In a recent column, George Will attacks football (of the American egg-shaped variety). He opens the column with the quip: “Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?” This is a direct reference to the recent suicides of former NFL players which many believe—with increasing evidence—are linked to the damage done to the athletes’ brains from playing football. (An article discussing research of chronic brain trauma in football)
Will regards the dangers of football as beyond fixing. He does not make an outright call for banning the game, but his disdain for the gridiron is clear. Calling it a “mistake,” Will regards the game as too violent, the players as too big, and the risk of long-term damage and death as too high. The fans that delight in the sport do not come off much better in Will’s view. (Ironically, since Will is a huge baseball fan, a recent study of player mortality finds that baseball players die at a more frequent rate).
Football is indeed a dangerous sport. Today we are most focused on concussions, but the violence of the sport does damage beyond the brain. Other organs in the athlete’s body are banged around by the same forces that damage the brain. The consequences for the internal organs are less known, but it is not an extraordinary leap that long-term damage to livers and kidneys is sustained by the repeated, brutal physical hits in football. The long-term and often irreparable damage to the knees and other joints of football players is well-known. Sadly, every few years we hear of someone being paralyzed while playing football. Most experts believe it is only a matter of time before there is a death on the field.
Moreover, as Will correctly states, the dangerousness of football cannot be removed without destroying the game. A non-violent, risk-free, or safe football is a contradiction. But Will is wrong to regard the game of football as a mistake.
We cannot take the violence or danger out of football, nor should we. We ought to make sure that the risks are understood by those playing or considering playing. We ought to take reasonable precautions to reduce the worst of the dangers. But the game itself is dangerous and that is part of its virtue.
As philosopher of sport John Russell puts it:
“Dangerous sport in its best exemplars, particularly in which substantial bodily danger is an immediate and ever-present risk, represents an opportunity for confronting and pressing beyond certain apparent limits of personal, and indeed human, physical and psychological capacities in ways not afforded by other normally available human activity” (3).
Dangerous sports, such as football, enable participants to learn about themselves in ways not available in normal mundane life. How hard can I push myself? Can I take repeated physical abuse and still get up and try just as hard, even harder? How much am I willing to give to reach a goal? Can I stand in the pocket, get the ball off, knowing that I will be hit hard by someone with 100 pounds on me? Can my teammates trust me in the trenches? Can I trust myself? Dangerous sports give one a unique opportunity to learn the answers to these questions.
Dangerous sports require the athletes to put their whole being to the test. It is not just a physical test, but a mental and emotional test. Dangerous sport, because one is risking life and limb (in some more than others) makes these tests more profound. The potential danger clarifies and brings to the surface responses to circumstances that otherwise may not have been revealed. As Russell tells us, participating in dangerous sports “can incorporate a challenge to capacities for judgment and choice that involves all of ourselves—our body, will, emotions, and ingenuity—under conditions of physical duress and danger at the limits of our being” (14).
Moreover, engaging in dangerous sport, unlike say climbing Mount Everest, is a public test of one’s being. Other athletes and spectators are witnesses to one’s failure or success. The affirmation of one’s capacities in public is an added danger. It takes a special kind of courage and confidence to put one’s whole self on display, especially when failure is a possibility.
Granted, Russell is speaking of football and other dangerous sports at their best. People have many motives for participating in dangerous sports like football that may have nothing to do with exercising and expanding capacities integral to human flourishing. Nevertheless, Russell points to the significant and deep value that engaging in dangerous sports can have.
Though Russell does not delve into the fan side of dangerous sport, there are important values for the fans of dangerous sports. It is not mere bloodlust. It is psychologically important for us to witness the pursuit and achievement of values by others. It signals to us that the world is such that values are possible and achievable. This gives us inspiration and fuel to pursue our goals and values. Witnessing athletes in dangerous sports put their lives on the line for their values heightens for the fan the importance of values in one’s life and the fact that one must work to achieve them. Moreover, it reminds us that the pursuit of values can fail or involve great pain and suffering; but that, if we are to live well, we must continue the pursuit. Like the players on the field, we must, if we want to win, get back up for the next play, the next game, or the next season.
One of the other interesting points that Will argues in his column is that biggest challenge facing the future of football is that parents will prevent their children from playing football. That very well may be true. As a father, I would be reluctant for my son to play football. While I will not forbid him from playing, I will encourage, instead, other sports. I am a huge NFL fan and see the value in dangerous sports like football, and yet I am going to steer my child away from playing football. I am not alone in this. And that probably does mean trouble for the future of the NFL.
J.S. Russell (2005): “The Value of Dangerous Sport,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 32:1, 1-19