The Ethics of American Football

In 2017, 112 million viewers eagerly tuned into the Super Bowl, the most watched televised event in America each year. 26 million viewers tuned into the College Football National Championship. The obsession with football that has become deeply ingrained in American culture includes the deification of the players. The National Football League (NFL), however, now faces backlash as the public becomes increasingly educated about the potentially deadly effects of the repeated head trauma the players incur. With the book League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru and the movie Concussion by Peter Landsman, popular media has begun to portray the dangers associated with playing tackle football. This blog post will examine the ethical discussions surrounding football: what roles society and individuals play in supporting the football industry, and what can be done to protect the players.
The head injuries which football players sustain and accumulate during their games can ultimately be fatal. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can be caused after multiple head traumas lead to a buildup in the brain of a protein called tau, which inhibits normal cognitive functioning and kills nerve cells. CTE can cause changes in behavior, rage, depression, or confusion. These detrimental effects came to national attention with the autopsy of NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster in 2002. A former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Webster began exhibiting bizarre behavioral changes such as rage, mood swings, and intense confusion. Webster’s autopsy revealed that he suffered from CTE. Since then, a slew of autopsies of football players have revealed that a staggering number suffer from CTE. One study by the Department of Veteran Affairs revealed that out of 128 football players who competed on the high school, collegiate, or professional level, nearly 80% tested positive for CTE.
The NFL established the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee (“MTBI”) in 1994. This committee was headed by a rheumatologist with no prior expertise in neurology or head injuries! In 2003, the MTBI, in their first study, claimed that concussions have no long-term health effects. Later in 2005, they claimed that “[r]eturn to play does not involve a significant risk of a second injury either in the same game or during the season.” It was not until 2009 that the NFL finally acknowledged the adverse effects of repeated concussions.
Given the thrust of current research, some argue that football should be legally banned, or that there should be a legal age limit for playing tackle football, as with drinking restrictions on minors. Banning football could be justified by arguing that football causes harm to both the individual and society: once the players are incapacitated, there are financial and other costs to society, psychological costs to the individual, negative emotional impact on loved ones, and burdens on the healthcare system. This utilitarian view, however, does not honor an individual’s autonomy, a liberty that our society greatly values. Legally banning football would limit a person’s capacity to engage a vocation which many elect now – and many more would choose if they had the requisite abilities. Furthermore, if football were banned, that would raise questions about banning other “dangerous” activities such as boxing, rugby, motorcycle riding, and more. However, football especially merits a lengthy discussion because it is played on such a wide scale, and receives copious dollars and attention from Americans.
Perhaps a more ethically complex question surrounds the social and economic incentives that cloud the judgment of players when deciding to play, and serve as an undue influence on these players. The average salary of an NFL player is around $1.9 million a year, albeit for generally short careers, not including various celebrity benefits; college football players are often granted generous football scholarships. Further, football remains a staple of American society, and a symbol of teamwork and community. Players often are afforded a highly respected social status. These benefits would not be possible without the wide-scale obsession and investment in football.
Because football is integral to American culture, banning football is a drastic option, and not the best first step to take for protecting players. Other practical measures must be considered. First, there must be a shift in the discussion around football in American mainstream culture. This shift in conversation should begin with parents, as their decision to let their young children play football without fully evaluating the potential negative consequences serves as one root of the ethical quandary. Another option would be to implement legal restrictions on children playing tackle football, especially because children are not fully cognizant of the effects of football. Furthermore, coaches who recruit players to play on the college level should fully educate their prospective players about the long-term risks involved, especially as research becomes more widely corroborated.
Glenn Cohen, from the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy at Harvard Law School, has assembled a 500-page ethical and legal analysis of how the NFL can better protect its players. One of his recommendations is to create a separate medical staff to administer care to the players, apart from the club medical staff. This would assure that the medical staff is not subject to the conflict of interest between the player’s longer-term health and the success of the business, and players would receive the care they require. Other protective measures could help prevent head injuries, such as stricter regulations on medical clearances, better equipment, or perhaps changing some of the rules of the game to eliminate plays most likely to cause harm.
While the ethics of football remain complex because of a player’s capacity to choose to play, there must be a changed discourse and increased education surrounding the harmful health effects of football. Parents and coaches can play a large role in this shift. Most important, while football remains at the core of American society, the NFL, colleges and high schools must continue to improve and carry out protective and preventative measures for the players.

1. Breslow, Jason M. “76 of 79 Deceased NFL Players Found to Have Brain Disease.” PBS. PBS,
30 Sept. 2014. Web.
2. Petchesky, Barry. “A Timeline of Concussion Science and NFL Denial.” Deadspin. Deadspin.com, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. June 2017.
3. Harvard Medical School. “Legal and ethical factors that affect NFL players’ health.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 November 2016. .

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