Is it unethical to watch the Super Bowl?

The evidence that the NFL faces a serious ethical crisis related to brain trauma is mounting. Are we complicit by tuning in?

 
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is tackled by the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is tackled by the Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly. (John Leyba/Denver Post/Getty)

Is it unethical to watch the Super Bowl?

As evidence mounts that professional football faces an epidemic of brain injuries, the question arises whether watching the causing of all that brain injury is itself unethical. If the game is ethically problematic, is watching problematic, too? Is it wrong to find joy in watching young men sustain physical damage?

The question is amplified with regard to the Super Bowl, which sees millions of non-football-fans tuning in, nachos and beer at their sides, to watch the spectacle. Are those millions of game-day converts complicit in the carnage?

We should start by acknowledging that there is of course no plausible causal connection between the casual viewer and the brain damage being done to players. An individual viewer tuning in on Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t matter a bit. But then, in the aggregate, we matter a lot—pro football wouldn’t be such a high-paying endeavour or such an enticement to the men who risk their brains to play it, if millions of us didn’t tune in on a regular basis.

But at very least we might wonder about the extent to which our watching amounts to a kind of tacit endorsement. It might be considered unseemly to enjoy watching the brutality in the say way that it’s unseemly to enjoy watching a serious car accident. You didn’t cause the accident—but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to enjoy watching it.

And an argument could be made that enjoying watching football is even more unseemly than enjoying watching a car crash, because the damage inflicted during football is intentional, and hence morally suspect. When you watch football, you’re enjoying not just watching brain damage, but watching young men lured into brain damage by large financial incentives. And in case you think the financial incentives justify the brain damage—“those guys are well-paid to risk their brains!”—remember that most of them still probably don’t fully understand the risks. In part, that’s because probably no one has a full understanding of those risks, and because even when we know about risks, we tend to brush them aside in irrational ways when factors like pride are at play.

So hey, I hope you enjoyed the game. I did. But none of us should be altogether proud of that fact.


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