The Questionable Ethics of Teaching My Son to Love Pro Football

Fathers and sons have bonded over football games for generations, but today it's harder for parents to ignore the growing concerns surrounding the sport.

Like countless other middle-aged American men, some of my happiest childhood memories involve watching professional sports with my dad. So it was an unexpected delight when my eight-year-old, previously largely indifferent to my New England Patriots obsession, showed sudden interest a few weeks ago. Last Saturday night, he proudly dug out a long-unused Patriots jersey and joined me on the couch late into the night as the Patriots dispatched the Indianapolis Colts.

It was wonderful. And it made me a little sick.

It made me sick because I could see the game through his eyes. And it wasn’t pretty. My son, unfamiliar with the NFL’s pieties, assumed that hurting the other team’s players was the goal. To his untutored eye, the violence that guilt-ridden fans like myself decry was a feature, not a bug. He didn’t cheer the injuries; he’s too sweet for that. But despite my insistence to the contrary, I suspect the message he took from the experience was: The only thing you need to know about the large man writhing in agony on the screen is whether he’s on our team.

When my dad made me a football fan, the press wasn’t filled with stories about the way repeated blows to the head erode brain tissue, causing a lifetime of confusion, depression, aggression, dementia, and memory loss. Former players didn’t attach suicide notes like the one found in 2011 in the apartment of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, which read, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” So my father can’t be blamed for fostering in me an emotional attachment to football that overrides the moral analysis I’d apply to some other activity that physically and mentally disfigures its participants.

I, on the other hand, have no such excuse.

I could, perhaps, break the chain. Whether he realizes it or not, my son likes watching football for the same reason I did: because it’s intimate time with his dad. If I didn’t let watching football become one of the things we shared, if I told him it’s something I regret, he might take to it anyway. But it would be less likely. And if he made it to adulthood without heartwarming memories of sitting alongside his old man watching other men pulverize their bodies and minds, he’d be more able to rationally decide whether professional football is something a decent society should allow.

In their book American Grace, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell note that American Christians didn’t suddenly jettison their anti-Semitism after the Nazis gave Jew-hatred a bad name. But they grew more ashamed of it, and thus didn’t transmit it to their kids. I suspect something similar has happened in recent years when it comes to smoking cigarettes, littering brazenly, and denigrating gay people. These behaviors have declined somewhat among older Americans, but the bigger shift has come via generational replacement, because even people who still act in these ways raised children who do not.

I’m not claiming that watching football is as bad as all those other activities. But it’s bad enough, especially when you remember that the people you’re watching brutalize themselves didn’t randomly choose to do so. They were steered toward the NFL by a society that offers poor black men few other, less violent, ways to attain wealth.

I’d like my son to one day be able to assess football dispassionately, and thus do his part to help society progress. But in helping him accurately judge the game, I’d also be inviting him to judge me. Far easier to curl up with him for this Sunday’s AFC championship game as father and son—co-conspirators.