I was recently interviewed for The Outline by Ann-Derrick Gaillot about the morality of watching the Super Bowl. The article focused on four ethicists and their responses to three questions:
- Ethically speaking, which team should people root for in the Super Bowl?
- Is it ethical to watch the Super Bowl at all?
- Is it ethical to watch Super Bowl commercials?
You can head over to The Outline to read all of our responses.
In this post, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the first question. Here was some of my response that they published:
(Full disclosure: I grew up in New England and root for the Patriots) In general, there isn’t a “should” here. Morality, for the most part, is just not the place to look for a rooting reason. We root for teams that we have a connection to — through family, regional connections, style of play. Those are all good reasons to root for one team over another. Assuming one is a neutral, flipping a coin is just as moral as choosing the Eagles because you like the color green.
There are, though, two other direction one could to take this question.
One might be the claim that one should root against the Patriots because of the scandals around so-called Deflate-gate and Spy-gate. But that seems based on some inaccurate beliefs about these scandals. Science has largely exonerated Brady and the Patriots of any wrongdoing regarding football deflation, and Spy-gate is also widely misunderstood. It was a violation of a policy regarding where a team is allowed to tape the activity of a game. In other words, the problem was where in the stadium the videographer stood — not that he was taping. It was a violation of a policy and the Patriots were wrong to do it (and they were harshly punished). But that seems a thin reed on which to rest one’s moral disapprobation.
A second is that if one admires and respects excellence, then they have a good reason to root for the Patriots. For nearly two decades, the Patriots have excelled in a way no other NFL franchise has or arguably ever will again. Tom Brady is getting ready to start his 8th Super Bowl. Since an NFL season is 16 games, Brady in essence will have played half a season of Super Bowls. The work, effort, and discipline that goes in to that level of sustained excellence is worth admiring and rooting for. Along similar lines, one might value the tenacity and perseverance of a team playing at a high level after losing their star quarterback and so choose to root for the Eagles.
Almost all of the ethicists, myself included, in the piece said something along the lines that whom you root for isn’t really a focus of ethical analysis. Notice, though, I couched my response in terms of “in general” and “for the most part.” This was not an academic’s attempt to weasel out of saying something definitive.
The standard case of fandom is not one where one choice is morally better than another, but that doesn’t mean that rooting for a team with a history of abuse or wrongdoing is beyond the scope of ethics. Unfortunately, because of subpar media reporting and general ignorance many think this applies to the Patriots. That is why I thought it necessary to explain why the two major Patriots scandals are based on misinformation. Deflate-gate was a joke and Spy-gate was overblown. All the other “questionable” deeds often attributed to the Patriots are either blatant and exposed lies (e.g. the illicit taping of other teams practices) or rumors without evidence.
If it were true that the Patriots were a corrupt and cheating organization, it would be wrong to root for them. But it is not true, so that cannot be a reason to root against them. And Patriots don’t need to apologize for being Pats fans (not that many of us actually feel the need to).
I also thought it important to discuss another way in which ethics might guide one’s fandom. Ethics is too often treated as all about wrongdoing. The focus is exclusively on people behaving badly and why that is bad. Without denying the importance of such inquiry, it is also just as, if not more important to focus on value. Ethics should also be about understanding value creation, what it means to be good (beyond just not being bad), and how to live well.
In this light, ethics can guide one to root for a team based on the values it represents or exemplifies. As I said in the interview, it can lead you to root for the Patriots because of the unparalleled, historic excellence and achievement of the nearly twenty-year period of the Kraft-Belichick-Brady era. It can also lead you to admire the perseverance and tenacity of the Eagles this year.
Lastly, there is something disturbing about rooting against the Patriots because they have been so great. I am not talking about Buffalo fans or Pittsburgh fans who are surely rooting against the Patriots this Sunday. I get that. I’d root against their teams in reverse situation. That’s just sport rivalry and its part of what makes being a fan fun. I’m talking about the ugly envy that targets the Patriots just because they are so good; just because they achieve at the highest level. Resentment and spite is not psychologically or morally healthy. Let go of the hate!
I’m sure there are many reasons for non-Pats fans to root against the Patriots: ignorance or envy shouldn’t be one of them.