Is it immoral to watch the Super Bowl?
As sports fans counted down to Super Bowl 50 this week, we learned that legendary Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler had chronic traumatic encephalopathy or C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. More than 100 former NFL players have now been diagnosed with C.T.E. — and the level of brain injury has some fans turning away in disgust.
Steve Almond is the author of "Against Football: A Reluctant Manifesto." He argues that watching the Super Bowl is actually an immoral act. Wendy Parker is the creator of the sports blog Sports Biblio and she thinks there's still a lot to like about gridiron football. They join Brent Bambury for a debate about whether it's ethical to watch the Super Bowl.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Brent Bambury: Steve, let me start with you. Why do you think it's immoral to watch the Super Bowl?
Steve Almond: Oh gosh. Because I'm a guilt-ridden Jewish person. You know, I was a fan for 40 years and I only for the last five had any qualms about it. And I think, sort of what changed is that I stopped seeing it just as a wildly entertaining form of athletic combat. And I started looking at it as a moral undertaking, and once you open that can of worms, it's very dark indeed. I wish I could stuff all the bad data that's in my book, back into my little denial hole, and enjoy the game. Because I really am sort of living almost as the athletic version of an alcoholic. I still love the game, I still find it wildly entertaining. I just know that it's bad for me. I have a sense that it's bad for me and maybe bad in general.
BB: But what is it that you see on the field, on the gridiron? What do you see happening that is in itself immoral?
SA: OK, so the most basic thing is the sport is now too violent and too dangerous to play safely. You know, the NFL themselves after years of denying that there was any link between the game and brain trauma and brain illness admitted last year in federal court documents that their own actuaries estimate that up to 30 per cent of their players — their workers, the people in their workplace — were going to suffer "long term cognitive ailments" which is the polite legalese version of "brain damage." There is absolutely no other industry that anybody can point to where the American people or the Canadian people or any civilized people would say, "Well, 30 per cent of the workers — almost a third of the workers — get brain damage, what are you going to do? We really like that thing, or we really need that thing." That wouldn't even be morally acceptable to us if it was the military, and they protect the homeland. Then you have to look at the values of the game which promote aggression, a kind of sanitized violence that we would never sanction off the field. In fact, we pitch a fit when that kind of violence takes place off the field. It sanctions violence.
BB: Wendy, what do you think of Steve Almond's argument that football sanctions catastrophic brain injury? And that is, in fact, a routine byproduct of the way that the game is played and tolerated in a way that wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry?
Wendy Parker: Well, it's tolerated in other sports. I mean boxing has had this problem. Concussions are an issue in hockey with the death of Derek Boogaard. And soccer is a real problem too. We had the World Cup final a couple years ago — which is the biggest sporting event in the world, much bigger than the Super Bowl — there was a German player who went up for a header and collided with another player and he was staggering around the field for 14 minutes before they took him off. You know, mixed martial arts is rising in popularity and we love it when we watch Ronda Rousey kick somebody in the head with her foot. And nobody talks about brain trauma or concussions there. So I think we're kind of selective about the moral outrage that we're showing and football in the NFL is, I think, a convenient whipping boy for larger problems.
BB: But are you comfortable with the level of violence and injury in the NFL now?
WP: Well, we're still learning about C.T.E., it's still very early in the in the research. Again other other put other sports have the same problem but we don't hear that much about it because I think the larger issue that some people have with football and I think Steve makes it to some degree. It's more of a cultural thing we look at it as violent and look at it as an all male. Hyper masculine thing. We don't like the F-14 flyovers before the Super Bowl itself that football represents something about America that they don't like culturally.
BB: Well also, Steve, your argument is not that football is difficult for you to watch but that we are all morally complicit. In what you see as the failure of football to protect these players. And I just want to talk to you about that. If I watch the Super Bowl, how does that make me morally responsible for whatever failings the NFL might have in protecting their employees?
SA: Well, most of the money that the NFL generates is from TV, it's from passive consumption people sitting on a couch watching it. I just want to take moment to say, Wendy, the fact that other sports are dangerous is not a defense of football's danger. And the fact is there's no other sport you could point to that is as dangerous to its participants as football is and as widely tolerated. Boxing used to be the most popular sport in America and it really is a much more minor sport now because people could see one man trying to beat another senseless and they had a moral awakening that caused them to turn away from the sport. So you can rationalize it all you want but it's deeply immoral to say that your enjoyment sitting on a couch watching guys, who are going to wind up like Junior Seau putting a bullet into their chest, is an OK way to spend your time. The larger question about passive consumption: there is no football industrial complex without us. It's a dodge to say "it's really the players fault" because if you don't like what you're seeing or you're troubled by it then stop watching. They're not going to change anything until that.
WP: I'm not troubled and 115 million people who watched the Super Bowl last year aren't troubled and the tens of millions who just watched the college football championship and all the Bowl games aren't troubled by it. It's really insulting to suggest that we're the problem. The sport of American gridiron football has been dangerous from the beginning. There were college football players hundred years ago who were who were killed on the field, there were safety reforms, there were rule changes. There are rule changes that are being discussed now. There is an understandable concern about these concussions but we who watch are not the problem and to suggest that the 100 million plus people who watch the NFL or the Super Bowl need to stop watching it for the problem to go away is, I think, very fanciful.
SA: Do the thought experiment, Wendy. What if 100 million people say, "I'm not OK with consuming a sport that causes brain damage, whatever other bad values it has, and we're going to stop watching." What do you think would happen? Football exists because we love it so much. And the fact that something gives us pleasure isn't a moral justification. You love bacon, but you don't want to visit the slaughterhouse. That doesn't mean the hogs aren't getting slaughtered.
WP: These are professional athletes who choose to do this. They're well paid. They have a players' union. They have retirement and medical benefits the players of previous generations didn't have. It is sad to see what's happening to some of these guys but at the same time the benefits that a lot of these men have from playing football: the teamwork, the camaraderie, the friendship. You never talk about those things and those are things that are dismissed out of hand.
BB: But Wendy, Steve talked about the new evidence about brain injuries and C.T.E. — if we all keep watching football now, why would we expect the game at the professional level to ever change?
WP: I think the greater awareness that's coming about in the media is helping it but I think insulting people by calling them the problem. Saying they are immoral or they're evil is not helping them understand this. You know the the initial concerns that this is bad are being ignored by the fact that the TV ratings for the NFL are higher than ever, I would imagine the ratings for the Super Bowl are going to be even higher than they've ever been. All of these moral objections and and hectoring, all of this hand-wringing isn't having that much of a deterrent effect on getting people not to watch this.
BB: Steve, response?
SA: Well, you know moral progress is inconvenient. It means that at a certain point, people come along and say, sitting on a couch watching people participate in a sport that results in a third of them getting brain damage is actually bad for the national soul. And if you want to try to defend it by saying but lots of people still watch, you can do that. And you clearly are doing that. It's fantastic entertainment. But it's not worth a third of the players getting brain damage and deep down in your hidey-hole, you know that's the case.
BB: Wendy, what do you think of that?
WP: I've covered football, I see with these guys go through, I understand that. But people who watch football are not immoral. They're not evil, they're not on uncaring or callous. You cannot make moral decisions for other people just because you feel like this. Your views are no more enlightened than mine or anybody else's who's going to tune in or not tune in. The fact of the matter is, football is not my favourite sport, I'd rather watch some other things, I'm watching less and less of the NFL, I don't think it's the best product. I think it's been better in years past. But you make it seem like your views are more enlightened and superior than others and they're not. I think there's just a regeneration of some concerns about health and safety and they're understandable. And we need to have this kind of discussion. But to demonize people and call them immoral or evil is not helping us understand. And you can say this all you want. But you are not the moral arbiter of what other people decide to do or watch or take part in.
BB: Steve Almond, what is it going to take to get other people to turn away from this game?
SA: My argument would be they have to really view it as a moral undertaking. Interestingly, I haven't used the word "evil" although Wendy's used it about fifteen times. This is what people do when they feel like they're sort of being backed into a corner and asked to really consider their conscience and interrogating one of their great pleasures. The book "Against Football" doesn't say anybody should do anything. It says, I as a fan, after looking at all the evidence, really carefully seeing what the medical research says, thinking about the values that football expresses the way in which it normalizes violence. It's insane misogyny, it's kind of patriarchal medieval values. The way in which it prioritizes a kind of physical courage over moral courage. After thinking about and reflecting on all of this, I, as an individual fan, have decided turn away from the game, even though it is so spectacularly entertaining. And I also don't think it is OK to sit back in the comfort of our climate controlled homes watching this huge spectacle and seeing guys, who we know now for a fact, are going to wind up brain damaged and saying actually my enjoyment of this game — pass the nachos — is more important than whatever suffering will come to that man or his family.
BB: Wendy Parker, you say that you watch less football now than you used to, what would it take for you to get to a point where you couldn't watch the Super Bowl anymore? Or do you ever imagine that happening?
WP: It's one game out of one day, a few hours. You know, on Monday morning people might be talking about the game and they go on to the rest of their lives and they talk about other sports that they're interested in. I'm not disturbed by the violence like Steve is and I think the point he made about this is more of a cultural problem with him than it is a moral one. When you talk about patriarchy and misogyny, give me a break. I think that's what the real issue is. And now we have this issue of concussions. Which is a serious issue but we need to stop demonizing people because they like to do something that you find morally reprehensible. I think I'll always watch the Super Bowl. It's the biggest sporting event on our calendar and I don't feel the need to demonize other people for things that they like or dislike.