The Ethicist: I Quit Watching Football Because It Harms Players. Can I Still Keep Up With My Team?

February 3, 2019 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “I Quit Watching Football Because It Harms Players. Can I Still Keep Up With My Team?”.

I have decided to stop watching football given the recent findings about the frequency with which concussions occur and the long-term effects of those concussions on the players. I am not trying to take a stand and change any of my family’s or friends’ opinions, but I do want to feel like I’m doing my part.

Can I still follow my team in some way, though? I’m a Jets fan (O.K., maybe I’m not giving up much by not watching), and I really like keeping up with their season. What involvement with the team would be ethical? Can I read up on the team in the newspaper? What if I walk into a restaurant and a game is on television? Is it O.K. if I watch it there? After all, they’ve chosen to play, and maybe I should respect that. Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

I find it sad that people prefer to ask for judgment more than help. I tend to look at our educational system for promoting compliance and analysis over examining our values and developing the social and emotional skills to act on them.

You can do what you want. I think you mean to ask how best you can achieve your goals.

The New York Times response: A body of research suggests that football causes long-term brain damage in many players. Still, as you point out, the players are in a position to decide for themselves whether they want to run the risks. Those who do well in the sport expect to earn more money and more glory than they would in another endeavor. So you could just think this puts the responsibility on them. If they’re rational, they are, in effect, making the judgment that they are better off playing than not, even with a serious prospect of incurring chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), not to mention other chronic injuries and conditions.

That’s not the end of the discussion, though. When it comes to exposing workers to hazards, our views aren’t straightforward. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2016 show 24,650 nonfatal injuries among construction workers, 28,740 injuries among local law-enforcement officers, 80,180 injuries among those for whom driving is part of their job. If you choose to be a roofer rather than a groundskeeper and accept a greater risk of injury for more pay, we’re O.K. with that. But the reason we have OSHA standards is that we think measures to abate hazards should be taken where feasible. The potential for grievous injury is surely part of why people watch Nascar races; we still expect drivers to use six-point harnesses and flame-retardant suits.

It isn’t obvious how this principle should be applied to a game like football. Some think that new high-tech helmets will help; others argue that no helmets at all would be safer, because (as in rugby) it might discourage head collisions. Players spend much more time in practice than in actual games, and some think that practice needs to be reformed to avoid the subconcussive impacts that have been linked to C.T.E. There’s more research to be done, more rethinking of the rules of the game. Players who lower their heads and initiate helmet contact can now be penalized, and maybe there’s a way to expand that penalty category. The existing penalties can certainly be increased and made more of a deterrent. Shortening the preseason could help, too. But if you really care about the welfare of football players, you should want not just to turn your back on bad practices but also to advocate for better ones.

A utilitarian, who assesses actions by their effects, would point out that nothing you’re proposing to do contributes to that effort. You can avoid newspaper coverage or screens in sports bars, but given your refusal to urge anyone else to refrain from attending or watching games, that gesture will be undetectable to the football authorities, not to mention sports journalists, and puts no pressure on them. (At least in picking the Jets to follow you’ve made it easier to skip every Super Bowl, from which fate seems to have decided they would be excluded for the past half-century.)

But again, that’s not the end of the discussion. Might there be a reason to shun a harmful activity even if doing so won’t have beneficial effects? There are two lines of argument to consider here: one associated with Immanuel Kant and the other with Aristotle. A Kantian test for assessing an action is to consider whether it flows from a principle that you’d have reason to want everyone to follow. Let’s suppose everyone’s boycotting football would lead to swift changes to make the game much safer or even bring the sport to an end. (Here, the utilitarian would note that the end of football might lead to worse lives for those who now play the game at all levels and to the loss not just of a lot of pleasure among fans but also of jobs for commentators, stadium staff, officials and the like.) You can still wonder whether that Kantian strategy of the universalized maxim matters if, in the real world, none of your sports-fan friends are going to follow your lead.

One reason to refrain from fandom is simply that you may not want to be the sort of person who takes pleasure in a game that is causing serious and unnecessary harm to its players. An approach to ethics that focuses on what kind of person you are — so-called virtue ethics — is often associated with Aristotle. It tends to judge action in terms of character, rather than the other way around, and you hear its echoes in a familiar formula of reproval: “What kind of person would … ?”

Let me offer a final consideration: In following the game, in joining the culture that sustains football, in its current form, as an American institution, you are not causing harm directly — but you are, in a sense, participating in causing harm. You’ve been enlisted in a collective action that you view with disapproval. In this regard, you can be part of the problem, even if the problem would persist if you weren’t.


My husband and I are struggling to conceive. We’ve been seeing a fertility specialist and going through cycles of treatment. We started with oral medications, to which unfortunately I stopped responding. We have since moved on to injectable medications. If this doesn’t work, we’ll at some point have to start thinking about IVF.

Though I desperately want to have a baby of our own, I’m struggling with whether it is ethical to go through the rather incredible lengths to get pregnant that IVF requires when there are children who urgently need homes. I know that the cost of adoption, and the difficulty of actually successfully adopting a baby, make it likely as emotionally grueling (and more expensive than) as an IVF cycle. Still, the effort would go to providing a home for a baby who needs one.

More pressing is the number of children in the foster-care system. We’ve talked about fostering children in the future, but in our minds that would occur after we’d had some experience parenting. I do not feel that right now we could take on the enormous responsibility of foster care. I do feel we are ready for a baby of our own; children in foster care generally need a great deal more than a new baby does.

The bottom line is this: Though I want to have a biological child, and my husband definitely does want to go to IVF if it comes to that, I am struggling to wrap my head around going through so much intervention when we could instead take in a child who needs a home.

Am I off base here, or do we have a duty to give homes to children who need them when we can’t easily have children of our own? Name Withheld

My response: If you had to fix all the world’s problems before you did anything, you could never anything.

There is no book in the sky or other measure of duty that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

The New York Times response: Taking on a child who already exists and needs a home is an enormously worthy thing to do, if you’re confident that you can bond with him or her and create a loving environment. But you don’t have a duty to adopt one. There are many things we each could do — such as being a parent to one of the hundred thousand or so foster children in this country who need a new family — that would improve the world. But morality doesn’t demand that we do all the good we can. If you had a duty to adopt a foster child, it wouldn’t be enormously worthy, just required.

Plenty of couples want to conceive but would choose to have no children rather than adopt a foster child. That’s essentially the position you’re in: You don’t feel prepared to provide foster care. It follows that a child you and your husband might have together wouldn’t be depriving a foster child of a home. And you’re not obliged to remain childless.

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