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 None Newer Notes

Football's Violence Off the Field

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.

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:

So far, in our wide-ranging discussion over the state of the NFL and football fandom in general, readers have gone after brain injuries, domestic and sexual violence, and the league’s corporate greed. But many former fans have left the game for a smattering of other reasons, from faux-patriotism to just a malaise for the NFL. Here’s Dave to begin our long list:

I just finished reading your introductory note “Are You No Longer a NFL Fan?” and I am indeed one of your readers that has lost interest in the game. I grew up a passionate fan and have fond memories of cheering for the Buffalo Bills with my family. While one might argue that my waning interest could be a result of the Bills 25+ years of mediocrity, I think it is much more than that. As you point out, the barbarism inherent in the sport and the failure of the NFL to adapt the game to account for brain damage research is deplorable and disgusting.

There are other issues that I find offensive as well. Personally, I think it is gross the way that militarism, patriotism and heroism are all cozy bedfellows with the NFL, the NFL telecasts, and the promotion of each team’s brand. These things do not belong together. Military ceremony, jet fly-overs and overt use of American symbology in the NFL game cheapens true patriotism and heroism.

Most importantly, I believe it carries the implication that the violence, force, and the untempered emotional support inherent in the game are necessary components of patriotism. This is dangerous and misguided.

Mike, a U.S. military vet, has noticed his interest in the NFL wane over time:

A handful of years ago, I was deployed to Afghanistan. I sacrificed most of my sleep by waking up at 2:30 a.m. to watch the Super Bowl between two teams I didn’t cheer for whatsoever (Ravens v. 49ers). I could name most of the starters for each team. I guess you could say I was a big NFL fan then.

Last night, I went to a sports bar to get dinner. The bar had the Steelers v. Redskins game on. I couldn’t tell you who any of the players on either team were except for the starting QBs. I guess you could say I’m not a big NFL fan now.

Doug has also noticed the revolving door of players:

I used to enjoy a range of college and professional sports, including football. Several years back, it dawned on me that I was watching a group of workers doing work. They were employees doing a job—nothing more, nothing less. They weren’t “MY TOWN’S TEAM”; they go where the money is and work for whomever will pay them the most, and get dropped by their employer the instant the ROI flips. I’m fine with that, but it sort of took the core out of watching the game.

Nick is sick of how the sport is packaged these days:

Fewer games are broadcast on TV; you’re forced to buy the NFL package, ESPN, or NFL Network to watch them. As a cord cutter, I watch what is broadcast, nothing more.

Robert is “about 80 percent done with the NFL”:

Yes I am less of a fan today, mainly because like many things today, Social Media has ruined the escape from work, money worries, family dynamics, etc, etc.

A dissenting reader, Alex, pushes back on most of the readers who have written in so far:

Like many football fans, I’m often conflicted about following the sport. Many of the concerns raised by your readers are valid, but I think it's important to put them in the proper context. In many cases, troubling high-profile incidents have been turned into anecdotal evidence of a problem not supported by data.

For example, as your readers detailed, one of the recurring issues is the head trauma that players are subjected to and the league’s head-in-the-sand approach to safety concerns. Indeed, several players have retired early rather than risk the ravages of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy].

But what most people don’t know is that—despite a higher rate of neurodegenerative diseases—NFL players have longer lifespans on average than the general population. They even commit suicide at a lower rate. So the notion that players are “killing themselves for our entertainment” is not statistically true. At best, one could argue that players are putting themselves at risk for some future health issues while also improving other factors (fitness and wealth) that correlate strongly with longevity.

Another argument echoed by your readers is that watching the NFL makes one complicit with a league full of domestic and sexual abusers who have faced little to no consequences for their actions. Indeed, the league’s approach to cases like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy has been abysmal—and the NFL’s “No More” awareness campaign on the issue reeks of a CYA [cover your ass] public relations move. But for all the NFL’s failures on the issue, its players are still less likely to be arrested for domestic violence and sex offenses than males of the same age.

We’ve heard from dozens of readers over why the National Football League has fundamental flaws—from brain injuries to domestic and sexual violence to the league’s corporate greed to an assortment of other grievances. But how do players feel about these issues? Richard Sherman, a star linebacker cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, appears in a new video for The Players’ Tribune to explain the relationship between the league and the players. To put it lightly, it’s not great:

“We really don’t have reason to trust the NFL, and I don’t think they mind either way,” Sherman says in the video. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do what they have to do to make their money and to make as much money as they can for the owners.”

How do you feel about his perspective? Drop us a note:

Argentina's Eusebio Guinazu lies on the pitch during a scrum against Italy during their rugby test match at the Olympic stadium in Rome on November 23, 2013. Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

A long-time reader, Tim, has been following our debate over the NFL and shifts our attention to another contact sport:

Count me among the many who have drifted away from the NFL, for all the reasons your readers have named: cheap patriotism, endless games, nitpicky rules unevenly enforced, CTE CTE CTE. This as a Pats fan who for most of the 2000s was riding a high.

I also join reader Ed in switching my interest to rugby, in the limited way I can with a basic cable contract. The constant action and amazing athleticism is one reason. An equal one is the “culture of respect” that’s one of the game’s foundations and most carefully guarded traditions. Players rarely deliberately hurt one another; when they do, they are banned for months on end. Their infrequent scuffles are in the wrestling/bristling mode, not punching with venom.

And, crucially, the referee is The Law—and more in the Solomonic than the Draconian mode. Disputes and fouls are resolved swiftly, fairly, and decisively. This supercut of the legendary Welsh ref Nigel Owens explains the appeal of this approach, versus the NFL’s endless rulebook, far better than I can.

With a word (“Christopher!”) he ends a debate full-stop (and gets a schoolboy's meek “Sorry, sir” from a mountain of a man). After breaking up a big scuffle, he has the captains call all the players to him, puts out the flames, and resets the order of play, all while keeping the game’s competitive spirit firmly in the players’ hands:

I don’t want to make a big issue of this, OK? But things like that are not acceptable in the game. What happened here or what happened afterwards, I did not see it. It ends there. Is that clear? You’re adults. You’ll be treated like it as long as you behave like it. We’re going to go back to the original penalty down there.

It’s of note that Owens is openly gay—and that both he and the world’s best players are comfortable with that to the point that Owens even famously had a bit of fun with it. (The throw here is supposed to come in perpendicular to the sideline. When it doesn’t...)

Knowing how hard it was for Owens to accept himself as a gay man makes his acceptance by and respect from the game’s best all the sweeter to behold.

So which sport is more dangerous? Rugby players wear far fewer pads, but it’s those pads that enable and embolden someone to hit another player with greater speed and force—and it’s the sudden stopping, not the impact itself, that causes the brain to crash into the inside of the skull, causing a concussion. Rugby players don’t wear helmets, but rather scrum caps, which do little more than prevent cauliflower ear—though again, it’s the helmet that allows for harder hits and a harder projectile, so helmets can be more dangerous for players than caps.

Another key distinction comes from a sports fan on Reddit:

Rugby doesn’t have a system of downs like football, so it’s not as important to contest every single yard. In rugby, it’s more important that the man simply gets tackled—it’s ok if he drags you a yard or two as long as he doesn’t score. In football, that extra yard might mean a new set of downs so you get defensive players impacting the players hard and high—trying to stop the runner's forward movement immediately.

The Redditor also points to a 2008 study showing lower rates of injury in college rugby than college football. Another key distinction between the two sports comes from a rugby coach on his blog:

Hull City's Nikica Jelavic (L) and Newcastle United's Daryl Janmaat clash heads as they challenge for the ball during their English Premier League soccer match on January 31, 2015. Ow. Andrew Yates / Reuters

Jim Hamblin flags a new study out this morning showing that American football players ages 8 to 13 who haven’t had any concussion symptoms nevertheless show changes in their brains associated with traumatic brain injury. It’s yet another sign that people are souring on the sport, whose National Football League has been getting a lot of scrutiny from our readers lately, namely over traumatic brain injuries.

But what the sport that most of the world calls football—soccer? How bad are those head injuries? (Readers have previously tackled rugby.) Innes, a reader of Jim’s piece, flags “a more worrying report today about the effects of football on the brain”:

There is no doubt that American football and rugby as contact sports have more head knocks, concussions, and long-term health effects. But even soccer has been linked to premature deaths due to players repeatedly heading the ball. Today the University of Stirling released a study that showed even a short practice round of heading the ball led to immediate short-term memory degradation. The U.S. has already taken the lead by banning heading in the children’s game. [CB note: The ban last year successfully stopped a class-action lawsuit involving concussions.] Hopefully the U.K. will follow. However, if this effect can be measured in a relatively soft, non-contact sport like soccer, imagine how much worse it is in American football.

Innes continues in a followup:

Fans cheer during opening night for the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. Charlie Riedel / AP

The following reader, Stephen, sent us a note a few days ago to revive the rich discussion we had back in the fall over the ethics of watching football:

I am a resident of Houston. As you can guess right now, the city is getting a little hectic as we countdown to the largest sporting event on U.S. soil. There was a time when I watched every football game I could, played in multiple fantasy football leagues, and was up to date on everything football. ESPN was a regular rotation. All my free time revolved around the NFL.

Not anymore. I am disgusted with the NFL.

The more time goes by, the less accessibility to true fans I am seeing.  Affordability of regular season games is ludicrous. Twenty-five minutes of game time with 1.5 hours of commercials … what a waste of time.   

The Super Bowl has become the Red Carpet of the NFL; it’s more for celebrities and non fans to be seen than for the true diehards. For crying out loud, the commercials of this event are celebrated. For such a lucrative game, they get volunteers to work and compel cities to fork over the money to host. Essentially, the NFL is paid to host the Super Bowl, not the other way around.

I guess what I hate is how money and soap-opera type drama dominates the game. I watch many people struggle to pay bills, yet this NFL machine won’t stop consuming. All for what? What is the return?  A 20-minute game?

Many players are treated like cattle, not human beings. They are subjected to injuries, and horrific conditions. They earn high salaries, but what is their quality of life after the game?

I can’t stand football anymore.

Speaking of the quality of life of ex-players, this next reader, Jeremy, digs into our debate over traumatic and long-term head injuries:

I love football. I played through high school. I love to watch it. I just won my fantasy football league this year. But the reality of the game is becoming harder and harder for me to ignore.

Junior Seau’s suicide, Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, Luke Kuechly’s big hit [seen above], and that devastating GQ article on HS football player Zac Easter … everything just keeps chipping away at my love for the game. Which is crazy because enough should have already been enough!

But the sense of community and camaraderie among fans is what keeps me in it. And is there anything more exciting than the end of a close football game? Less than two minutes left. Your team takes the field, down a score. Then they start marching …

The fact remains, however, that football (and to a lesser extent hockey) is the only major American sport that is actively killing its players. Baseball, basketball, and soccer players [the latter covered by readers here, and rugby here] may end up with bad knees or elbows or ankles, but they don’t routinely lose their minds as a result of playing the game as it is meant to be played. And that’s the sad reality that every football fan has to face. Is this game that we love worth it?

And people will defend it: “Grown adults making informed decisions.” But how can you weigh the risks of losing your mind while you still have it?

It’s just a lot. And it should be enough to say “stop.” I think that watching and contributing to the sport is wrong. But when it feels like our entire society watches and condones it, it’s hard to give up.

Brian did:

I went cold turkey about four years ago and haven’t watched American football at any level since then. The mounting evidence that traumatic brain injuries are a feature and not a bug became too much. I just couldn’t justify treating as entertainment a sport that systematically inflicts traumatic brain injury. I’m not sure why the fact that players more or less voluntarily participate makes any difference. All that means is that the viewer is, in effect, indirectly paying the players to harm one another for the viewer’s entertainment.

This final reader, Jeff, is personally struggling with past injuries and emotionally struggling with whether to give up the sport completely:

Great discussion. I have decided to give up pro football, and it was that Panthers game that pushed me over the edge. I posted a message on Facebook to that effect. All the talk from the NFL about how it was now taking concussions seriously—how, this time, things were going to be different. Yet we saw what we saw. It was too much.

I do have a personal bias in all of this. For the past 2 1/2 years, I’ve suffered from the life-upending effects of Post Concussion Syndrome. I write this now, in fact, from another hotel room in another city not my own, seeking out the help of a Chicago doctor who may be able to help put my broken life back together. I’ve seen some of the most renowned doctors in the country. The struggle goes on.

So, when Cam takes the hits he took [similar to the one above], I do more than wince. I get a little more nauseous than maybe I already was. It’s just too much.

And yet. It’s still not easy. Not even close. You know how many “likes” I got on my Facebook post? Zero. Goose egg.

I live in Charlotte. Sure, other fans were upset about Cam as well. But enough to stop cheering for the Panthers? Enough to give up football? By no means. Folks have gotten a taste of winning around here, and that’s hard to give up.

I see it in my kids’ eyes. My wife’s chatter. Folks at my church on Sunday mornings wearing their No. 1 and No. 59 jerseys. They’re not walking away. Not happening.

How do I explain this to my two young boys? Especially when—get this—I have not given up the college game. Somehow I’ve convinced myself it’s OK for 19-year-olds to play this violent game. This has become sort of my weird compromise, a way to not completely let go. At least for now.

Daniel, a reader who describes himself as “a current football fan and an ex football player,” offers a nuanced defense of the sport:

I played in high school, where I sustained a separated shoulder and concussion that kept me out of athletic activity for five months. I walked onto my college football team, where I sustained a second concussion.  While I have successfully healed from these injuries, I continue to deal with their aftereffects in various ways.

Even so, it breaks my heart to see the way many concerned citizens are responding to the game today. Much has been made of the way the NCAA and the NFL exploit their athletes—a claim I find valid, to a degree. In the case of the NCAA, I find it abhorrent that athletes receive nothing in return for their service to the universities they enrich.

The NFL is a slightly different animal, in that more effort is made to support ex-players economically, and players make salaries that allow them to live comfortably. (A caveat here: I recognize that lots of ex-NFL players have not been treated well after their playing days. This is something the league is moving to remedy. Today, it is possible for a player to be cut or retire and transition smoothly into sustainable employment.)

But is it exploitation if the players love to play the game? We are so quick to decry the game as brutal and violent that we never ask why the players allow themselves to experience such things. Could they have agency of their own, who freely chose to come back to take the punishment year after year because the game is a joyful experience?

This is what my experience suggests. If I could do it all over again, knowing how it would end, I would not change a thing. I am sure there are many collegiate and NFL players who would say the same thing because they love the game they play.