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 3 Newer Notes

Which Is More Dangerous, Rugby or Football?

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:

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:

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.

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.

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?