Is Watching Football Unethical?


An NFL football

It's been three years, 11 months, and 10 days since former National Football League (NFL) Pro Bowler Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, not the head, so that his brain could be donated to science. Duerson hoped that researchers could cut it open with a scalpel and figure out what had gone wrong, what had led him to such misery he felt compelled to take his life.

It's been two years, eight months since the great Junior Seau, a 10-time All Pro linebacker, did the same.

It's been just over two years since Jovan Belcher, then a player for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself outside the team's practice facility as his coaches pleaded with him not to do it.

And it's been more than five years since an NFL study found that its players are vastly more likely to be diagnosed with diseases like Alzheimer's than non-players, "including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49," according to The New York Times. Last fall, the league admitted in court documents that nearly one in three retired players will likely develop long-term cognitive problems. Shortly thereafter, a brain bank run by the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it had found evidence of a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 76 of 79 former players examined.

CTE, which can lead to rage, depression, dizziness, memory loss, dementia, and more, is caused by head trauma. Repeated blows to the head are standard for a career in the NFL, which means—we are finally realizing—that the long-term consequences of playing football at an elite level are often devastating, even deadly. Duerson, Seau, and Belcher were all diagnosed posthumously with CTE.

No anti-NFL wave is sweeping the nation. A smattering of writers has said they can no longer in good conscience watch professional football. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates did it in 2012, after Seau's death, and former sports reporter Steve Almond recently published a book on the topic titled Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto. But that is still mostly a fringe position. Millions of people continue to tune in for games; the NFL brings in something in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year in revenues.

All while its players suffer and die.  

What ought we to do about it? The wrong solution, most Reason readers would probably agree, brings to bear the heavy hand of government, attempting to regulate away the danger or to end the game completely through brute coercive force. But what of our moral obligations as consumers? Should we refuse to support a venture that leads so predictably to the outcomes described above?

Analogy No. 1: Prostitution

As a thought experiment, let's imagine that prostitution has been legalized in your state. Most libertarians would probably view that as a win for justice. Consenting adults should get to decide the terms under which they will engage in sex, not government officials, and people shouldn't be punished for their choice about how to make a living as long as others' rights are not being violated. 

Still, if your teenage child declared her intention to become a prostitute, you might be concerned about the dangers—the added risk of contracting a disease, say, or the emotional toll such work could take. You might feel that selling one's body is a bad thing to do from a consequentialist perspective, a moral one, or both. 

A person can believe an action is wrong even if she doesn't believe it should be legally prohibited. As libertarians, we generally respect a person's autonomy under the law to weigh risks against benefits and decide how to make a living. But we aren't required to accept or encourage her behavior if we believe what she is doing is objectionable. Even if this particular example doesn't strike you as immoral, chances are you can think of something you view as wrong without believing it should be illegal. Adultery is often a good example. Could playing professional football be one as well?

Analogy No. 2: The Drug War

Reason has been one of the longest, loudest advocates for ending the war on drugs. Of the many reasons—and there are myriad—one is that the black markets that inevitably emerge under prohibition act like a magnet, pulling in disadvantaged young people who (perhaps naively) see trafficking narcotics as their ticket to more status and a better life. Very often they end up caught in a violent system that ends with prison or an early death.

When it comes to drug policy, we understand that economic incentives can lead people to make tragically poor short-term decisions, and we view that as a good reason to work to alter the incentives. Dollars spent on merchandise and game tickets and cable packages, which make football players' lucrative incomes possible, also incentivize a certain type of short-term behavior. Why wouldn't consumers be in some way morally culpable for those football players' violent ends?

Says the University of San Diego philosophy professor Matt Zwolinski, "As a general principal, if it's wrong to do something yourself, it's wrong to pay someone else to do it." Inflicting traumatic head injuries on hundreds of people is pretty clearly morally problematic. Is spending money on a form of entertainment that leads to the same outcome any better?

Analogy No. 3: Boycotts

Libertarians often say that even many morally odious activities don't need to be illegal, in part because market forces can be used to keep such things in check. During the contentious debate over whether Arizona businesses should be allowed to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings last year, my colleague Scott Shackford wrote the following:

People have the right to determine with whom they wish to do business. Occasional misbegotten bigotry is the price of living in a free society. Being an asshole is a right, while having somebody bake you a wedding cake isn't.…We have plenty of tools outside the force of the state to respond to bigotry. We have protests, and the media, and online reviews, and social platforms, and competition, and so many more ways to respond to bigotry than we did back in the days of segregation.

In other words, there are ways do the right thing without government compulsion. If a business discriminates against a certain class of people, consumers have the right to punish the business by withholding their patronage. As libertarians, we see this as an altogether superior method of encouraging people not to be jerks. 

But if we are going to hold up social pressure as an alternative to government interference, we need to be willing to use it. "We've got organizations like Consumer Reports that serve a kind of regulatory function in the market," says Zwolinski. "I think it's important in a way for libertarians to not just tolerate those sorts of things but also to embrace it. You want government out of the picture so that people can take care of themselves, but the market only works if people are actively involved in understanding what they're buying, and what the alternatives are, and what all goes into it."

Ethical consumerism—refusing to participate in or support commercial activities we believe to be objectionable from a moral standpoint—is the alternative to government intervention. If it bothers us that professional football is an industry in which the workers physically destroy themselves as a matter of course, perhaps we have an even stronger obligation as libertarians to eschew it.

Analogy No. 4: Sweatshops

Boycotting products that come from third world sweatshops is a bad idea. Libertarians understand that the people who work in such places generally have no better alternatives—they accept the employment willingly, knowing that at the end of the day they (or their families) are very likely to be more prosperous for it. Attempting to put a sweatshop out of business actually takes away people's best option for improving their lives. It is a net negative for the very individuals anti-sweatshop activists presumably mean to help.

Could ending professional football as we know it have similar consequences, by removing an avenue for personal advancement? Until recently, it seemed obvious that NFLers ended up better off on average for having played the game—that it more or less made sense for them to decide the rewards were worth the risk. But revelations about the prevalence of head trauma suffered on the field and its long-term effects for players seem to at least call that calculation into question. Harvard researchers have found that NFL players' lives are, on average, almost two decades shorter than average American men's lives. In many cases, they die horrifically (as one sports writer put it, "from the inside out"), with brain damage destroying "not only what people can do, but also who they are, now and forever."

It doesn't always take decades for things to go wrong. It's been 38 days since the body of Ohio State University wrestler and walk-on football player Kosta Karageorge was found in a dumpster. In a text message to his mother before he apparently killed himself, he apologized for being an embarrassment and blamed "these concussions." He was 22.