The ethical case against football

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Feb. 14, 2013, 10:01 a.m.

With the Super Bowl and its power outage now in the history books, the NFL has entered full offseason mode. For executives and coaches around the league, the 2013 season will unofficially begin with the scouting combine next week in Indianapolis. Many fans follow this event with avid interest, weighing the pros and cons of whether their favorite team should draft certain players. But with the season over, I think another dilemma should be on the minds of NFL fans: whether supporting football, the sport they have come to know and love, is ethical.

We all know that on-field hits can ruin a player’s life. In 2010, for instance, Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down while tackling the kick returner. Such severe brain injuries, however, remain relatively rare. More common are concussions and “sub-concussions” amassed over players’ careers – careers that can span decades.

In 2011, former Bears Pro Bowl safety Dave Duerson shot himself to death in the chest at the age of 50. He requested beforehand that family members donate his brain to science, and researchers who examined it found “indisputable” evidence that Duerson had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease resulting from accumulated concussions and sub-concussions. The symptoms of CTE include memory loss, depression, confusion, and aggression. A long concussion history is not necessary – hits that appear less serious can contribute to considerable damage over time. And CTE is progressive, so that even after a player with repeated head trauma retires, his condition will worsen.

Junior Seau, a famed linebacker who committed suicide at the age of 43 – also by a gunshot to the chest – was likewise found to have suffered from CTE. Of the 34 brain tissues from former football players submitted for research, 33 showed evidence of the disease.

Current and former players are worried. They see old teammates and role models succumb to depression and suicides. They know the results of the brain studies. They wonder if a slip of memory or lashing out at a family member is a sign of far worse things to come. As of now, CTE can only be diagnosed postmortem, and hundreds of living NFL players have agreed to donate their brains to research.

Often, these players refuse to let their children play the sport that they channeled into a career. But with millions of kids playing football each year, the supply is unlikely to dry up anytime soon. Perhaps if the league, which has until now made a halfhearted attempt to make the game safer, is held morally and financially accountable, more profound changes will be made to the game.

One factor preventing change is the millions of fans pouring billions of dollars into the league; many of these fans object to changes that make the game less interesting to watch. For these fans, some reflection is perhaps necessary: is it ethical to follow and support the sport if it may prove deadly? Are NFL stadiums simply modernized versions of the Roman Coliseum, where gladiators don’t die in front of spectators but rather many years later, away from the spotlight?

Some people who are not overly concerned about the danger of the NFL point to other jobs with high degrees of risk – coal mining or military infantry, for instance. Yet these jobs (in theory) are crucial for our nation’s success; however ingrained football is in our culture, at the end of the day it is just entertainment for the millions of fans out there.

Others will point out that professional players are paid for the risks and choose to accept them. Yet not only are the long-term risks just now coming to the forefront, but we have to ask ourselves how much choice is actually present in the system; the most gifted athletes are from a young age channeled into the sport, spending hours on the practice field instead of studying. And while most attend college, often their scholarships are contingent on football, not academics, coming first. While NFL players like Andrew Luck have the luxury of a strong education to fall back on, four out of every five former NFL players go bankrupt or have severe financial difficulties within two years of retirement.

I have always loved football, and that may not change anytime soon. But at the same time, I am becoming increasingly troubled by the sport. Whereas once I used to cheer for a monstrous hit, I now cringe, even if the player pops up and appears fine. These are fellow humans, and whatever urges we may have for entertainment and competition, we should not forget that fact.

How do you react to crushing hits? Email Adam at [email protected].

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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