We human beings have an amazing capacity to avert our eyes from anything that might detract from the pleasure of something we enjoy. Fast-food burgers, fries, and shakes taste awfully good, as long as we do not look at the fat, sodium, and calorie counts attached to those meals. Everyone loves to score a bargain on an item of clothing, as long as we do not think about the workplace conditions and wretched lives of the garment workers who toil in places like Bangladesh. Our consumer goods, fresh foods, and homes all gratify us, at least until we stop to consider the natural and human resources exploited to make them available. There is hardly a daily human practice that doesn’t carry some element of ethical risk or compromise to it, if we stop to think about it—but thinking about it too much can be exhausting.
Many Americans escape from such discomfiting concerns by watching sports on television, online, or in person, but it has become clear that even such entertainments can and should prick our consciences. This has become most evident in the case of professional football. There have been many disturbing accounts of how multiple concussions and other head injuries are leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and other irreversible brain diseases for untold numbers of football players. Recently the news media have reported that nearly three dozen NFL players have received post-mortem diagnoses of CTE. Prior to their deaths, many of these players exhibited symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia, and unstable behaviors. Some committed suicide, most famously Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling and San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau. No one knows how many current or former players now live with CTE, but it is estimated that one in three retired players will suffer some sort of cognitive impairment.
Brain injuries are not the only physical ailment afflicting football players. Robert Griffin III (RGIII), the acclaimed quarterback for Washington’s NFL franchise, suffered a gruesome knee injury in the 2013 playoffs. What made this particular injury so controversial is that despite being injured early in the game, RGIII continued to play until his knee totally gave way. For weeks afterwards, football fans debated, often vociferously, whether to blame this potentially catastrophic injury on RGIII’s stubborn insistence that he stay in the game or on coach Michael Shanahan’s arrogant willingness to put his star’s health at risk. RGIII was cleared to return as Washington’s starting quarterback this fall, though no one seems fully certain whether the reconstructive knee surgery he underwent (for the second time in his football career) will permanently affect his play.
Of course, professional football is not the only sport in which players risk injuries, but professional football has come under particular scrutiny. As sportswriters Sally Jenkins and Robert Maese report in “Do No Harm,” a powerful series in the Washington Post, “There is medicine, and then there is National Football League medicine, and the practice of the two isn’t always the same” (March 16, 2013). Over the course of five in-depth articles, they show how players are pressured to play through pain and act against their best interests. The NFL hires doctors to give top players short-term fixes, which include drug therapies that involve their own dangers, including abuse and addiction. Of course, most football players are young men, many not yet out of their twenties. They often regard themselves as invincible, or at least infinitely capable of rebounding from injuries. They are less prone to think of the long-term effects of the hits and hurts they bear. Yes, the NFL has made efforts to raise awareness among its players, particularly rookies, but such knowledge is easily tossed aside when a game—and career possibilities—are on the line.
The truth is, the most profound effects of these injuries do not appear until years later, sometimes not until after retirement. As Jenkins and Maese report, many of the players who encounter later problems discover that NFL health benefits do not cover their mounting medical bills, and that they do not qualify for disability benefits. This, despite the facts that one in four retired players will require a joint replacement (Weir, Jackson, and Sonnenga 2009) and that retired players are four times as likely as their generational peers to have neurodegenerative problems (Lehman et al 2012).
Because of these mounting problems, 4,500 former NFL players have filed lawsuits against the league, charging that the NFL “was aware of the evidence and the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries virtually at the inception, but deliberately ignored and actively concealed the information from the Plaintiffs and all others who participated in organized football at all levels” (www.nflconcussionmdl.org). Just before the start of the 2013 season, the NFL and these litigants reached a proposed settlement: the league offered to pay $765 million to provide care for 18,000 players over the course of twenty years, plus provide an additional $10 million for brain injury research. A judge has yet to approve the settlement, which will provide immediate compensation to players with the most pressing needs. However, many are hoping it will be rejected because it is inadequate to the long-term problems that past and future players will suffer. Moreover, the settlement shields the NFL from revealing what it has always known about the evidence and the risks.
Of course, $765 million is no small amount of money. But the details of the settlement suggest that it will be inadequate to cover even the three hundred most severely impaired players, much less the thousands of others who might be eligible for compensation, and certainly not at a rate that meets their needs. In addition, families of players who died of CTE-related injuries before 2006 may not be eligible for compensation (Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada, “Some players may be out…”). Indeed, the settlement total is less than the estimated market price of the lowest-valued NFL team, the Oakland Raiders, which still ranks within the top fifty most valuable sports franchises in the world (www.forbes.com). And yet these spectacularly wealthy NFL owners still routinely threaten to withdraw their franchises from municipalities that balk at paying billions for new stadiums that cater first and foremost to the richest ticket holders. The sheer economic power they wield over cities, players, and even fans is almost unfathomable.
But what is wrong with the proposed settlement is not only the relatively paltry sum the NFL is willing to pay the suffering retirees. The real ethical problem is that it salves the consciences of those of us who are football fans. Many of us will be too quick to argue that football players now know the risks when they decide to play the game and thus should bear the consequences. In effect, we will exonerate the team and the owners. Perhaps such thinking reflects how football fans relate to their sport. We show our allegiance to particular teams more than to particular players. After all, it is a team sport. That is not to say that individual players, particularly quarterbacks like RGIII, do not win and deserve their fame and fans’ devotion. But the fans of other team sports like basketball and baseball tend to focus more on individual players and follow their fortunes from team to team.
This kind of team loyalty seems a bit strange in a country like the United States that so celebrates individual achievement. But the outsized devotion of football fans for their favorite teams contributes to the very real physical and mental devastation experienced by thousands of players past, present, and future. Fans demand that players like RGIII tough it out, even if injured, for the good of the team, reinforcing other pressures players already face. So yes, the players go into the sport knowing the risks, and most get paid extraordinary sums in return, but the real reason for this quid pro quo is our refusal as fans to own up to how our fandom abets these catastrophic injuries.
Professional football today is far more physically dangerous, even brutal, than the sport of ages past, in part because fans demand a more action-packed experience. Surely this mindset contributed to the “Bountygate” scandal a few years ago when several players and a defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints were charged with operating a slush fund that paid players bonuses for inflicting injuries on their opponents. And now NFL owners are discussing extending the regular season by two games, thus increasing the risk to their players.
If we really care for the welfare of the thousands of players who are suffering long-term debilitation for the prospect of a career in football, we must be willing to sacrifice at least some of the pleasures of fandom. Faced with the health risks associated with fast foods, many of us cut them out of our diets or consume them as only an occasional indulgence. Our rising awareness of the ethics of clothing manufacturing has led many consumers to forgo bargains and press for labor and environmental safeguards, and many retailers are responding. But are we willing to give up our game tickets, forgo buying team paraphernalia, and turn off broadcast games?
The NFL tried to settle the concussion lawsuits prior to the 2013 season to divert the public’s attention away from its culpability and back to the game. But long-term injuries and the personal tragedies they create will not go away. Of course, we cannot make football played at any level risk-free. But if we refuse to give up the habits of fandom, perhaps we can find other ways to raise awareness of and confront the problems those habits encourage. Many parents are having second thoughts about letting their children play football and are steering them toward less risky sports. As schools with football programs are confronted with insurance liability issues, they will have to reconsider the viability of their programs. The pool for future professional players could become seriously depleted.
Sports fandom, like virtually every other life practice, carries ethical implications. Playing and loving the sport of football is no sin. But shouldn’t we acknowledge that we have been baptized into its idolatrous culture, at least on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights? Professional football depends not only on players who provide the fodder for its violence, but also on spectators who passively accept the terms of play. The proposed NFL concussion settlement makes it clear that changing the ethos of football will depend on fans who love the sport and respect the players, not on the owners whose fortunes depend on our unquestioning devotion and their players’ servitude. The question is, will we expend our energies to sustain this culture’s power over our lives, or work to hasten its reformation?
David Lott is a freelance book editor living in Washington, DC.
Fainaru, Steve and Mark Fainaru-Wada. “Some players may be out of NFL deal.” ESPN.com. (September 20, 2013). http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9690036/older-players-cut-nfl-settlement-concerns-growing-whether-enough-money-exists.
Lehman, Everett J., Misty J. Hein, Sherry L. Baron, and Christine M. Gersic. “Neurodegenerative Causes of Death among Retired National Football League Players.” Neurology. (September 5, 2012).
Weir, David R., James S. Jackson, and Amanda Sonnenga. “Study of Retired NFL Players.” Ann Arbor, Michigan: Institute for Social Research, September 9, 2009.