For many Americans, fall means football — but that doesn't mean the sport is without its controversies, including the recent Colin Kaepernick case. Kaepernick has accused the NFL of colluding to keep him off the field because of his protests against police brutality and racial inequality.

And this hasn't been football's only controversy. Scientific findings have shown that regular practice of football increases the risk of brain diseases. Allegations regarding the intrinsic violent nature of the game and an increasing commercialization of the sport have also made headlines.

For some fans, all these issues raise an ethical question: Is watching football morally problematic?

Football injuries

At its core, football demands skill and tactical acumen. However, in the way it is currently practiced, football is seriously dangerous for players.

Repetitive brain trauma makes football players highly vulnerable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurogenerative disease. A 2017 study found that 99 percent of deceased NFL players who had donated their brains to scientific research suffered from this disease.

In addition, football players suffer the most injuries among athletes. A study of the injury rates among high school student-athletes estimated that the injury rate for football was twice that of soccer or basketball.

Culture of violence?

In his blistering 1991 poem "American Football," British writer Harold Pinter, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in literature, depicts the sport as "deliberately" violent and portrays war and football as being intimately connected.

As scholars who study the ethics of sport, we would argue that while football does require the use of bodily force, it is not that football is inherently violent. Rather, it is the culture of violence around the sport that is troubling.

Nate Jackson, a former football player, describes in his 2013 memoir, Slow Getting Up, that for most of his colleagues, the main rewards of the sport relate to violence. For instance, one of the main lessons players must learn to be successful is "decide what you're going to do and do it violently."

Similarly, Don DeLillo compellingly captured the rhetoric and ethos of violence surrounding football in his 1972 novel End Zone. Gary, the book's running-back narrator, describes football in militaristic language that resembles warfare.

More about money?

Consider the following: In the last decade, the NFL has raked in billions in broadcasting-rights deals. Verizon paid more than $2 billion for five years for the right to stream NFL games across its digital platforms.

It is true, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre contends, social practices need institutions to flourish. In turn, institutions require financial resources to accomplish that goal. The problem, however, comes when institutions pursue those resources at the expense of the very virtues and values that define those practices.

In the case of football, it could be argued that the form and skills that make it appealing are now a model for revenue generation. In doing so, its inherent virtues and values have been deemphasized, in favor of market values.

As Michael Oriard, a former football player and historian, contends, the story of NFL football "is necessarily about money, lots of money. Professional football has always been about money." The commercial aspect has become even more prominent as a result of its commodification as a television product. Indeed, even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted that the league worried about the impact of commercials in the flow and pace of the game.

What are the ethics?

Historians point out that the Super Bowl is America's largest shared cultural experience. It could be argued that football fans learn to speak and shape their national identity by, among other things, engaging in the sport. Football, in other words, embodies and reveals the main values of the culture, playing a key role in shaping the way in which Americans imagine their common national identity.

Considering all the morally problematic aspects surrounding football, it is worth asking: Is this the kind of social practice around which Americans should imagine and build their national identity?

Francisco Javier Lopez Frias is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University. Cesar R. Torres is a professor of kinesiology at the State University of New York. They wrote this for The Conversation, where a version of this piece originally appeared.

The Conversation
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