Continuing my series on responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on them, here is my take on today’s post, “Is It Wrong to Watch Football?”
I’ve recently begun to question my support for the N.F.L. I suspect that the recent discoveries about concussions and the prevalence of early-onset dementia among players are just the tip of the iceberg. Is it unethical to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants? And if so, what should my response be? Don’t go to games? Don’t buy merchandise? Don’t watch on television? Start actively opposing the N.F.L.? Write letters? DARREN WILLIAMS, DALLAS
My Answer: If you know recent discoveries, you know the information as well as anyone. What you don’t know you can find out as much as anyone can. More important, the players have access to all the information you do and more. You can work out the logic of their making their choices themselves versus being pressured, duped, or stuck into it through class pressure. Like many challenging choices, the answer doesn’t come from more information.
To find out the best strategy for yourself, you have to think about what you want to achieve, what you think you can achieve, how much you want to sacrifice of other things you like to achieve your goals here, and so on. Nobody can answer these questions for you. How important is this issue for you? Nobody can answer that question but you. How does its importance compare to other issues—children are starving in poor countries and smaller donations and efforts than you put into fixing football problems can save lives there, not just prevent concussions among adults who knowingly choose to participate in the risky sport while making more than you ever will. I’m not saying you should go to Africa first, just that you have to figure out where to devote your resources. Nor am I saying you have to fix all the problems you see in order of importance. If you tried to do that you’d never do anything.
The point I’m getting at is that if you are asking third parties what your priorities should be you’re holding yourself back from understanding your values. Make no mistake, when you ask “what should my response be,” you’re asking someone else to rank your values for you. If you could magically do everything you wanted, you would, but you can’t so you have to choose. In your letter you ask someone to choose for you, meaning you’re passing on thinking for yourself.
Personally, I consider passing on figuring out your values sad, maybe pitiful, but what I think probably doesn’t matter to you. Passing on your values robs you of your chance to improve your life, at least by the millenia-old concept that the unexamined life is not worth living. That phrase has stood the test of time for a reason: people who examine their lives prefer them after the examination.
What do you think you should do? How would you find out?
For another perspective, I’ll share my story on watching football, or TV in general. For years I kept my TV basically only to watch football and a few shows, like science and nature documentaries. I find the sport exciting and like watching people at the peak of human capability. For some reason, when I plugged my TV into the coaxial cable that came out of the wall, I got free basic cable so I got great reception (no pun intended). Then a couple years ago, the basic cable signal went away, replaced by an image saying I needed a digital cable box, which I wasn’t going to get.
After renovating my apartment, I haven’t gotten a new TV. My friends gave me an old one when they got a bigger one, but I haven’t plugged it in yet. As much as I enjoy watching football, getting cable seems like a drag. Everyone complains their service sucks, rates increase, the companies have horrible service, and so on. Meanwhile I can borrow DVDs from the library across the street for free.
I kind of know football season is on, but I haven’t missed it.
The lesson I learned from this story? If you’re trying to figure out if you should stop doing something, if you just find something you like more to replace it, you don’t have to worry about what you’re missing. It side-steps the issue of examining your values I just wrote about, but it achieves the goal and improves your life—by definition, replacing one thing with something else you like more improves your life.
The New York Times Answer: Had you asked if the whole concept of professional sports is ultimately an unethical distraction — because of the amount of resources it consumes, the way it shifts cultural priorities and the manner in which it impacts society as a whole — and if every rational argument affirmed that it was, then every person involved would be incrementally complicit, including the fans. If an entire enterprise is corrupt, culpability is shared among participants.
But that’s not the dilemma troubling you. What you are concerned about involves one disquieting aspect of one specific sport. You want to know if it’s ethically acceptable to watch a game that is dangerous to the athletes who participate. And the answer to that query is yes.
Any adult involved with football is aware of the risks associated with playing a collision sport. We might have been able to make a different argument in 1975, but not today. It is suspected (and widely reported) that every head-to-head collision generates imperceptible “sub-concussions,” slowly damaging the brain without the victim suffering the symptoms of an acute trauma. This means many players are being injured on almost every play they are involved with (in every single game and in every full-contact practice). Football is a brutal activity. But this is a known, accepted reality. Professional athletes accept this risk in exchange for the chance at large financial reward and the right to pursue a rarefied livelihood they love and desire. (College and high-school students willingly do the same thing without the benefit of a salary.) People retain the right to pursue potentially dangerous activities, as long as it’s their own informed choice and they are not endangering ancillary others who have chosen otherwise.
If you think it’s fundamentally barbaric to watch such an endeavor, I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise. But you’re not ethically required to hold that view. Yes, you are financially subsidizing a profession that involves elective physical risk. But on a smaller scale, the same could be said for taking your child to the circus; while there might be “big picture” problems with the enterprise,the risks associated with the work are taken on by free people.
Now, of course, the social factors motivating those people to accept such risks are often problematic — and sometimes more ethically convoluted than the risk itself. It forces us to reconsider the definition of “free.” If someone believes playing football (or working as a trapeze artist) is the only option he has in order to live a full life, then the dangerous choice he’s making really isn’t his own. His agency is an illusion. Yet this possibility doesn’t really apply to your particular problem. For one thing, even the most limited life rarely has only one conceivable career option; for another, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to penalize the game of football if it actually were an individual’s sole chance at a livelihood. This entire debate eventually becomes a circular loop of contradictory suppositions: Football is dangerous, but the players accept that danger, but they don’t actually have agency over that choice, but their lack of agency necessitates the existence of the dangerous sport they have to accept (lest there be no option at all).
Beyond all this, there’s still a valid question over whether something being dangerous inherently makes it unethical, or even particularly bad. Drinking alcohol is more dangerous than not drinking alcohol, but it would seem pretty unsophisticated to believe patronizing a nightclub is immoral, simply because other people who go there might drink themselves to death (and you would be party to that experience).
My (admittedly unoriginal) suspicion is that the reason we keep having this discussion over the ethics of football is almost entirely a product of the sport’s sheer popularity. The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing — where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible — still exists. But people care less about boxing, so they worry less about the ethics of boxing. Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here’s what it means: We love something that’s dangerous. And I can live with that.
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