It’s not easy to feel good watching the NFL. CTE may or may not be destroying players’ lives as they play their hearts out for the fans. Black players’ peaceful protests on against racial injustice are being crucified by everyone from casual All Lives Matter fans to professional All Lives Matter politicians. And if everything happening on the field weren’t enough, the league’s leniency on players who are accused of domestic violence seems to be continuing into 2018. Worst of all, the New England Patriots — one of the two teams competing in this year’s Super Bowl, which takes place this Sunday — are run by a gaggle of Trump supporters. In preparation for the big game, The Outline reached out to ethicists across the country to find the best way to pick up a wing without feeling so, so guilty about it.
Ethically speaking, which team should people root for in the Super Bowl?
Sharon Stoll, Professor of Physical Education and Director of the Center for Ethical Theory and Honor In Competition and Sport (ETHICS) at University of Idaho: Well, I don't know if there's an answer to that. People form their allegiances and their alliances, and there's something about the team as to why they follow them. The bottom line, it's entertainment. I have a greater concern than all that: Why do we love this game that's doing so much damage to people? With the latest research on concussions and what's going on out there, I have trouble with the notion that we sit there and watch these very big men hit each other knowing what's going on underneath that.
I. Glenn Cohen — Professor of Law at Harvard Law School; Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics; Co-Leader of the Law and Ethics Initiatives of the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University: That’s a silly question. Whichever they prefer. It is not a question of ethics.
Cesar Torres, Professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies, and Physical Education at The College at Brockport SUNY: As you are well aware, the Patriots have had a history of questionable ethical behavior on the field and off the field. So one could make the case that if you are concerned about ethics, there would be concerns about supporting the Patriots. Then again, many teams have some sort of history.
Shawn E. Klein, Lecturer of Philosophy at Arizona State University and author of ‘The Sports Ethicist’ blog: (Full disclosure: I grew up in New England and root for the Patriots) In general, there isn’t a “should” here. Morality, for the most part, is just not the place to look for a rooting reason. We root for teams that we have a connection to — through family, regional connections, style of play. Those are all good reasons to root for one team over another. Assuming one is a neutral, flipping a coin is just as moral as choosing the Eagles because you like the color green.
There are, though, two other direction one could to take this question.
One might be the claim that one should root against the Patriots because of the scandals around so-called Deflate-gate and Spy-gate. But that seems based on some inaccurate beliefs about these scandals. Science has largely exonerated Brady and the Patriots of any wrongdoing regarding football deflation, and Spy-gate is also widely misunderstood. It was a violation of a policy regarding where a team is allowed to tape the activity of a game. In other words, the problem was where in the stadium the videographer stood — not that he was taping. It was a violation of a policy and the Patriots were wrong to do it (and they were harshly punished). But that seems a thin reed on which to rest one’s moral disapprobation.
A second is that if one admires and respects excellence, then they have a good reason to root for the Patriots. For nearly two decades, the Patriots have excelled in a way no other NFL franchise has or arguably ever will again. Tom Brady is getting ready to start his 8th Super Bowl. Since an NFL season is 16 games, Brady in essence will have played half a season of Super Bowls. The work, effort, and discipline that goes in to that level of sustained excellence is worth admiring and rooting for. Along similar lines, one might value the tenacity and perseverance of a team playing at a high level after losing their star quarterback and so choose to root for the Eagles.
Is it ethical to watch the Super Bowl at all?
Stoll: That's one of the things I asked my students. Concerning our responsibility to all those people out there who are suffering from homelessness and not getting enough to eat and what not, why are we spending so many millions of dollars to watch this game? Look at the price of the tickets and look at the production and how much money is spent. The question is what good is it doing? My kids are freshmen; they've been raised with football so they want to say oh all the good has to do with getting together with our families and we get to do this whatever and whatever, which on the surface looks fine. But it seems like our values are out of kilter… We're probably all complicit because we watch this game which we know does harm.
Cohen: Yes. But while watching fans should consider what they can do to help protect and promote the health of NFL players. As you know, my team released a major 493 page report that received national coverage “Protecting and Promoting the Health of NFL Players: Legal and Ethical Analysis and Recommendations.” In that report we consider the ethical role of 20 separate stakeholders in promoting and protecting NFL player health and make. We make 76 recommendations. We devote an entire chapter to fans and we make several recommendations described in more detail there:
Recommendation 18:1-A: Fans should recognize their ability to bring about change concerning player health. Recommendation 18:1-B: Fans should recognize that the lives of NFL players are more than entertainment, and that NFL players are human beings who suffer injuries that may adversely affect their health. Recommendation 18:1-C: Fans should not pressure players to play while injured. Recommendation 18:1-D: Fans should not advocate, cheer, encourage, or incite player injuries.
Of these, the first is perhaps the most important, fans have the power of the purse and should use that power to push the league and other stakeholders to make major changes.
Torres: There's so much controversy about football and the impact that the game is having on so many athletes. So when we think about traumatic brain injury caused by blows to the head, I think that one could make a strong case that the public should not support American football that much because of what it's doing to all these many athletes.
Klein: The Super Bowl doesn’t pose a special case. If one is not ethically opposed to watching regular season NFL games, then there isn’t a new reason that would call for opposing the Super Bowl. Similarly, if one thinks there are good reasons to oppose the regular season games, then those would equally apply to rejecting the Super Bowl. And watching football does (or should) raise a few moral concerns for fans, namely regarding concussions. It is a complicated issue, but I’d argue that is still far too early to make the case that one ought not to watch the NFL.
Is it ethical to watch Super Bowl commercials?
Stoll: It's a similar question because it's all about commercialization. The game itself is the selling of of entertainment. That's why we watch it. Some people may say we watch it because of the good contest. But it is hard to ferret that out because there's so much commercialization around the whole game. For every play there's a commercial. And even for us to watch the Super Bowl today you have to pay for television time to watch it. Everything about it is commercialized so to break out one piece of it, and if we're complicit were complicit with the whole thing.
Cohen: Yes. But fans should also ask themselves what steps those who advertise are doing to help protect and promote player health. In the report mentioned above we devote a chapter to a sub-set of these kinds of businesses, “NFL business partners,” who have reached an agreement with the NFL to be considered an official partner or sponsor of the NFL. We have several recommendations about how they should ethically comport themselves. We describe and justify these recommendations in greater depth in the report, but here is the short name of each:
Recommendation 19:1-A: NFL business partners should not remain silent on NFL player health-related policies. Recommendation 19:1-B: NFL business partners should consider applying pressure on the NFL to improve player health. Recommendation 19:1-C: NFL business partners should consider supporting organizations conducting due diligence into player health issues. Recommendation 19:1-D: NFL business partners should engage players concerning player health issues
Torres: There's plenty of money that surrounds the game. So, I don't see necessarily a problem with [watching commercials]. Although, one thing that connoisseurs of the game are really concerned about is that these entertainment sideshows take away from the centrality of the social practice. So many fans who do not pay much attention to American football during the regular season pay attention during the Super Bowl not because of the display of athleticism and skills and excellences of the game but rather what is peripheral. Some people object to that saying that that's an over-commercialization of the game.
Klein: Only when they are funny. But, seriously, unless one is a Marxist, it’s hard to see what moral principle would call for rejecting Super Bowl commercials.