Monday, February 4, 2013

Should we Boycott the NFL?

Can a moral person continue to watch professional football? I have wrestled with this question of late. The prevalence of brain damage from head injuries is well documented, and with the recent death of Junior Seau linked to brain disease caused from injuries I am forced to admit that my entertainment comes at the expense of the health, well-being, and even life of these players.

I know the obvious reply: They choose to play the game, knowing these risks. If they choose to play it, then it's fine to watch them. But this simply will not do. I am not suggesting that we make football illegal, or censor it on TV, or even that we tell others to stop watching. I am asking myself, and asking my readers to ask themselves, if it is morally appropriate to derive enjoyment from watching others risk so much damage to themselves.

That these players choose to play football knowing the risk, does not mean we are innocent for watching. When a person is objectified, their dignity ignored, their pain made part of our entertainment, we have done something wrong to them, whether they consent to it or not. This is the kind of argument one often hears against going to strip clubs or watching pornography. When one engages in these activities one treats a fellow human being as if they were a mere "thing," and object existing solely for our satisfaction. If that argument applies to exotic dancers and pornographic actors, then it seems to apply to professional athletes just as well. And in this case, we are watching these men play a game that seriously threatens their well-being and health.

On the other hand, every profession and every sport carries risks. Sometimes those risk are severe. These men do know the risk and they apparently think it is worth the sacrifice. Furthermore, every time any person renders us a service we use them as a "thing." I doubt we are seriously meditating on the dignity and passion and rights of our garbage collectors, waiters, and other such persons. We do not and cannot always refrain from such behavior.

But this is not a matter of simple player choice. Most NFL players make a few hundred thousand a year and only play for a few seasons. Few of these players get high paying jobs after they retire and they are not given health care by the NFL. Furthermore, the NFL does not take necessary and relative simple steps to insure player safety.

This means that the NFL itself is exploiting its players for financial benefit. Their bodies are ruined and they are then left discarded and abandoned. All this simply to make a profit for billionaire owners. (returning to the analogy with porn and strip clubs: it is precisely this exploitation of individuals who are often emotionally damaged that is the real objection to pornography, not simply their getting naked and being sexual for the enjoyment of others)

So it is not a matter of simply knowing that these players chose a dangerous sport and they can get hurt. That is a choice one can make, and I see no problem being entertained by a game that makes those choices. But the abandonment of its players by the NFL is unacceptable.

Perhaps morality does require that we stop watching the NFL until the league treats its players as it deserves? On the other hand, the NFL is so wildly popular and so profitable that one can scarcely imagine sufficient outrage to affect a change. Does this mean we should just throw in the moral towel and enjoy the game?

I will be thinking about this very carefully during the off season.

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