Is Football Immoral?

Football has taken some hard hits in the news recently, from domestic violence scandals to revelations about brain damage. It has also become the gridiron for a culture war – on one side, traditionalists who defend the game’s character-building values, and on the other, a swelling tide of moral revulsion. Is football good for us? Or is it just plain immoral?

Critics of the dehumanizing aspect of the sport go back at least as far as the book Out of Their League in 1971, by a former NFL linebacker. Today bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell arguably leads the charge to marginalize the sport, having penned a 2009 article for The New Yorker in which he equated football with dogfighting. More recently, he dismissed the game in an interview as “a moral abomination” that is “fundamentally out of touch with the rest of us.”

Gladwell is not alone. Former fan Steve Almond, author of the bluntly-titled Against Football, judged in the Washington Post that “Football Has Proven its Moral Vacancy.” He too complained about the game’s “extreme and inherent violence” and “horrifying health risks.” Basketball great LeBron James said recently that he doesn’t let his two sons play football for those same reasons. Even President Obama told The New Republic, “If I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

In football’s corner are authors such as Daniel Flynn (The War on Football), who lists the game’s benefits for young men: competition and camaraderie, direction and discipline, male role models, and fun. Mark Edmundson (Why Football Matters) concurs with Flynn but acknowledges that the sport is punishing and can encourage darker behavior in some players.

Critics claim that that darker behavior, like Ray Rice cold-cocking his fiancée in an elevator, proves that football encourages a culture of violence for players which bleeds over (literally) into their relationships and everyday lives. But the percentage of NFL players arrested in any given year is actually lower than the national average for men of the same age. Far and away the most common crime NFL players are charged with is not domestic violence but driving under the influence, and despite the recent bad publicity, this year is on track to be the least criminal on record.

It’s easy to point to sensationalized incidents like the Ray Rice videotape and say that football creates a culture of violence. What doesn’t make the news is the positive effect that football has had on countless kids in shaping their character and teaching life lessons. Says New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, in an article defending male aggression:

Football channels boys’ chauvinistic belligerence into supervised forms, shapes them within boundaries, and gives them positive meaning. These virtues, like those often attributed to the military, can feel like clichés imported from an earlier era — and yet discipline and directed ambition are, as every social scientist knows, the bedrock of success in adulthood.

However, the physical risks, especially at the professional level, are undeniable. The NFL recently revealed that nearly a third of retired players develop long-term cognitive issues much earlier than people in general. “The idea that we are paying people to engage in a sport for our own entertainment that causes irreparable damage to themselves is appalling,” said a disgusted Gladwell.

He believes that one day we’ll look back on football as reprehensibly savage, like we now view the gladiatorial battles of ancient Rome. But we haven’t distanced ourselves all that much from those bloody bouts: this summer The New York Times reported on the rising popularity today of medieval jousting–yes, jousting. In that piece, the writer described the crowd reaction at the moment when one participant strikes the other squarely in the torso with his lance, sending him flying: “It was as if someone had sent an electric current through the arena’s aluminum bleachers. Men leapt to their feet with their fists in the air. Teenage girls clutched one another’s arms.”

Gladwell would no doubt find that reaction revolting, but it speaks to the fact that humanity, generally speaking, has a violent streak. Look at the burgeoning popularity of mixed martial arts; cage fighting is more brutal than boxing or football. Gladwell believes we are evolving away from that propensity, but I am skeptical not only that we can, but that we should.

Blood sports are a useful way for a select few of us to channel that violence relatively safely, while the audience experiences it cathartically. Football is mock warfare that fulfills a primal need. Professional football players accept and even embrace the violence and its punishing consequences in return not only for the glory and/or money, but for the opportunity to test themselves and others in ritualized battle.

Is that immoral? I think only where the combatants have no choice in the matter, as in dogfighting or the gladiatorial arena, and only if you believe that violence is immoral under any circumstances. Yes, we have a responsibility to lessen the injurious consequences to the players; fans love hard-hitting football, but they don’t love watching players get carted off the field. To call the game “a moral abomination” and do away with it altogether, however, is to be “fundamentally out of touch” with the positives it offers—the competition and camaraderie, direction and discipline—and with the primal function it serves.

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