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A father’s dilemma: Is watching football immoral?
Two Carolina Panthers tackle Tennessee Titans' Justin McCareins. Injuries from hits like these have caused some to question the morality of watching football.
February 1st, 2014
08:56 PM ET

A father’s dilemma: Is watching football immoral?

Opinion by Patton Dodd, special to CNN

(CNN) – Three weeks ago, I sat down with my family to root for the Denver Broncos against the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the NFL playoffs. The Broncos were winning and it was all going swimmingly - until Henry, my 7-year-old son, started with the questions:

"Dad, have you decided that it's OK to watch football?"

"Dad, didn't you say were you worried about all the injured players?"

"Dad? What percentage of you thinks it's OK to watch football, and what percentage of you thinks it's wrong?"

Little kid wouldn't shut up.

It was our first football game since late October, when, after two years of wrestling with my conscience, I had decided to stop watching the sport I've loved all my life.

My childhood bedroom was a shrine to John Elway and the Broncos, so it was with special poignancy that right in the middle of Denver's most successful season ever, I opted to spend Sunday autumn afternoons raking leaves instead of cheering Peyton Manning's powerhouse performances.

If you've been paying even scant attention in recent years, you know football has been under the ethical microscope. The problems go beyond the bodily harm caused by the game (see Gregg Easterbrook on how the NFL abuses tax policies and the NCAA cheats student athletes). But the news on injuries has pricked our consciences in a special way.

As well it should. Thanks to the work of several dogged journalists, and despite the NFL's best efforts to subvert the truth, we now know that repeated blows to the head experienced in the normal course of football play can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of brain damage resulting in early onset dementia and severe (and, in the worst cases, suicidal) depression.

And thanks to accounts like Nate Jackson's riveting football memoir “Slow Getting Up,” we know that the game we love depends on legions of no-name guys who quietly sacrifice their bodies to the NFL's culture of constant pain, only to exit to a road to nowhere.

Jackson's memoir and other recent books don't just deliver the hard facts on football-induced brain and body damage. Crucially, they also acquaint us more intimately with the people who play the game.

The stories of players in these accounts challenge our moral imagination by forcing us to recognize that the uniformed men on the field are not just Football Players, but Persons - brothers, fathers, husbands, and sons like me.

One of my earliest football memories is watching the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Dorsett break off a 99.5-yard touchdown run against the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. I fell in love with Dorsett during that play. As a kid, I had a book called “The NFL's Greatest Plays,” and I read the chapter on Dorsett's long touchdown again and again.

A few months ago, Dorsett reported that he is experiencing symptoms associated with CTE. He has become prone to outbursts of anger, and he sometimes loses his way while taking his daughters to a familiar soccer practice field. His children admit to feeling nervous around their father these days.

When I read those stories, I realized anew that Dorsett is not just a well-compensated celebrity athlete whose skills I enjoyed. He is a father like me, and his kids are kids like mine. If I have a share in Dorsett's humanity, I have a vested interest in his well-being.

When I watch football now, I no longer just see dramatic rivalries, fascinating offensive and defensive strategies, and feats of physical genius. I no longer see my favorite players pitted against some other players. I see a bunch of individual human beings subjecting themselves to an intoxicating harm that could one day be their undoing.

By their wounds, we are entertained.

Sure, they do it willingly. Sure, many of them are handsomely paid. But will can be constrained by culture, and finances can be fleeting.

Last week, an ESPN poll found that 85% of NFL players said they would willingly play in the Super Bowl with a concussion. But how would they reflect on that choice a few years from now if, like Dorsett, they can't run simple errands with their children? How would they feel about that choice if, like Junior Seau or Dave Duerson, thoughts of suicide dominate their days? Will football glory have been worth it?

And do I want to cheer them into that future?

The Broncos' Wes Welker is playing in the Super Bowl after a season of multiple concussions. Can I root for him in good conscience knowing that the very plays I'm cheering - across-the-middle catches and countless hard blocks and collisions - could give him a condition that one day might lead him to take his own life?

Can I root for Football Players every week without caring one whit what happens to them as Persons away from football?

These are the questions football fans ought to be asking. Knowing what we know, are we still ready for some football?

My son Henry was asking me for morality clarity, but I admit I don't have it yet on football. What I have is deep ambivalence about a game I love.

On this Super Bowl Sunday, before we watch the game (Go Broncos!), my family will go to church together and worship a God who, as our tradition teaches, once had a body.

In large part because of the Incarnation, Christian theology emphasizes that bodies are sacred and that their sacredness requires us to treat every single body as an end, never as a mean.

Every person is a subject; no person is an object. I have total moral clarity on that score, as all Christians (and all people) should.

Can we rightly weigh football's risks as a society? Can football, especially commercialized football, be a sport that honors human bodies? Can we cheer the men who play this game without dehumanizing them? Can we support the afterlives of football players?

I sure hope so. If not, Henry's questions will force me to accept, and to teach him, that the only proper response is to give up football for good.

Patton Dodd is editor-in-chief of OnFaith. The views expressed in this column belong to Dodd.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Faith Now • Health • Opinion • Sports • Violence

soundoff (388 Responses)
  1. johnn23

    February 11, 2014 at 10:34 pm |
  2. muonkkkkk

    Not watching football is immoral and dumb and not fun.

    February 7, 2014 at 11:43 pm |
  3. My Way

    Here is what I don't get about all these so called christian football players in the NFL always pointing skyward when things go right for them. What are they doing working on a Sunday? Unless they are Jewish they should not be working on the lord's day.

    February 6, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Since when do religious people actually follow the bible to the letter?

      February 6, 2014 at 5:49 pm |
  4. My Way

    Smart kid

    February 6, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
  5. Ben

    The article mentioned wes welker's concussion history and feeling bad that playing could hurt him someday. I think he made 10 million dollars this year. It might not be the the safest thing to do but that's why they get paid. Last time I checked the league minimum 390K/year. When they get paid that much to play a game instead of getting a real job they better do it well.

    February 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Yes football players are well paid. But this isn't baseball. Not all the money is guaranteed. (Also remember they pay taxes too) Everybody has to make the best decisionfor themselves. Hopefully they won't regret that decision.

      February 6, 2014 at 5:27 pm |
  6. guest

    There is so much violence in the world that it is disgusting.
    I think it strange that as humans most of us agree that violence is not moral, but think of how much so many people enjoy the entertainment of violence portrayed in movies, novels and on the sports field, in the arena or on the court.

    February 6, 2014 at 8:56 am |
    • Ken Margo

      We're violent because we are a species of animal just like all other animals. Don't let the term "civilized society" mislead you.

      February 6, 2014 at 5:29 pm |
  7. stevie68a

    My own vote, is that it's an idiot game, like most sports.

    February 4, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      I guess we found the guy that ISN'T an athlete!

      February 4, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
    • sly

      Stevie ... very true – all sports are a joke.

      So is all music, ever. And reading is really stupid – books should be banned.

      Laughter is wrong as well – anything we enjoy is wrong. Especially wrong is falling in love with someone. Having kids is really dumb as well.

      Thanks Stevie for your insight. I agree with everything you said.

      February 5, 2014 at 4:16 pm |
  8. Dean

    This article is just silly. It seems to be a method for getting more eyes on an article by riding on the coattails of the very real CTE dilemma that football is facing. Is this a dilemma for football fans? I think not, but whatever floats your boat. I really feel like I am giving this article more thought than it is worth by posting this comment.

    February 4, 2014 at 11:25 am |
  9. Ken Margo

    Amazing, watching a football game makes some question their morality, yet lack of common sense gun controls don't. Football players are grown men. Like those that choose to smoke, they know the dangers. What people should also be concerned about is the players that DON'T have health insurance and the players knees and hips that are in constant pain and are unable to walk. Don't forget about them.

    February 3, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
    • amen dodo

      AGREED! DON'T U B POINTIN THAT GUN AT MY FETUS

      February 4, 2014 at 7:06 am |
    • Dandintac

      Ken, good question. We have a huge moral blind spot in our society when it comes to guns. I think a lot of people feel empowered by their guns and safer. It makes them feel safe and in charge of their lives. In the end, it's emotional really–not necessarily rational. On a visceral level, they just don't see that the most likely person to die by their gun is themselves or a family member–or some other innocent.

      I remember when those kids in Arkansas blew away a bunch of their classmates back in the 90s. They interviewed a bunch of people in the area. You know what their biggest fear was? That the government would come and take their guns away. Not that another kid would gun down themselves and their kids–no, that their guns would be taken away. They actually put their possession of guns ahead of their personal safety and that of their own children.

      I personally have given up on gun control as a practical political objective. When people love their guns more than their own children, it's hopeless. They only way you'll take away their guns is if you literally pry it out of their cold dead fingers like they did in "Red Dawn".

      They only thing we can do is teach our kids to hit the deck when they hear the gunshots start to ring out–and then maybe hide or run for the nearest exit if it's close. Sad, I know–but I think that's where we are at now. Socially, we appear to have made a collective decision that gun ownership is more important than our lives or safety.

      February 4, 2014 at 9:53 pm |
      • Ken Margo

        @Dan,

        What makes my blood boil is the same people that are pro guns are also pro life? (Ex. republicans) You can't be both. 9/11 is considered a national tragedy with 3,000 deaths, yet gun violence results in 10,000 deaths a year. Personally I don't hang around people that have guns because of the risks you mentioned in your post.

        February 5, 2014 at 3:36 pm |
        • Dandintac

          Ken, people like to have it both ways. Just like scientists who are religious, but find a way to work scientifically also in the lab. You have to compartmentalize your psyche to do that.

          It's not always possible to tell who has guns. I live in Western Washington, which is a blue area politically, but even here a lot of people have guns. Unfortunately, you can have a child with a good friend as a next door neighbor whom you believe to be like yourself, until you find out otherwise when the kids are studying after school, and get hold of daddy's gun under the pillow to play cops and robbers, and your kid gets shot. And then, oh, the neighbor is so sorry about this terrible accident–but, it WAS just an accident, right? Cars kill more people, gun people will rationalize to you, as you bury your dead son.

          It's not so easy to get away from guns–how about in the theater in Aurora? In the neighborhood school–Sandy Hook? Seems like we are moving toward MORE GUNS as the solution, so next time some psycho starts gunning people down in a dark theater, maybe the best course will be to hit the deck and crawl under the chairs as the bullets start flying around in the dark as George Zimmerman-type cop wannabes pull out their heat at the first loud bang and start blasting away in the dark at "susp-icious" people.

          February 6, 2014 at 12:30 am |
        • Ken Margo

          @Dan,

          No it's not easy. Anything worth fighting for is never easy. People fed up with guns need to vote accordingly. All we need is 51% to turn the tide. Not 70, 80 or 90%. People for guns will talk about them just like those against guns, so you'll know where your neighbor stand on the issue.

          February 6, 2014 at 3:16 pm |
        • Dandintac

          Well, you've got my vote. I'm not sure if 51% will be enough. I'd like to think you're right, but I don't think it will be enough. The majority does not always get their way. We live in a gun culture. People absolutely love their guns–more than they love their own children. I've grown up around enough of them to know. We now live in a country where anywhere, at any time, anyone could just start blowing people away. And too many gun owners seem willing to accept that as the price for their guns. It wasn't like that when I was a kid.

          I think it really will take something like 80% for gun control, and tragically, I'm convinced it will take a lot more senseless deaths–and not just the death of black teenagers, but the deaths of children of powerful people through gun violence. It will take a Sandy Hook every week, where children of wealthy and powerful kids get blown away–week after week, and where Zimmerman wannabes respond and the crossfire kills even more. Even then, the NRA and it's followers and bought-and-paid-for politicians will double down, and insist the solution is yet more guns. That's how pessimistic I am about it. The gun control side also needs to learn how to organize and lobby as effectively as the NRA does.

          February 6, 2014 at 8:56 pm |
  10. CommonSensed

    Once again CNN completely miscategorizes an article.

    Oh wait – people are as ridiculous and illogical about their football, too.

    February 3, 2014 at 3:43 pm |
  11. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    Isn't there enough ridiculous talk about religion in sports? Regardless what the stupid Christians would have you believe... morality has nothing to do with religion. If you can't determine right from wrong (dictated by your culture/society), then you lack empathy, not religion.

    February 3, 2014 at 2:45 pm |
  12. Jake

    Can someone explain what this article has to do with religion?

    February 3, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Because this article is about what we as a society deem is appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

      Religion is an important influcence in that discusion.

      February 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm |
      • ROCKET DIVA

        The Seahawks quarterback says he met Jesus when he was about 14 years old. "I used to be a bad kid ... I used to beat up people," Wilson says. He was raised in a home with strong believing parents, and went to church regularly growing up. -

        February 4, 2014 at 7:10 am |
      • ROCKET DIVA

        "God has put me on that field for a reason, in front of 80,000 people." The NFL player says he's amazed that God is so gracious and forgiving toward sinners. "I'm a constant work in progress – we all are," says Wilson – "That's the amazing thing about Jesus – He takes you for who you are." Though we may still sin every single day, Jesus Christ – the Son of God – came to earth to die on the cross so that we may be forgiven through faith in Him. -

        February 4, 2014 at 7:12 am |
      • ROCKET DIVA

        Okung -a seahawk- realized that those were the very things that he had longed for as a young man growing up without a father, and he finally saw God as the One Who would fulfill those longings in his heart. "I needed to know as a young little boy that I was loved, and that there is a Father – a supreme, sovereign Father – Who came – came to me – and had been watching me every day of my life," he says. As Okung began to walk with the Lord, he says that these attributes of God's character became manifest in his life. -

        February 4, 2014 at 7:17 am |
    • Dez

      Because Patton Dodd is editor-in-chief of OnFaith.

      February 3, 2014 at 2:26 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Remember "fan" is short for "fanatic."

      February 3, 2014 at 3:44 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    don't worry about football being immoral. Just watch the game and then ignore the way you just disrespected your god, in the same way as when you eat ham (Leviticus 11:7-8) or get a tattoo (Leviticus 19:28) or have a rounded haircut (Leviticus 19:27) or have injured private parts ( Deuteronomy 23:1) or gossip (Leviticus 19:16) or get remarried after a divorce (Mark 10:11-12) or do ANY work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15) or be a woman speaking in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35) or eat shrimp, lobster, or other assorted seafood (Leviticus 10-11)

    You are all frauds! You pick and choose from the word of god and do what you want and ignore what you don't want ... and then you tell the world how important it is for them to obey your god. Frauds!

    February 3, 2014 at 12:19 pm |
    • Alias

      If you are going to criticize get it right.
      Befoer the late JC, they were all born into the Jewisk faith. When they wante dto try to market to outsiders, they had to do something to make it more appealing.
      Behold! Acts was written!
      That saved them from trying to force all those pesky rules and restrictoins onto new converts.

      February 3, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
    • Live4Him

      @Dyslexic doG : You are all frauds! You pick and choose

      Given that evolution holds the 'survival of the fittest' concept, wouldn't you think that you should move away from Christian values like helping your neighbor?

         <><

      February 3, 2014 at 1:30 pm |
      • Jake

        You clearly don't understand evolution. We have evolved to develop instinctual beliefs / morals with survival as the driving force. Helping your neighbor is perfectly consistent with evolution. In other words, we all have a better chance of surviving if we help each other out.

        February 3, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
        • L

          Give me a break! That's total bull and we all know it!

          February 3, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
        • Jake

          L, try reading about evolution and you might understand it. You are saying evolution is bull. There's only one way that conversation is going to end and it's not good for you.

          February 3, 2014 at 3:13 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Helping your neighbor is not a christian value. Tribal communities existed long before christianity was imagined by man and they most certainly did help each other, in most cases they were all each other had.
        Jake is right, you have no idea what you speak about when it comes to evolution, nor do you care apparently. Ignorance must be so blissful??

        February 3, 2014 at 2:44 pm |
      • Dez

        Why do you think Christianity owns things like helping your neighbor?

        February 3, 2014 at 3:25 pm |
        • Dandintac

          Dez,

          Good question. We must admit that part of the answer is that the Bible contains passages with directives toward that end–like "love thy neighbor" and all that. The Koran also contains positive passages of this sort. These religions incorporate basic human values, and these values have always been around, or else we would never have survived. We evolved with them. Those early human tribes that learned them and incorporated them into their social structures survived. Those that failed to do so did not. Our survival and prosperity as a species depends on our social skills and ability to work together.

          Religions incorporated and codified these basic social values and skills, and quickly learned to take credit for them–as if, without the religion, we would be doomed to not have them–although we see them in every human society, including hunter-gather tribes with no sense of gods as we understand them After many centuries of religious domination, enforced through pain of death, ostracization or other social sanctions, allowing religion to take credit, as well as failing to question other religious claims–has become a cultural habit.

          February 4, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
    • L

      Bad doggy! Bad! Back to your cage!

      February 3, 2014 at 1:33 pm |
    • Responding to the Pride

      ...or take verses out context, or take verses out of contest, or take verses out of context, or take verses out of context.

      February 3, 2014 at 2:10 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Unfortunately too many only hear what the minister spews from the pulpit every week and they go home and read the weeks passages as set out by that minister.
      If any of them actually read their holy book completely, we'd see less christians in this world.

      February 3, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.