Watching Sports While Worrying
October 15, 2011 1:05 PM   Subscribe

How can a person with a conscience watch contact sports?

I'm from Buffalo, NY (go Bills/Sabres!) and I love football and hockey. However, the more information I read about concussions and contact sports, the harder it is for me to watch and support football and hockey.

I've always hated seeing people get hurt, no matter what team they play for, but lately I've been feeling a lot more empathy for the players. Maybe it's that they're no longer all superheroes who are years older than me but that they're more like my peers. And in Buffalo, you don't just see people playing sports on TV. You see the players at the grocery store, the donut shop, the mall. It's something I love about Buffalo. When I was younger and we would go trick-or-treating, we would go to the neighborhoods where our favorite players lived in hopes of seeing them.

More recently, I've actually felt sick to my stomach when I've seen someone get hurt. I think of these players who I've seen at the store, who have wives and kids, and I worry that sure, now they're getting $4 million a year to play a game, but are they going to know their own names when they're 40 years old? I feel better about the NHL than the NFL because it seems like they're making more of an effort to protect their players. And I know it's just a game that they make a choice to play but they choose to play it because I'm willing to buy tickets for the game and people like me are willing to buy tickets for the game.

Rick Martin was a player for the Buffalo Sabres who died recently of a heart attack and when they studied his brain, they found evidence of chronic traumatic encephelopathy. The thing was that they've seen this in players who were fighters but he wasn't even a fighter. I don't even like Sidney Crosby but he's a great player and a young kid who had a concussion in January and he's still not 100 percent. And that's not even mentioning players like Kevin Everett who suffer injuries that are catastrophic or truly freak accidents like Clint Malarchuk's.

Part of me used to dream of coaching a little kids' football team (a very small part of me). I've wanted to buy my goddaughter hockey skates because I would love to see her play. I know athletes get hurt in every sport but it seems like the consequences of head injuries in hockey and football in particular are just devastating. Am I taking this too seriously?
posted by kat518 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (38 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
How can a person with a conscience watch contact sports?

In the case of watching professionals, they are well compensated and consent to the risk of physical injury. In the case of watching amateurs, they also consent to the risk of physical injury. If it is your own family members, then naturally you can have discussions with them about your concern for their own well-being, but provided they are not your own young children, you have to accept that they have chosen some level of risk. Think of it this way -- every time you drive or ride a bicycle, you accept some level of risk of injury, possibly death. But you'd probably be pretty aggravated if people told you it offended them that you did it, or that they couldn't in good conscience watch you drive or ride.

Am I taking this too seriously?

With respect, yes, I think so.
posted by modernnomad at 1:14 PM on October 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

Yes, go outside. There was an article on NPR last week about football helmets that were supposed to help mitigate TBIs.
posted by TheBones at 1:15 PM on October 15, 2011

Yes, you are taking it too seriously.

I understand if you choose to not have your children (or grandchildren) play these sports - but to suggest that a kid playing hockey is immoral is going to far.
posted by Flood at 1:16 PM on October 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

If it's any consolation, I feel the same way when I watch certain comedians, like Robin Williams. I feel like I'm laughing at the expense of their mania. Perhaps we take these things too seriously, but I think that's misleading. It's more that these are things we're sensitive to, other people aren't as much, and our reactions skew as such.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:17 PM on October 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can watch because the NFL is an all-volunteer group. No one is being forced into this; players are fighting to get onto a team. They are aware of the risks and they choose to do it anyway.

The head injury problem is a known issue, and it's being worked on. For the past couple of years at least the NFL has been revising the rules to more strongly penalize helmet to helmet contact, to try to reduce such injuries.
posted by JDHarper at 1:22 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're taking it too seriously, and I struggle with exactly the same feelings you've described. Unfortunately I don't have a good answer for you.
posted by i'm offended you're offended at 1:27 PM on October 15, 2011 [21 favorites]

You can see someone get hurt at almost any place in your daily life. Slip on the sidewalk, fall down stairs, fall off a bike...really, the possibilities are endless.
Let your goddaughter skate--make sure she wears a helmet.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:28 PM on October 15, 2011

I would have very serious concerns about watching these kinds of events if these men were slaves. But they're not- They're consenting adults being paid untold vaults of riches to be knocked around. And when it comes time to renew the contract, they sign up again an again.

I agree that the results of this lifestyle are horrible, but these men and women are well compensated, seem to enjoy their lifestyle and consent to the violence. There's nothing wrong with watching the result unless you find it personally repulsive. In which case there are plenty of other things to do.
posted by GilloD at 1:32 PM on October 15, 2011

If it's any consolation I feel the same way. I deal with it by thinking that if a profession seems hazardous to human beings and does not seem to be providing society with something that seems worth that level of hazard, I don't support the market. If people want to do those things, just because, then that's perfectly fine. I'm not out to tell people not to play contact sports, or be on reality TV that exploits their lives and for some is not good for their well being, or be in porn, or sex work, or etc etc.

I don't feed the market but I also feel like whatever people want to do they will do. Also definitions of "hazardous" and "provide a meaningful service worth the risk" is subjective and each person will have a different take on it.

If someone really believes that contact sports are providing something genuinely meaningful that is worth the risk to some participants then they are following their own ethics when watching. Same with porn or comedians or reality TV or whatever else. So I guess what I mean to say, it would not be ethical for me to watch any of these things with the values that I have and particularly given that contact sports/porn/reality TV don't do anything for me other than make me worried about the people involved; however for someone with different values it might be perfectly ethical.

"consent to the violence"

This means nothing to me. If someone said, "Hey you can smack my head with this baseball bat, I love it. If you don't do it, I'll find someoen else" it would still be wrong for me to do it or watch videos of it happening and enjoying it because I think by default there is something going on psychologically with the person I would be concerned about. I think violence is harmful to human beings and therefore it would never be ethical for me to commit violence to someone or to enjoy violence being commited to them even if they consented to it. For someone who believes consent is what makes violence harmful of not harmful, they might be able to participate without violating their own values.

There are a lot of people who dig consensual violence, so again people are free to consensually do whatever they want amongst themselves. Because I know that I personally would be absolutely concerned for someones well being, I don't think consent would change the fact that I still think it's harmful. If someone said, "Hey I like drinking mercury out of old thermometers and I consent to the risk, here's a video of me doing it!" I would absolutely not watch or give any further social feedback that there is anything good about doing this for others entertainment value.
posted by xarnop at 1:40 PM on October 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

You are not taking this too seriously. This is a real issue these days, with teenagers and professionals taking serious risks. I don't think "they knew what they were signing up for" is a very strong argument. If the only way for someone to break out of poverty (or even to break out of the middle class) is to take up a sport like football that will shorten their lifespan by 20 years, that's not such a great reflection of our society. The average professional football player's career only lasts about 5 years, and he's risking serious brain injury every Sunday.

I still watch hockey, though. I think your moral responsibility as a fan is only to be on the side of progress. The only thing stopping serious change in the way these sports are played is the perception that fans only want the violent aspect of sports.

Speak up among your friends, write a letter to the editor, and try not to cheer a fight when you're in the stands at a hockey game.

Bruce Arthur, a columnist for the National Post (and a great follow on Twitter) is someone who loves sports but takes a very strong line against excessive violence. He covers the concussion issue often, and with a lot of thought. Check out some of his writing and see if it helps get your head around the issues. He's really helped me clarify my thoughts on the matter.

(But for chrissakes, get your goddaughter those skates. It's body checks to the head and hits from behind into the boards that give people concussions, not skating lessons at the rink).
posted by auto-correct at 1:40 PM on October 15, 2011 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: I realize that all daily activities have some level of risk but I feel like by supporting contact sports, I am encouraging people to participate in something that they may hurt themselves doing. I'm not telling anyone that playing sports is immoral but there are people who work in the NFL who say they would never let their kids play football. I think that's a little disturbing.

I'm not sure that players do know the risks. We know a lot more about concussions and head injuries than we did even five years ago. But I'm confident that if you sat down with most players and advised them of the risks, they would still play. I harbor no illusions that I can stop people from playing, with the possible exception of my own nonexistent offspring. I'm just wondering if I would be doing my conscience a favor by spending my own time and money elsewhere.

Given her mother's permission, I still intend to buy my goddaughter some ice skates. I just also want to get her a helmet and maybe hold off on buying the hockey stick and pads.
posted by kat518 at 1:45 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Plenty of people with consciences watch the NFL and NHL. It's not exactly gladiators, here. It would be remarkable-- and, I think, untenable-- to claim that no one who watches these sports has a conscience. As others have said, they are adults who make the decision to play their respective sports.

But yeah, your concern is valid. There's a legitimate argument to be made that the health risks are too severe and pervasive, and that the NFL should cease to exist. You have to decide what you're okay with for yourself as a fan.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:48 PM on October 15, 2011

Playing sports is fun. Most of these people became professionals because they REALLY like it.

As far as supporting pro sports, they're constantly making changes to improve safety. Those players are worth a lot of money. These and a lot more people would still play sports if there were no pro leagues.

It's their choice, and your choices aren't contributing to their likelihood of injury or their likelihood of playing the sport. I can't see at all how this is a matter of conscience.
posted by cmoj at 1:50 PM on October 15, 2011

they are well compensated and consent to the risk of physical injury.

Don't think that because some players earn $10 million a year that these guys are all set for life.

The average NHL player plays about 250 games in the league -- about 3-4 seasons.

It's about the same in the NFL. The average career is 3.5 years, and the median salary is just $700,000.

As far as supporting pro sports, they're constantly making changes to improve safety.

This has started to happen, but only because certain people in the media and some members of the public have started to kick up a fuss. If it were up to hockey and football's old guard, nothing would ever change. Bigger hits == bigger money. If you're "tough", you don't complain about hits. The players are replaceable (and they "knew what they signed up for").

Ken Dryden, former hockey superstar, Canadian politician and all around good guy, wrote a great opinion piece in Grantland the other day:
This is a difficult time for the NHL, for its commissioner, Gary Bettman, and for hockey. It's no less difficult for the NFL, for its commissioner, Roger Goodell, for the NCAA, and for football. Head injuries have become an overwhelming fact of life in sports. The immensity of the number, the prominence of the names, the life-altering impact on their lives, and, more disturbing, if that's possible, the now sheer routineness of their occurrence. The Crosby hit didn't seem like much. If it hadn't been Crosby, the clip of the incident would never have made the highlight reel. And if so much can happen out of so little, where is all this going? Who else? How many more? How bad might this get? Careers and lives of players, we know now, have been shortened, diminished, snuffed out by head injuries. What once had seemed debatable, deniable, spin-able, now is not. What once had been ignored now is obvious. Not just contact or collision sports, hockey and football are dangerous sports.


The future doesn't have to be one of pointed fingers and shouted denials. None of us knows the answer. All of us know the problem. We are all in this together. We love our sports. We love to play them and watch them. We love to argue over them. We love the inspiration and the excitement they bring. We want sports to be part of our lives forever. We know that sports will not go away, but we also know that the role they play in our lives is at risk. This is a fearful time, but it can be an exciting time.
posted by auto-correct at 2:12 PM on October 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

First, my in-laws are in Amherst and I love Buffalo although my ex wanted nothing to do with living near her folks. Big game tomorrow, my Giants versus the Bills!! I have two words for that" Scott Norwood.

I think the issue of whether to watch is mitigated nowadays as we learn more about the dangers. I feel worse for the players from yore, the French Connection Line days and OJ Simpson days etc when they did not realize the extent of the damage that the repeated trauma would cause. Now with full disclosure, I feel like it is a choice and I am ok with them making that choice.

My sons both play high school football. It pains me watching these kids hit each other some times. But, I think that the team and the school is taking the proper steps to protect the kids as much as they can. Our district's concussion policy is 12 pages!!

Also, not watching is not going to make it go away or not exist.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:24 PM on October 15, 2011

I understand what you're saying. With regard to the conscience issue, I think it is more that people fail to make themselves aware of the issues. When something enjoyable is provided on a silver platter, the easiest thing is to take it. I feel this applies equally to that shiny new electronic device (that is made in more-or-less slave labor conditions), that juicy steak (produced at the cost of environmental devastation and animal suffering), or football. It's really, really hard to live in such a way as not to cause cruelty. Which, I hasten to add, doesn't mean the effort isn't worth making.

As for the dangers of football specifically, it used to be far worse. During 1905-1910, college football averaged almost five deaths due to on-the-field injury a year. Players were flung through the air headfirst. It was abominable. I think things are improving, but it is hard to say.
posted by wnissen at 2:53 PM on October 15, 2011

They don't consent to the risk, if using a standard of "consent" often applied in discussions in the blue. Many don't have a lot of livelihood options other than to submit to the risk, and many are in - if not also also raised in - an environment where the pressures towards participation and achievement don't give a lot of weight to the risks. Many committed themselves to this path before they were old enough to, for example, be able to legally give consent on other matters. Committing to a path usually has severe opportunity cost that may close doors on alternatives before they even opened. And so on.

It's consent, yeah, but not a pure thing. There are elements of pressure and duress.

As to answering the question: In motor racing, a lot of people are pretty interested in the crashes. I don't really get that impression with field spots. Even hockey where people are all about the fights, people (inevitable exceptions aside) don't want to see athletes get seriously hurt. Sports really are focused on human magnificence, and to me that makes a difference. Everyone is genuinely trying to keep injuries from happening. Athletes get to shine. It's honest. It makes it different from the Roman circus. I don't know if that helps.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:09 PM on October 15, 2011

The whole thing reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld bit about how the only thing stupider than a helmet is the helmet law, a law designed to protect a brain that is functioning so poorly that it isn't trying to protect the skull it's in.

I don't watch most sports any more because I find them boring, and I'm not into watching people hurt each other. But even I have to acknowledge that these people are willing participants.
posted by 4ster at 3:14 PM on October 15, 2011

Mod note: Folks, this is really not where we start the men vs women debate, please. Direct answers to the OP, don't start fights and take side conversations to MeMail or MetaTalk.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:18 PM on October 15, 2011

You can take some small consolation in the fact that the Buffalo Bills kept Kevin Everett on their roster for almost a year after his injury. This meant that he "completed" three full NFL seasons and thus qualified for the NFL's lifetime pension.

In a league famous for throwing people away, the Bills organization spent a lot of money and sacrificed a valuable roster spot to do the right thing.

That's an organization worth cheering for.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:23 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I work in sports, and I am in the deep throes of football season right now and trust me, I think about this all the time, and so do many, many coaches and administrators at many different levels of many kinds of sports.

You are not taking this too seriously. The momentum is slowly shifting to be more in line with you, and you can help that shift along. Playing football kills and maims people, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It isn't fair, it isn't just, it isn't moral, it isn't worth any amount of money.

That said, I don't think football has to be banned, but it does have to CHANGE. Same for hockey. We did not receive these games from on high with the current rule set, and no one will die if hits leading with the head to a defenseless receiver result in an automatic three-game suspension. In fact, fewer people will die.

So that's what you do, that's what I do. You support change in the game, as often and as loud as you can. You talk about it every Sunday, you write letters, you call every local AD and ask them what their concussion protocol is and how many concussions they had last year and how they manage them, then you write a blog post about it, if someone says Brendan Shanahan is a pussy on a power trip you tell them where to go. You tell them Marc Savard can't walk a straight line ever again in his life and ask them how much money, how many games that's worth. You ask them how broadsiding a guy in the back of the head helps us figure out who the better hockey team is. You write a letter to Roger Goddell and push him to implement hit counts. Hell, write to the Bills and ask them to do the same. Write to every high school football coach you see mentioned in the newspaper. Buy your goddaughter some skates and sign her up for instructional league and get on the committee that decides what rule set to use and help rewrite it.

Don't give up. Don't back down. Help change the games you love.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:44 PM on October 15, 2011 [12 favorites]

Also, keep in mind that scientists found evidence of CTE in 21-year-old UPENN football player Owen Thomas, a lineman who had never reported a concussion or concussion symptoms. Continuous subconcussive force is also a deadly risk- so by the time many players go pro, they already have brain damage.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 3:49 PM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Last thought:

Loving sports doesn't have to mean blindly supporting the status quo. At this point, speaking out against brain injuries will probably do more to save football and hockey in the long run than staying quiet will.
posted by auto-correct at 3:56 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't really get all these "you're taking it too seriously" posts. I mean, I get them, but I don't really see how people can make the argument. It may be voluntary, but the players probably don't realize or don't want to think about the consequences. And more then that what else can they do? They've been training all their lives to be football players, etc.

If you watch the game, you're contributing ad revenue to the game, so you are, in a sense, causing some of the problem. There are lots of sports that don't cause head injuries.

Also, the problem could probably be solved pretty easily with helmets attached to the suits, rather then the heads.
posted by delmoi at 3:58 PM on October 15, 2011

"How can a person with a conscience watch contact sports?" is a question Atlantic editor and (hisssss) Dallas Cowboys fan Ta-Nehisi Coates has been exploring both on his blog (here, on his son wanting to play, and here more philosophically) and at Slate. He seemed, for a while, to be coming to a similar conclusion as you. He's a great public intellectual, and definitely ruminates on the issues of "consent," race, class, and the game's history that have been brought up here. I think this is absolutely an important question and can't be taken too seriously given the financial and life-and-death stakes.
posted by kickingthecrap at 4:59 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

When this came up among friends a while back, a wise person made the analogy that contact sports are like weddings/marriage. There is a chance that someone is going to get hurt (injury/divorce) but the celebration of the thing (sport/athleticism/love/commitment) overshadows the possible bad outcomes (permanent consequences/heartbreak). Until it doesn't, many will still go to games and attend weddings with gifts in hand.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 6:06 PM on October 15, 2011

Oh man I kind of hear you, a few years ago I'd cheer for hockey fights, but now I'm really not so sure. But it's not just the fighting, the head hits, that's the worst. I saw Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton's horrible concussions happen live right by where I sit at the Garden. It's scary, and stomach-turning. Do I still love the sport? Yep. I am going to have both of my boys play hockey, and perhaps even football, because I have faith that in 15 years, the games will be VASTLY different - there's already been such a huge push to change hockey since the summer's passing of Boogaard, Belak, and Rypien, and the hits to the head rule and Shanahan in charge of doling out punishment for players who injure others - I think it will be OK. I feel terribly for the older NHL players who have suffered, but I can only just hope that it won't affect those entering the NHL soon.
posted by kpht at 6:30 PM on October 15, 2011

NO. I don't think you're taking this too seriously.

Some of us think about this in non-contact sports as well. A former college friend, who was then a Physical Therapist, got a chance to meet Edgar Martinez (Seattle Mariners) right before he retired. Even though he didn't have linemen smashing into him weekly, after two decades of professional baseball that man's body, in her eyes, was wrecked. He could still run and swing but he walked with a limp, had some serious range of motion problems and was in obvious pain when he moved. If you want to do some sort of physical activity better than most anyone on the planet you are going to abuse your body to an EXTREME degree to obtain it.

In Medical ethics there's the concept of "Coercion," meaning autonomy can't be assumed if there forces compelling an individual to take part in a medical trial or medical therapy potentially overshadow that person's ability to think rationally. It's the reason we can't pay poor African AIDS patients 100's of US Dollars to take part in a study, because when you're offering someone more money than they'd make in a year to take some drug, they will probably take that drug regardless of the risks, their worries and the possibly conflict with their beliefs. You COULD argue that offering 20 year old kids 700,000 dollars to play a year in the NFL counts as coercion, and maybe young mothers would never let their kid do that except for the extreme value our society places on athletic success. Even though kids volunteer to play, kids are pretty dumb, they're probably thinking more about getting big muscles, hanging out with their friends at practice, impressing some girl or their dad.

And even doctors who are sports fans have mixed feelings about it. One doctor I am working with right now has a good amount of training in sports medicine, loves the Browns, loves football and has volunteered to be the sideline doctor for the local high school football games. He hates it. Right now the team is like 1-5 and this year's kids are seriously over powered on the field; meaning there is a much higher chance of some 145 pound 15 year old running back having his knee ligaments SHREDDED on any given play. BUT, he is among many thousands of professional trying to be part of the solution, by being their to evaluate concussions, to give first aid, and to push for the purchase of new helmets.

In the end, I'm still going to watch the Sooners play tonight and root for their secondary to absolutely light up any Kansas receiver who has the audacity to take the ball into the backfield. I would support any rule that limits injuries, and technology that protects the brain and any fine that penalizes dirty hits. But Sports, especially contact sports, are part of our society and part of out heritage. And if you have a conscious, the way to deal with the dangers (which we are only now learning the full extent of after the sport has already been ingrained in society for decades... sorry, apologism over) you're roll isn't to divorce yourself from the culture, its to support the culture becoming more responsible.

Go Sooners. Go Bears. Go Bluejackets.
posted by midmarch snowman at 7:22 PM on October 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

BTW, buy your granddaughter skates. Now is the time to build the habits of athleticism and exercise that will impact her health and happiness for a lifetime. Also, sports build oodles of self esteem.

Plus she's probably still pretty short, meaning its not like she has THAT far to fall.
posted by midmarch snowman at 7:30 PM on October 15, 2011

How? Denial. After ignorance, that's all that's left.

Since learning about it I don't think I've watched a minute of real football. I've watched fictional football (FNL), and even that carries a stain for me.
posted by NortonDC at 7:37 PM on October 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Switch your fandom to a contact sport that doesn't exploit the tactical advantages of armour and helmets, maybe Rugby?
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 8:11 PM on October 15, 2011

There is hardly a more sad story involving a former football star then William Perry's, and I'm not really a sports fan per se
posted by edgeways at 10:04 PM on October 15, 2011

I feel the same way you do, and it's part of why I no longer watch football or boxing.

From what I've read, it's the frequency of the hits that causes long-term brain damage, not just their force. So it may not be possible to "fix" a sport like football or hockey without completely altering the way the game is played.

That said, I also haven't seen any evidence that youth sports carry the same danger. Pro athletes are much bigger and stronger, they hit each other much harder, and they practice much more frequently which means the total number of hits is a lot higher.
posted by pete_22 at 3:31 AM on October 16, 2011

I have a much harder time buying vegetables and electronics than I do watching contact sports, because the people who are hurt in fields and sweatshops are on another playing field, so to speak.

However, no shrew is an island and all that. I do what I can when and where I can about what I consider social problems, but there are limits.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:39 AM on October 16, 2011

Yes, you are taking this way way too seriously.
Why stop at contact sports? There are millions of jobs - including nearly all sports, contact or not that represent some form of danger to the person doing the job.
posted by 2manyusernames at 10:19 AM on October 16, 2011

Why stop at contact sports? There are millions of jobs - including nearly all sports, contact or not that represent some form of danger to the person doing the job.

How about we make an effort to not make debilitating brain injuries part of any profession, and pay particular attention to the professions where these injuries are cheered by millions of people.
posted by auto-correct at 3:57 PM on October 16, 2011

I have a much harder time buying vegetables and electronics than I do watching contact sports, because the people who are hurt in fields and sweatshops are on another playing field, so to speak.
Yeah, and I'm not a big fan of paying taxes given a sizable chunk go to support a middle east expedition where some good people I know from high school and college are in direct risk of being literally blown up. But I enjoy driving on interstates and not going to jail so as opposed to withdrawal and obstinate dissension (via not paying taxes) I still argue conscious participation is better.

I know that was the point you were making, just wanted to say it another way.

Also, yeah, I know, I'm not paying taxes this fiscal year, but you know what I mean.
posted by midmarch snowman at 6:15 PM on October 16, 2011

I don't think you're taking this too seriously at all, and I don't think concerns can be waved away with the "consent" thing given the power dynamics involved. It's easier for me though, because I've never really liked football much anyway.
posted by naoko at 11:44 PM on October 16, 2011

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