Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral?

Every Sunday, from the kickoff to the final Hail Mary attempt as time expires, Americans glue themselves to their TVs and cheer on their team. Football may not quite be America’s Pastime, but it’s certainly America’s Game.

And yet, the most popular, the most watched, the most lucrative sport in the United States has a serious problem on its hands. People are still watching, buying tickets and expensive satellite TV packages. The NFL is still making money hand over fist. They don’t have a financial problem, they have a moral problem. And, we, the fans, have a moral problem.

Last week four players were suspended for their roles in a bounty program designed to give players bonuses for injuring the opponent. Extra cash if the player left on a stretcher. A couple weeks prior, their coaches were suspended for organizing and allowing such a program.

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Last week, Junior Seau, former All-Pro linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, killed himself. Seau, 43, shot himself in the chest. He didn’t leave a note, but it’s the same method Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears star, used to kill himself last year. The reason for the chest, and not the head? The brain would be preserved for scientific study.

This after former player Andre Waters shot himself in the head in 2006. The few parts of the brain left intact showed he had a degenerative brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Waters was 44 years-old when he killed himself. Dr. Bennet Omalu at the University of Pittsburgh said the brain looked like it belonged to an 85 year-old.

Duerson’s brain was studied and was found to have the same condition. We don’t know for sure yet in Seau’s case, but the smart money’s on him having CTE as well.

I’m not trying to condone anyone’s suicide. Far from it. But, this has become a trend. And it goes far deeper and far wider than the high-profile suicides.

Former players are reporting dementia, memory loss, and other symptoms of serious brain injury often and at early ages. Currently there are over one thousand former players suing the NFL, alleging that league did not do enough to educate players about concussion, nor are they doing enough to help players with their effects.

Players and coaches organizing bounty programs designed to seriously injure other opponents doesn’t help.

Much of this, of course, is between the players and the league. Compensation and education regarding concussions and post-concussion effects really has nothing to do with fans, aside from the fact that we like our institutions to care about this stuff and to act justly.

So, where do we, the fans, come in? Do we come in at all? Are we truly just fans, an audience watching the events unfold? On at least one level, yes. We are certainly spectators. We don’t call plays, we don’t sub players in and out. We don’t make tackles, catch passes, throw blocks.

But, on another level, we are intimately involved with a sport that, it’s becoming increasingly clear, is inherently violent and life-threatening, at least in its current form.

The NFL has recently begun cracking down on headshots. But only certain kinds. Lineman hit each other in the head on nearly every play, for instance. And running backs are generally not protected by the rulebook from blows to the head. In other words, it’s not just the blatant, deafening helmet-to-helmet hits.

Still, the NFL is taking some steps address the issue, and yet they continue to endorse the idea of extending the season, which would only open up players to more abuse.

The players, for their part, are not without blame. They play the game in the first place, and the overriding culture of toughness leads many players to try to play through head injuries, and in some cases even ridicule other players who won’t.

There are, of course, risks to everything we do. If people didn’t take risks, nothing would ever be done. You run the risk of dying every time you leave your house.

But there’s something different about football. Sure, there are risks to everything, but the amount and severity of head injuries to NFL players is becoming overwhelming. Sure, it’s the players who make the choice to play the game, but we make the choice to support it and derive entertainment from it.

Now might be a good time to note that I love watching football. It takes precision, teamwork, immense skill, and it’s just flat out entertaining. And that’s where I start to squirm.

A large part of the NFL’s entertainment value comes from the crushing hits. And it goes beyond just the illegal plays. Players who are legally tackled often get their head smacked against the ground. Linemen are constantly knocking helmets while jostling for position. Fullbacks, tight ends, receivers, and lineman often lead with their heads while blocking for the running back, who routinely takes shots to the head.

And we (you and I and millions of others) sit down every Sunday in the fall and winter and are entertained by it.

My thoughts keep getting drawn back to the gladiator games. The similarities are striking. Many of the gladiators possessed great skill ; they were paragons of man in his physical form. Disciplined. Athletic. Masters. The games themselves were awe-inspiring, entertaining events. They also frequently ended in death.

And while football players aren’t dying right there on the gridiron, they are dying. They are enduring years of brain damage, dementia, and memory loss at a high rate. It was their decision to put themselves in that position, certainly. But it’s our decision to watch them do it.

The Church Father Tertullian writes in De Spectaculis that “the innocent can find no pleasure in another’s sufferings” in reference, in particular, to the gladiator games. Football and the gladiator games are, of course different. The goal of the gladiator was often to kill or maim. And all for the entertainment of the spectator.

Football is different, of course. Despite some of the rhetoric that surrounds the game, the goal is to score more points than the other team (as John Madden will tell you), not to literally kill them. Brain injuries, memory loss, and sometimes death are by-products. And yet, they seem not to be merely accidental, but rather inextricably tied to the sport. The growing trend of brain-damaged players experiencing serious symptoms and even early death is alarming.

To be sure, football is not played in order to inflict brain damage. And we certainly don’t watch football in order to see people get brain damaged. But does there come a point where the harm the sport inflicts, intentionally or not, outweighs the merits of watching it?

Can we take delight in the well-executed block or the legal tackle, knowing what they’re doing over time to the players? Can we cheer the big hits? Marvel at the bone crunching collisions? Can we disapprove of those, but support the game as a whole. How many times can we cringe at a big hit, watch a player get carted off, and mutter, “What a shame. Hope he’s okay.” At what point does a shame become a trend? And at what point does a trend become part of the game?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But the issue, at the very least, deserves discussion. The consequences of playing football, it’s becoming increasingly clear, can be quite serious. Deadly, even.

We’d do well to at least begin to probe what the consequences of watching it might be.

Will you be watching in the fall?


  • Christian Tappe

    After a brief career restoring timber-framed barns, Christian Tappe worked as an editor for Regnery and ISI Books. He is currently Editor of Saint Benedict Press/TAN Books in Charlotte, NC.

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