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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 • Health • Opinion • Sports • Violence

soundoff (388 Responses)
  1. Joe

    It's just gladiator mentality 2014.

    February 2, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • Exactly

      http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=gibbons+howling&qs=n&form=QBVR&pq=gibbons+howling&sc=0-11&sp=-1&sk=#view=detail&mid=894287A88EF0D0F52D7E894287A88EF0D0F52D7E

      February 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
      • Exactly

        Darn videos maybe this one

        http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=gibbon+monkey+sounds&qs=VI&form=QBVR&pq=gibbon+monkey+&sc=8-14&sp=1&sk=#view=detail&mid=B2A358E6A2B926889E23B2A358E6A2B926889E23

        February 2, 2014 at 2:28 pm |
        • Exactly

          Spectators at a spectator sport =Gibbons. Won't load.

          February 2, 2014 at 2:29 pm |
  2. Why?

    Why do people watch football? The ball goes to the left side of the field, then it goes to the right side of the field, then it goes to the left again. Once or twice if you get lucky it goes off to the side.

    It's like pong, but you aren't even interacting with it.

    February 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It's slower and less exciting than pong. Kind of backgroung noise for a conversation or shared meal.

      February 3, 2014 at 8:09 am |
  3. Foreal89

    Seriously can we please stop having these outlandish articles from these staring bloggers this is ridiculous What a joke

    February 2, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
    • InsanityPrevails

      Yes, because worrying about people's physical safety is just so ridiculous. At the very least, this blog didn't get as preachy about religion as the rest of them.

      By the way, think about giving punctuation a try.

      February 2, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
  4. NorCalMojo

    I wonder if we'd be making these moral queries if all the players were white.

    There's something wrong when people feel guilt for the decisions of other adults.

    February 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
    • Akira

      Forgive me, but I'm not sure what race has to do with it?

      February 2, 2014 at 12:46 pm |
  5. Topher

    Football is a ridiculous waste of time, energy, and $$$

    February 2, 2014 at 12:25 pm |
    • Alias

      you showed up at the same time as Salero21 again.
      What are the chances of that? 😀

      February 2, 2014 at 12:29 pm |
      • Salero21

        How dare you confuse me with topher?
        😀 😀 I am not an idiot!!! 😀 ;-D

        February 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
        • Really???

          Your posts prove otherwise.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
    • sam stone

      So is church

      February 2, 2014 at 12:45 pm |
      • Well

        Ok they are both boring as hell, but if you are on the skids the church might feed you.

        February 2, 2014 at 1:21 pm |
        • sam stone

          that is true

          February 2, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
  6. Alias

    Right. Let's stop playing football because people get hurt.
    ockey causes injuries too. Its gotta go.
    People get hurt playing soccer as well. We should ban that from all school activities.
    Dodgeball has already been removed from most schools, so I won't have to whine about that any more.
    Last season there were a lot of Baseball players on the injured reserve list. No more baseball either.
    And someone could drown if a dive goes wrong, so swimming is not worth the risk to our children's lives.
    Basketball is for all intensive purposes a contact sport, so we must protect the kids from that too.
    Some chemicals can be dangerous, so no more chemistry labs before college.
    I've seen people dive at the floor playing voleyball as well. We better end that before something bad happens.
    Before long someone will raise their hands in the air celebrating a victory in chess club. Let's error on the side of caution and save our children from that danger too.

    February 2, 2014 at 12:02 pm |
    • Alias

      I posted too quickly.
      I forgot boxing, wrestling, and all forms of martial arts.
      As well as wriiting. Paper cuts can be almost as bad as broken fingernails.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:14 pm |
      • Steve

        Don't forget that we should probably stop cheering for our service members too, since serving in the military is a dangerous job with a high risk of physical and psychological damage.

        February 2, 2014 at 12:31 pm |
        • Alias

          excellent point.
          Nascar and coal mining are nest on the list.
          I don't like other people doing those things either.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
        • InsanityPrevails

          Not that I agree with your point, but we REALLY need to keep an eye out for the cheering civilians. After all, clap too hard and you might hurt your hand.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:37 pm |
      • InsanityPrevails

        Martial arts are understandable. It's absurd to deny that they can end in serious physical injury, and the sports themselves are built around that premise. You don't walk on to a UFC league with the assumption that you're definitely not going to get a potentially psychologically-harming injury. Football is a different story. People have become so militarily supportive of football that when any notion of injury is brought into conversation, society turns a blind eye, even to the extent of covering up evidence as the NFL has been doing. (Plus, the INTENDED GOAL of football is to put a ball in a certain area of a field, not to knock someone's head off.) Yes, every possible sport comes with the risk of injury, but that doesn't mean we have to stand by apathetically and allow it to happen instead of taking action to make a sport better and safer as we understand it better. As an athlete of ten years, I feel that my sport, swimming, is a good example. Back during the age of legends such as Mark Spitz, swimming was entirely different–you never saw anyone wearing goggles in the Olympics, but today, I don't even practice without them. And I'm not even going to try to cover all the advances in swimming technique that have been made even in the last ten years.
        Parallels (goggles=better football helmets, technique=less dangerous maneuvers) aside, my point is this: safety is NOT unheard of in the sport of American football, and we need to at least make SOME motions toward increasing it. I acknowledge, life will never be entirely risk-free until it comes to a complete stop, but that's no excuse not to do something positive. To quote Edmund Burke, "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little."

        February 2, 2014 at 1:36 pm |
    • milehifan

      love this response

      February 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
  7. Rob

    Here is a question who is more moral a culture America or Rome. Let's see our athletes go home at the end of the day. In Rome they had gladiators who if you lost. You got thrown in a ditch. I'd had concussions and I tell you. I'd take a very pain concussion over losing my head.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:36 am |
    • Alias

      To be fair, there was poetic justice in the arena.
      The contestants were mostly slaves and in later years christians.
      Since the bible accepts slavery, the christians kind of got what they deserved.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:05 pm |
  8. davecu

    I don't of the morality of watching football which I intend to do tonight.

    What I DO have a strong opinion of is the people of the likes of Junior Sao.
    When he was soo down in the dumps that taking his life looked like a good idea, he chose NOT to damage the head that was giving him so much trouble so that research may help another!
    I have been suicidal and it was all self centered. How Junior had such compassion for other sufferers seems contradictory but WELL worthy of the respect myself and many others. I don't understand his actions but I MOST CERTAINLY respect his one choice.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:32 am |
    • igaftr

      Junior Seau suffered from CTE. This changes your brain to the point where you can have violent outbursts, severe depression, forgetfulness, and a HUGE variety of other physiological abnormalities. To say he was not in his right mind is accurate...the damage to his brain had changed his normal patterns, in unpredictable ways.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
  9. lindaluttrell

    I would like to see better helmets to help cushion the shock of tackles. Lowering the helmet to hit an opponent should carry a stiffer penalty. There are enough legit accidental injuries in the game without deliberate ones. Love this game and I always will, just hate to see players injured.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:28 am |
    • igaftr

      When you armor up someone, they will hit much harder.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:35 pm |
  10. Reality #2

    Golf especially when you walk is quite moral!!

    February 2, 2014 at 11:25 am |
    • Sam Clemens

      Golf is a good walk spoiled. I do enjoy a lot of your other posts, though.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:33 am |
    • Alias

      So sorry, but too many golfers get hit by lightning.
      We should keepour kids away from that too.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:07 pm |
    • igaftr

      Fro many, many years, I played hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse....pretty much all contaact sports...never had any major injury...strains and sprains mostly.

      When I got older, I took up golf...and broke my ankle.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:34 pm |
      • Reality #2

        How does one break an ankle playing golf? Considering that bicycling has one of the highest rates of sport injuries, you hopefully were not riding a bike on the course? 🙂

        February 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
        • igaftr

          Reality
          I went to hop over a creek that was 4' 1 " acrossed... I cleared the distance but did NOT stick the landing. It took 9 screws and a plate to put the ankle together again...the way I look at it...I am a tiny bit closer to being Wolverine.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
        • Reality #2

          Another 25.5 ft. and you would have set the long jump record. 🙂

          February 2, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
  11. tony

    I thought the definition of sport was something you did for fun. If you earn money, it becomes work instead.

    So then sports fans are just watching employees working. So paying for that is pretty much insane.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:23 am |
    • Alias

      So wouldn't that extent to broadway?
      Aren't they both entertainment?

      February 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
      • Exactly

        It sure would. You are also paying for the ads.

        February 2, 2014 at 1:29 pm |
    • KT in CV

      Sorry, but that's pretty stupid. According to your "logic" we shouldn't watch TV shows or movies because, we're paying to watch other people work. Music? Paying to listen to other people work. Reading a good book? Paying to read other people's work.

      February 2, 2014 at 3:38 pm |
  12. Stan

    I was upset when my nephew converted to Catholism from our Jewish roots but he played football for years. I wonder if his mental illness is to blame.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:22 am |
    • Perry

      Religion is mental illness. He just went from one strain to another.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:28 am |
      • Joe

        It's mildly interesting that the best candidates for a religion's recruiting efforts are those who are already in another religious delusion. It has already been established that they are weakminded and not very smart – excellent targets for your own god fraud cult.

        February 2, 2014 at 11:31 am |
      • davecu

        Says one person's opinion.
        Is he right or wrong?
        Not for me to say. If ti works for him, well and good.

        My anecdotal opinion is that people who have a Higher Power in their live, in what ever form work for them, seem to be happier and more productive.

        February 2, 2014 at 11:37 am |
        • davecu is stupid

          You can make people seem happy with drugs too. That would be only slightly less artifiicial than with religion.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:41 pm |
    • Stanist

      Hail Stan!

      February 2, 2014 at 2:24 pm |
  13. Aussies Rule

    American football is barely even a sport. It sucks. Pads are for sissies.

    Rugby Oi Oi Oi!

    February 2, 2014 at 11:19 am |
    • scs

      If you and your openent don't have much head protection you stop using your head as a ram-rod

      February 2, 2014 at 11:22 am |
      • Aussies Rule

        That's "opponent", stupid.

        February 2, 2014 at 11:23 am |
      • igaftr

        Concussion is still the number one injury to Rugby players, Australian rules football, and American football players.

        February 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm |
  14. CheerFan1

    Can football, especially commercialized football, be a sport that honors human bodies? Of course it can, ever see the Cheerleaders?

    February 2, 2014 at 11:05 am |
    • igaftr

      Check out the Legends Football league.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:13 am |
    • anon

      if watching dog fighting is illegal/brutal, this is then worse, wake up

      February 2, 2014 at 11:17 am |
  15. mor

    Grow a pair and man up, Patton. REAL Americans play American football.

    February 2, 2014 at 11:04 am |
    • midwest rail

      Who did you play for ?

      February 2, 2014 at 11:05 am |
    • Fanboy

      Play football? Asshole I can see you wheezing just carrying your beer to the fridge.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:07 am |
    • Aussies Rule

      American football is barely even a sport. It sucks. Pads are for sissies.

      Rugby Oi Oi Oi!

      February 2, 2014 at 11:20 am |
    • sam stone

      no, mor, real americans sit on their fat behinds with their NFL authorized team jerseys and pretend they are athletic

      February 2, 2014 at 11:27 am |
  16. texat1suf

    While I get the gist of the opinion as presented... My opinion is that it's a far stretch to question the morality of watching a football... Now, if those guys were forced into their performance as the gladiators were, then he has an argument... These athletes though, are volunteering themselves to enter the entertainment industry and are well compensated as such...

    So, if the question were, is it moral to play the sport, or moral own a team, or moral to profit from their contributions on the field, then there might be some substance to his dilemma, but as to whether it's immoral to simply watch, I'm having a hard time digesting...

    February 2, 2014 at 11:02 am |
    • Science Works

      How about watching the Winter Olympics Ice Hockey can be brutal ?

      February 2, 2014 at 11:06 am |
      • tallulah13

        Hockey is the best.

        February 2, 2014 at 2:25 pm |
        • Science Works

          Pond hockey !

          February 2, 2014 at 3:17 pm |
  17. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    So what's immoral, anyway? If almost everyone decides it's not immoral, then it's not immoral? I think that's close, but whatever it is, judgments about its morality need to be compatible with other judgments we've made.

    February 2, 2014 at 10:53 am |
    • Alias

      Immoral is deciding what you think is best and imposing your opinions on other people.
      aka I don't like that sport so no one should play it.

      February 2, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  18. Sports Fan

    Patton Dodd is not welcome in my home.

    February 2, 2014 at 10:38 am |
    • Angry Inch

      He can come to my place and watch the big game as long as he doesn't whine about the big bad men hurting each other.

      February 2, 2014 at 10:46 am |
    • Bob

      Its easier for you just to deny and ignore, then it is to face the truth, huh?

      February 2, 2014 at 10:50 am |
      • Sports Fan

        And what IS the truth Bob?

        February 2, 2014 at 10:52 am |
      • Akira

        Bob, these guys have known since they played Pop Warner that they can get hurt. They are well compensated. The truth is, they chose to play. And they will continue to play; refraining from watching will not change that.

        February 2, 2014 at 11:48 am |
        • aldewacs2

          What is the going rate for brain cells, these days?

          February 2, 2014 at 11:58 am |
        • Akira

          Ask them. They're the ones losing them in the name of football.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
        • igaftr

          The NFL payed out $765 million to players due to their acknowledgement of the brain injuries but then not taking care of or owning up to the health matters later on.

          There have been cases where an individual did not ever have a history of concussion but then died...the brain examined and the CTE damage was many times thought was possible.

          They studied 47 brains of ex-nfl players....46 showed CTE, many advanced, such as with Junior Seau. That was from a report on Frontline, from two years ago.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:28 pm |
        • Akira

          Yes. So, while they may not have known the risk factors that may exhibit themselves in the future when they started playing as kids, they do now; and it hasn't caused a significant drop in football playing.

          They know the risks. The knew even as young kids that being tackled hurts. That didn't/won't stop them.

          I do t know what the answer is, short of banning football completely at all levels; I don't think that will go over so well.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:44 pm |
        • Really???

          Akira
          Exactly...we know the risks in far greater detail, and so do the NFL players, but when asked "Would you play in the Superbowl with a concussion?" it was 100% unaminmous that they would play.

          It is an issue more with the brain injuries than anything...one can still be procudtive if one loses any of their limbs, or have issues with mobility...lose the brain function and it is all over.
          I know my kids won't be playing organized football, especially since the HS level has gotten so competative. They have very valuable brains, and I will not let them sacrifice it for a sport. I played every sport yyou can name when I was young, and am lucky I never had an injury...until I took up golf and broke my ankle golfing.

          February 2, 2014 at 12:55 pm |
        • Akira

          There's probably some minuscule risk in any type of sport; even something as innocuous as golf, as you've proved.
          Of course football players would agree that they would play in the SB; that is the Holy Grail of the NFL...they would probably agree even if the question were framed as "would you play in the SB with a concussion, knowing with 100% certainty you would develop CTE damage?"

          That being said, like football, and will be watching the SB, as I do every year, at the annual SB party I attend.
          As long as they know the risks, it isn't up to me to make a moral judgement on whether or not they play.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
        • Akira

          Also, I agree that HS football has gotten very competi.tive; it is a blood sport in my town.
          I never had to make the decision whether or not to let my kids play football; my son played soccer. Whatever you, as a parent, feel is best for your family is the best choice for your family.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
        • igaftr

          Akira.
          Agreed. Once they are old enough to truly understand the risks...it's up to them. What of the children though...more and more they are seeing not just major concussions, but each of those little hits can cause minor damage... the enormity of the sport has reached a level where some of the kids playing HS football are the size and speed of pro's from years back. There is significant danger to the brain.

          The real issue is how to protect the kids. I watched a practice in high heat, where the kids were not hydrating properly...when you have less water, you do not have the right level of water in the cranium, so add dehydration to the list of contributing factors, since there is less water to cushion the blow, you will have higher instances of concussion.
          To protect the kids, they really need to look at it from all angles.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
        • Akira

          I agree, igaftr. We've had more than one player in my town hospitalized for heat stroke after 3 hour practices in August in 95 degree heat.
          I don't know what the answer is. I really don't see any way to make football 100% safe.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:28 pm |
  19. Ponyboy Garfunkel

    Football players become football players at a young age. There is a positive re-enforcement system in place that might be difficult to understand or analyze at a young age. If a player is talented, a lot of people are slapping him on the back, from pee-wee football on up. It is interesting to think about the things our society values.

    February 2, 2014 at 10:36 am |
    • aldewacs2

      When thinking, always remember to think critically.
      That is not exactly encouraged in pack of testosterone-fueled back slapping rah-rah jocks. Quite similar to the upbringing children in a religious environment.

      February 2, 2014 at 10:51 am |
  20. Suncawy

    I agree about the body being sacred, but should we discontinue watching other sports as well ? In baseball, you have players injecting who knows what into their bodies, yet, we still watch games . More recently, pitchers get hit with line drives or how about those home plate collisions ? Just because they don't happen frequently, does that mean it's safer? How about how the harm hockey players face ? The point is there is risk in everything we do, but we can not stop living.

    February 2, 2014 at 10:29 am |
    • Akira

      What about boxing? Being knocked out is the goal.

      February 2, 2014 at 11:41 am |
      • igaftr

        Akira...defeating your opponent and NOT being knocked out is the goal...Truly a "sport" i never understood though.

        February 2, 2014 at 1:10 pm |
        • Akira

          I should have stated it better; knocking someone else out is the goal.

          February 2, 2014 at 1:21 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.