Reporter's Notebook

The Ethics of Watching Football
Show Description +

In light of the ongoing concussion crisis, domestic violence scandals, and more problems plaguing the NFL, Matt Vasilogambros leads a discussion with readers on why they’ve stopped watching football or stuck with the sport.

Show 7 Newer Notes

The Stadium Shakedown

Casino mogul and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is trying to bring the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. But it’ll come at a price for taxpayers.

“We’re only talking about $750 million,” he recently told Yahoo Finance. Only.

This is far from the only time when the NFL came at a big cost to taxpayers and an enormous gain for team owners. Many Atlantic readers are outraged by the trend, including Lori:

In addition to not caring for the safety of their players (in particular CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]), and the NFL’s response, or lack thereof, to domestic abuse and sexual assault, let me add that I stopped watching football because of the greedy owners who cozied up to public officials and raided the coffers to build lavish new, mega stadiums at the expense of real public goods—parks, schools, safe roads and bridges, small business and entrepreneurial investments, clean water, and more.

Here’s Billy, a former Bears fan in Chicago:

The end of the NFL for me came when I read your article on how the NFL fleeces taxpayers [Gregg Easterbrook’s Atlantic essay, “How Taxpayers Keep the NFL Rich”]. My disgust started with the school systems of Chandler, AZ, and Cincinnati suffering so those municipalities can make their bond payments on stadiums that sit empty for 350 days a year. Then you read about all of the different “deals” owners cut with cities to get new stadiums paid for by anyone but themselves.

And if a city won’t pay, like a 3-year old, the owner takes their ball and threatens to run to another city (L.A. until the Rams absconded, now Vegas). Speaking of the Rams, how does the city of St. Louis feel as it watches in horror as the NFL has ripped their financial hearts out for the second time in the last 30 years?

As Bill Simmons said, billionaire owners can build their own fucking stadiums.

A reader in Cleveland, Mark, goes into much more detail about the stadium issue:

This booking photo provided by the Highland Park, Texas, Department of Public Safety, shows former Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was booked and posted bond on May 4, 2016, in a domestic violence case, one day before he faces his first court hearing. The Heisman Trophy winner and former Texas A&M star was indicted by a grand jury last month after his ex-girlfriend alleged he hit her and threatened to kill her during a night out in January. AP

There was a disturbingly familiar story in the news today: a football player, this time from the University of Southern California, was charged with raping a woman who was unconscious. Stories of violence against women are pervasive among athletes, and many of those cases have happened in the NFL.

To be sure, rape and domestic violence is not limited to football. In July, the Chicago Cubs acquired ace pitcher Aroldis Chapman to help lead them to the World Series, despite his troubling history of pushing and choking his wife. His is far from the only case of domestic violence in professional sports, which I’ve highlighted in previous reporting.

But it’s hard to overlook the troubling way the NFL has handled issues of domestic violence with its players, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson. Many of our readers have abandoned football for that reason. Here’s Amy, who “stopped watching and following football a couple of years ago, after being a fairly faithful Niners fan since the mid-1990s”:

I started watching football in law school in 1999 because the complex rules fascinated me, the team was doing really well, and Steve Young and Jerry Rice were just plain fun to watch. Plus, as a young woman attorney working in male-dominated law firms in the late ’90s, it helped to be able to talk knowledgeably about football.  

When the press began reporting on traumatic brain injuries among NFL players, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the game. The final straw for me was a string of horrific domestic violence incidents, including the arrest of Ray McDonald. The NFL’s tone-deaf response and failure to impose meaningful penalties on players who abused their partners was sickening to me, and I was done. I haven’t found it hard to pull away from the game, and most NFL-related headlines I see reinforce that I made the right decision.

Tammy is close to making that decision:

There is no question I watch football far less than I used to. I went from an avid, every-game viewer (Sunday, Monday night, etc) to a few games a season, if that. But not because of the concussions, although those do not help.

Frankly, I have grown tired of watching the violence that they, the players, perpetuate against women while everyone turns a blind eye. If caught, they are slapped on the wrist and are still paid millions.

The vast majority of readers who have emailed so far have abandoned their football fandom—namely because of the brain injuries—but there are some notable exceptions. Here’s John:

I am a graduate student in the biological sciences and definitely consider myself a football fan. (Yes, this results in the cognitive dissonance you might expect.) I won’t comment on whether or not it is unethical to enjoy football, but I will say that it has made me more empathetic toward climate change deniers. I now understand how you can see the preponderance of scientific evidence and not want to believe it. I also think (hope?) that the solutions to both problems will ultimately come with advances rather than retreats—that is, the solutions lie in new energy sources, helmets, or technology rather than reducing our net consumption of energy or football.

Unlike John, another young reader, Michael, does grapple with the ethics of the game:

While I have grown concerned about the number of concussions in football at all levels of play, I haven’t given up on it yet. One reason is because I have been a college football fanatic for most of my life and I still attend Wisconsin Badger games with my father when we can. It simply feels wrong to give up on a father/son tradition that’s been maintained for so long.

Another, more selfish reason is because I don’t want to stop watching football, because I enjoy the game.

In truth, I hadn’t thought much about the connection between concussions and football until Chris Borland decided to retire out of concern for his own health. As I began to research the subject further and further, it became harder to ignore the issue, and I have at times questioned whether my choice to remain a fan is right or not. I’ve given the issue a lot of thought, and at times I question if I should remain a fan or not. But, in addition to the reasons listed above, I’ve chosen to remain a fan for the following reasons:

Today the NFL announced it will spend $100 million on research that studies the link between repeated head hits and brain damage. This “independent” research, as Commissioner Roger Goodell assured the public, would also go toward developing equipment that could lessen the effects of hard hits. But it’s difficult to take this news seriously considering how previous NFL initiatives have had tainted studies and skewed findings.

Permanent brain damage is a real concern that has driven many fans, like me, away from the game—something I broached yesterday with readers. One of them, Peter, shares my concern:

Count me in as a former fan. I grew up in Tennessee a committed Vols fan. When the Titans moved in, I got on that train as well. A good portion of every Saturday and Sunday was dedicated to watching football. As a kid, I even had mini-pennants for each NFL team that I used to track the divisional standings on my bulletin boards.

My disaffection for football was kind of a gradual thing. It started with the many things that annoyed me about the NFL: the cheap and breezy patriotism, the empty machismo, the absurd seriousness with which the coaches and league officials took themselves, the way players (particularly running backs) were treated like cannon fodder. (I still loved me some college ball though, at least when I didn’t think too hard about how these enormously wealthy universities were exploiting the free labor of their “students.”)

But the brain injury thing was really the final straw for me. I just couldn’t live with watching people give themselves permanent brain damage for my entertainment. The exploitation of the players could no longer be laid at the feet of the league or the NCAA; I was a participant too. It made me feel like a monster just for watching.

I quit cold turkey after the 2014-15 season. Last year was the first year I can remember that I did not watch a single football game. What surprised me the most was how little I missed it. There was so much more time to do other things!  I also got really into soccer, which largely filled the sports hole that ditching football left.  (I like to tell people that I gave up football for futbol.)

Of course, the Vols are actually good this year for the first time in forever. Maybe I’ll tune into a game if I happen to be in front of the TV when it’s on. What can I say: the first love is the deepest.

I’ve got to think there are lots of stories like mine out there. It can’t be long before it starts to show up in the ratings.

It’s certainly showed up in our inbox; more than 60 emails have already come in since yesterday, almost all of them critical of the NFL and the sport of football more generally. If you’d like to defend the game against these critics, please send us a note: Now back to the former fans, starting with Ray:

I was a die-hard Redskins fan until three years ago, when a head injury made me quit cold turkey. I was watching an NFL game when a receiver took a particularly vicious hit to the head. He was limp (and apparently unconscious) by the time he hit the ground, yet somehow managed to hold onto the ball. As he lay on the ground, unconscious, with one arm rigidly outstretched in the fencing pose, one of the announcers said, “Well, at least he did his job and got the first down!”

I felt completely disgusted. I tuned off the TV and realized I was no longer a football fan.

Gabriel is also done with the sport:

The turning point for me came when Junior Seau shot himself.

Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones loses his helmet as he is tackled by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Shea McClellin on Sunday, December 13, 2015, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh / AP

For millions of Americans, fall begins with the first kickoff of the NFL season. Like many children growing up in the U.S., I tossed a football around with my dad in our backyard and rooted for our beloved team (in our case, that came with the disappointment familiar to every Chicago Bears fan). I remember years based on which team won the Super Bowl, signifying the warm nostalgia I held for the sport.

But something changed recently: I don’t like the game anymore.

There’s been enough reporting by now to know that constant collisions in football cause traumatic brain injuries. New rules and public statements from the NFL promising to curb these dangers are an annual routine. Every time I’ve forgiven the league, more players take major hits to the head and more former athletes go public about their brain damage.

In early May, shortly after I covered a series of lawsuits by former college players allegedly suffering from permanent brain damage, I got an email from a reader who said he played college football in the 1980s and sustained at least four concussions. He never thought about the long-lasting damage until he began having suicidal thoughts in recent years. “I have never told my wife or kids of this, as I didn’t want them to worry,” he wrote me. “However, I want to admit that I think about suicide weekly, if not daily.” He eventually wants to donate his brain to research head injuries. His email was the last straw for me.

I’m not the only fan turning away from the sport. After this season’s opening game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos, where Panther quarterback Cam Newton’s head was repeatedly targeted with helmet-on-helmet hits, I noticed a group of college friends on Facebook discuss their waning interest in football—surprising, considering I’ve seen them all root zealously for their hometown teams. The conversation started when my friend and fellow Bears fan Mark Micheli posted a video compilation from Deadspin showing the repeated hits to Newton’s head without a single penalty. Here’s the most brutal hit:

After watching the video, Mark wrote, “I have a harder and harder time caring about this game anymore.” Other friends joined in:

“We’re watching men get brain damage for our enjoyment.”

“Modern-day gladiators. My guess is we as a society will look back in the future and view this game in a similar way.”

“First year in ages I’m not doing Fantasy Football.”

Could this be a turning point? Are other Americans turning away from football?