Now as to your question, is it ethical to watch? No. Will that keep me from watching? Probably not. I love the sport too much and not for the violence of it but the beauty of a well played offensive drive. Or watching a 300 pound defensive lineman intercept the football and run it in for a TD.

Players are hurt in professional sports across the board. I remember a Cardinals baseball game where our catcher Yadier Molina was hit by a runner, seeing him facedown across home plate, you could hear a pin drop at Busch Stadium. But he got up, and soldiered on. I think that injuries, potentially life threatening ones on down the line, are part of playing sports.

As unethical as it may be, I don't foresee myself giving up watching my Rams (even as bad as they have been). I know I won't give up watching my STL Cardinals, that's in my blood. My earliest crystal clear memory with my Dad had to do with the Cardinals.

Would I give up writing because of injuries? No. I love it too much. And I think some, not all because some are in it just for the money at least at the NFL level, do it because they love playing the game. Peyton Manning loves the game enough that he's going to continue playing coming off of what should be a career ending injury. One wrong blow could paralyze him or worse but he's doing it anyway. Could you or I stop him? No because even if we don't watch, others will. Does it mean I have to watch? No but I don't watch any of the god awful reality TV shows and they still manage to find an audience. I'm just saying.

Maggie Mae Gallagher

Anonymous said...

Nathan, I've been reading your blog for quite some time now and you seem a nice person and a gentleman.
A gentleman sport like snooker, might be just the thing for you.

I live in Europe and assume you need a satelite dish to watch it. (BBC and Eurosport)
However there are many clips on youtube; Ronnie O'Sullivan is always a pleasure to watch.

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