I love watching professional football on TV, and have loved it for as long as I can remember.
There are multiple reasons for this pleasure: vivid memories of watching games with my father, and then watching (and tossing a football) with my son; images of college dorm camaraderie that centered on viewing sports on television; the companionship of the guys in the broadcast booth. I take great satisfaction in a well-executed running play -- and delight most of all in the excitement, athleticism, and sheer beauty of a pass thrown and caught way downfield. This is magic. I am that receiver, along with hundreds of thousands of other viewers. I was him once, sort of, in the touch football games I played as a kid.
That is probably why it has become a little harder, noticeably less enjoyable, and even a source of ethical perplexity to watch the National Football League this year. I've long shuddered physically at the sight of a receiver flattened by a hard hit a second after the ball arrives, or--worse -- hit after a short pass on a slant pattern by two defenders who leave him slumped on the ground. What's new this year is the knowledge of how serious and pervasive football injuries are -- and how long-lasting, devastating, and even life-threatening their effects. The sports writer, William C. Rhoden suggested in the New York Times (January 21) that more than "big money, bright colors, [and] big risks" have made football our national pastime: "Don't discount the lure of the violence." I'm not sure he's right about that. The networks generally cut away to commercial breaks rather than linger over the body breaks on the field. Some fans may take pleasure in the sight, but I suspect I am more typical than not in the desire to turn away.
The ethical issue is not viewers' pleasure at the injuries, but our enjoyment in and support of professional football, knowing full well the damage done in the normal course of a game to players' bodies and minds. Around the time the current season began, it was announced (Ken Belson, August 29, 2013, New York Times) that "The National Football League has agreed to pay $765 million to settle lawsuits brought by more than 4,500 players and their families, largely closing the legal front in the league's battle against accusations that it concealed what it knew about the dangers of repeated hits to the head." A judge recently threw the settlement into question, unsure that the money would be sufficient to cover the medical care required. The data on concussions seem irrefutable. All of us will be aware, as we watch Super Bowl XLVIII, that in Rhoden's words, "The NFL brand of football is a particularly violent game, and every time it is played, people get hurt." We accept that. We watch anyway.
President Obama, football fan-in-chief, told David Remnick in an interview published in last week's New Yorker (January 27) that he too is concerned about these things, though he intends to keep watching. "'I would not let my son play pro football,' he conceded... 'At this point, there's a little bit of caveat emptor,' he went on. 'These guys, they know what they're doing... It is no longer a secret. It's sort of the feeling I have about smokers, you know?...I'm not a purist,' he said." Meaning, he is not a moral purist: he knows it is not entirely okay that millions of dollars are made -and millions of fans derive pleasure -- from a game that has broken limbs and injured brains as its inevitable by-product. The NFL knows that many families are going to be hesitant about letting their kids play the game, and that it needs to do something to ease those concerns and address moral qualms that may erode its fan base and incur incalculable liability. There have already been changes to the rules, and more are likely to be forthcoming.
I am committed to a religious tradition that commands us to try and figure out the rights and wrongs of this matter. For Jewish ethics stress, above all other things, the sanctity of human life and health. Jewish law always privileges the safeguarding of life above the preservation of property. The Talmud gives permission (indeed, it explicitly orders us) to violate the most sacred of ritual duties or prohibitions in the effort to save life, and teaches that saving a single life is reckoned as the equivalent of saving all of humanity. The priority given to life has been extended in many rules and teachings to the safeguarding of health. Two thousand years ago, when a majority of the Sages forbade Jews from participating in the events at Roman stadiums and arenas lest Jews be caught up in games inseparable from the worship of idols, one Sage disagreed: "On the contrary! It is permissible to go to the arena because by shouting you may save a person's life."
He may have had in mind a gladiator who could be warned by spectators about the imminent attack of a lion. We can't be sure. There seems little uncertainty, however, that those of us who love watching football can impel team owners and players to exercise maximum ingenuity in working to preserve the game they love to play -- and we love to watch -- while changing rules, equipment, and penalties in a way that cuts down on injury and long-term neurological damage. Something has to give. I don't know what is possible and what isn't. We will never find out unless we try hard to do so, as if life itself is on the line. Not to make people like me feel better when we watch, but to protect the health and well-being of those who play. A Super Bowl L in 2016 with such changes in place would be an event worth all the hoopla in the world.