Category Archives: Fandom

Should You Watch (NFL) Football ?

Concussions. CTE. How can a moral person watch (NFL) football?

There is no simple or singular answer. But there are a number of considerations that people ought to weigh to start getting at an answer. This is a first pass at these considerations, but there are at least four: empirical questions, athlete autonomy, mitigation/education, and fan responsibility.

Empirical Questions

The main empirical question is what is the causal relationship between concussions (and sub-concussive hits) and CTE (and other long-term brain injuries and conditions).

We know there is a significant risk of concussions in football. We know that there is some relationship between concussions and long-term brain injuries like CTE. But we are still learning about the nature and extent of this relationship. There is a lot that remains unknown.

As stated in the 2017 Concussion in Sport Group Consensus Statement on Concussion in Sport:

 The literature on neurobehavioral sequelae and long-term consequences of exposure to recurrent head trauma is inconsistent. Clinicians need to be mindful of the potential for long-term problems such as cognitive impairment, depression, etc in the management of all athletes. However, there is much more to learn about the potential cause-and-effect relationships of repetitive head-impact exposure and concussions. The potential for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) must be a consideration, as this condition appears to represent a distinct tauopathy with an unknown incidence in athletic populations. A cause-and-effect relationship has not yet been demonstrated between CTE and SRCs or exposure to contact sports. As such, the notion that repeated concussion or subconcussive impacts cause CTE remains unknown. (McCrory P, et al. Br J Sports Med 2017;51:838–847)

  • What is the causal relationship? How deterministic is it?
  • What is the nature of the risk for CTE (etc.) from a given number of concussions (&sub) in a given time-frame?
  • What other factors: environment, genetic, age, sex, number of impacts, type of impact, etc., can affect this causal relationship in significant ways?

How these questions get answered are essential for drawing conclusions about the danger and risk of football. And we don’t have answers yet. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be cautious and work to reduce concussions in sport. Of course we should (and the above consensus report has extensive recommendations on this front). We know there is danger here—we just don’t how much, how far-reaching it is, or what the extent of the risk is.

Athlete Autonomy

The ethics of watching (or playing for that matter) football is not merely an empirical question. Football might be quite dangerous and risky, but that in it of itself is an insufficient warrant to prevent the activity. We still need to weigh the value of individual autonomy and liberty for choice in the projects of one’s life. For most, the presumption is that autonomous choice cannot be interfered with except where it causes harm to others. Several hundred years of political philosophy has tried to clarify every aspect of this: What counts as autonomous choice? What counts as interference? What counts as harm? Can we draw a line between harm to others and harm to self?

Leaving aside those important thorny issues, if we assume the playing of football is sufficiently autonomous then it is hard to see what objection there would be for those wishing to watch it. If it fails to be sufficiently autonomous, then that should give us strong reasons to stop watching (or playing).

The autonomy question is one of the reasons that the concern about concussion and CTE is different from the long-term debilitating injuries to knees, backs, shoulders, and so on that ex-football players suffer with. One might have to use a wheelchair to get around because his knees are so shot, but he still have his mind. He can still make choices and plan his life. But this might not be true for one suffering from CTE or other serious long-term brain injuries. So if there is a strong link between concussion and CTE or other brain-debilitating conditions, then this raises the question of just how autonomous football actual is.

  • If we assume the worst about the connection between concussion and CTE, does this undermine autonomy (either now or in the future)?
  • Should we interfere now in order to prevent someone from depriving himself of autonomy later in life?
  • Can one freely and reasonably choose to deprive himself of autonomy later in life?


Another question that fans should ask themselves is: are the leagues, players, and other stakeholders working towards dealing with, controlling, preventing, and/or treating concussions? If they are not, that might give a fan a good reason to withdraw support for the sport by no longer watching.

Fan Responsibility

Does one’s watching of football causally contribute to concussion/CTE? What responsibility does the fan have?

Let’s say we are reasonably confident that there is high risk of long-term brain damage to those playing football. Let’s further say that this is still compatible with athlete autonomy. A fan might still be concerned that his or her watching is contributing in some way to the damage being done to the player (even if, ex hypothesis, it is autonomously chosen).

This raises complex philosophic questions about collective and aggregated responsibility that can’t be addressed here. Nevertheless, it is obviously true that without fans there is no professional sport. But one’s individual contribution to the practice is beyond minuscule. It is the proverbial drop in the ocean. So if one’s minuscule contribution hardly marks a causally difference one way or the other, then it is reasonable to ask whether withdrawing one’s fan support has any meaningful effect. If it doesn’t, then it seems unreasonable to say that, other things being equal, one has an obligation to stop watching.


How do weigh and balance all this? That’s something worth thinking more about, but I do think that to get to the conclusion that it is wrong to watch football, you have to have good reason to think that at least one or two of the following (if not all) are true:

  • The risk of CTE (or other serious long-term brain injury) is severe, significant, and far-reaching.
  • That this danger is too severe to be sufficiently autonomous or that the danger has sufficient effect on future autonomy such that we ought to be preventing or significantly restricting the activity.
  • The leagues, etc., are not doing even the moral minimum to mitigate, prevent, or educate about concussions.
  • Fan responsibility is sufficient that one has an obligation to withdraw their support.

While there is much room for rational disagreement and the need for continual reassessment of these issues, I am not yet prepared to assent to any of these claims.

Further Reading:


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Filed under concussion, Fandom, Football

Why I Love Baseball

I was emailing with a friend today and the subject of why Americans like baseball came up. He was not born in the States and doesn’t quite get baseball. That conversation gave me the opportunity to put into words some ideas of why I love baseball. And now that’s given me a topic for a blog post.

I think most like baseball (along with many of our other preferences: other sports, music, tv, etc.) for nostalgic reasons. Many grow up playing the game, watching it, or going to the ball park with their parents or friends. One’s current spectatorship is tied into those memories and brings us back to that state of mind. It becomes a connection to one’s history and place. Quoting —(you have to by law, I think, quote Field of Dreams when you write about baseball)— the Terence Mann character in Field of Dreams:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.

Though I don’t think the quote is precisely right, there is a lot of truth in it. Every time I emerge from a tunnel in a ball park, I am taken back to those first few times I passed from the dark of the tunnel under Fenway Park into the bright sunshine and pleasant cacophony of the crowd. I get a rush each and every time and feel like I am 10 years old again.

Moreover, being a Red Sox fan keeps me tied to my home state. It’s been roughly two decades since I lived in Boston, soon I will have lived more outside of Massachusetts than in it. But donning my Red Sox hat makes me feel a little like I can hop on the T to Quincy Market for some Pizzeria Regina any time I want.

I also like baseball for some other, more intellectual reasons.

One of the things I love most about baseball is the battle between pitcher and batter. This is the point of tension that the whole game turns on. What is the pitcher going to do? What kind of pitch will he throw? What about the runner on first? How will the batter respond? Will he let it go for a ball? Foul it off? Put it in to play?

Each pitch is its own game in a way and the strategy of what to pitch/how to hit changes depending on the number of outs, strikes, balls, men on base, etc. With each passing moment as the pitcher looks into the batter’s box the tension builds. The pitch is thrown and you wait on the batter’s swing–what’s going to happen? Will it be strike? A foul? A hit? A HR? Swing! And then the release of tension as this moment of the duel resolves itself but it immediately starts to build again for the next pitch. This rise and release of tension is, for me, the basic piece of enjoyment of watching the game. (This is one reason I am completely against a pitch clock.)

Another element of baseball I love is that it is a kind of a fractal. Stay with me here… You have the pitcher-batter tension point but that takes place within a whole at bat which is part of an inning, which is in a game, which is in a series. Each level has a similar repeating pattern: three strikes, three outs, nine innings, a best of three series. It’s not really a fractal but it is a kind of complex spontaneous order arising out of a set of simple rules, repeating each pitch, each at bat, each inning, each game, and each series. And yet despite repeating this pattern, each at bat, inning, etc., is unique and its own thing. There is something beautiful and satisfying in experiencing the infinite variety that arises while being constrained by a set of simple rules.

There are many other reasons to enjoy baseball: the excitement of a HR; the beauty of a double play; the amazing skill of chasing down a fly ball in the outfield. And if you are at a live game, forget about it! The beauty of the ballpark is worth the ticket in itself. But one shouldn’t feel that they have to like baseball. It’s one particular form of beauty and enjoyment among the endless assortment of human activities and endeavors worth admiring and enjoying. Whether it is baseball or something else, the important thing is to revel in what you love.


Filed under baseball, Fandom

Sports Ethics Show: Athletes as Role Models

In this episode of The Sports Ethics Show, Mike Perry and Shawn Klein discuss the old debate about athletes as role models. Do athletes have special responsibilities and obligations? Should they craft themselves into good role models or is that just something extra? The conversation ranges into celebrity in general, the real effect athletes have on children, and the compartmentalization of fandom and admiration.

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Filed under athletes, Fandom, podcast

Guest Post: Fantasy Football, Metaphysics, and Value

The author of this guest post is Chad Carlson. Dr. Carlson is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Hope College (MI). He has published numerous articles on the philosophy and history of sport.

In a recent article in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, I argued that Fantasy Football is a parasitic game. In other words, it is a game that derives its existence and value from the actual sport of American football (not to be confused with what the rest of the world calls football). Fantasy Football, therefore, is a second order game. Its unique and unprecedented popularity has in many ways paralleled that of actual football. In fact, without actual football, the fantasy counterpart would fail to exist.

Despite its genetic determination from actual football, Fantasy Football also shares some characteristics with other games. Like “cybersport,” Fantasy Football is governed in cyberspace. However, in “cybersport,” the “athlete” has complete agency over the movements and operations of the game whereas in Fantasy Football, the owner does not.

Like simple sport spectatorship, Fantasy Football shares in that a lot of the fun and enjoyment of the game comes from actually watching the NFL games play out and cheering one way or another. However, whereas Fantasy Football owners have the ability to set their lineups and activate or deactivate their players, fans watching actual football games have no real (legal) ability to manipulate the events on the field to encourage their team to win—outside of cheering really loudly!

Fantasy Football may be most like card games such as poker. In these games, the player (owner) has some agency to make the most of his/her hand (team). However the difference here is in the time at which the player has agency. In poker, the player is dealt a hand theoretically at random. The player has no control over the cards dealt. From there, the card shark is able to make the most of his/her hand. Fantasy Football is the opposite. The owner has the ability to set his/her lineup by inserting, benching, trading, waiving, and picking up players who are in the best position to obtain fantasy points in each week’s games. Yet that’s where the owner’s agency ends. Once the games begin, the owner is at the mercy of “the Fantasy Gods.”

I stand by all of these metaphysical arguments. For as popular as Fantasy Football has become (it has become exceedingly difficult to delineate between the NFL and Fantasy Football—just watch the ticker below an NFL broadcast), it is still a second order game whose value owes its entire existence to actual football. It is no coincidence, then, that Fantasy Football’s popularity has risen alongside the unprecedented increases in popularity of the NFL.

As such, I argued that we should be wary of Fantasy Football’s value. As a second order game it naturally has a second-class status; and as a parasitic game, it has warped our understanding of football.

I argued that although Fantasy Football has played a large role in the continually growing interest in NFL football, the way in which Fantasy Football has promoted this growing interest might not be healthy. Fantasy Football promotes only certain aspects of football—the accrual of individualized statistics by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and kickers—to the neglect of other important roles and aspects of the game. Further, the goals of Fantasy Football pervert our viewership of NFL games. Watching NFL games to follow my fantasy team has rid me of any purist viewership of football, and it has turned me into a disloyal and contextual partisan. I cheer not for teams, but for the individual players I drafted from a variety of NFL teams to compose my fantasy roster. Further, I cheer for particular events to occur within NFL games that create situations in which my players can accrue statistics and therefore obtain fantasy points. Thus, I might cheer for a particular team to be stopped for little to no gain on first and second downs in the red zone so that the quarterback might target my tight end or wide receiver in the end zone on third down. Or I might cheer when my running back breaks tackles for a big gain but then find disgust when the exact same team has another long gain the next play if it is a result of a carry by another of that team’s running backs. This type of spectatorship can easily create unhealthy attitudes towards football as an individual rather than team sport. And this attitude goes against the maxims of every football coach in the country who preaches that the strength of football is in the team.

I have been reminded of all of this most recently throughout the first two weeks of the Fantasy Football, er, NFL, season. I am watching the games very closely and I remember which teams win, but my mood changes based not on which teams win but based on whether my fantasy players have done well or not. As such, I am reminded of how Fantasy Football has the ability to alter how we watch and understand the NFL.

However, I have also been reminded of how Fantasy Football can be a very fun and playful way of coming to understand and enjoy professional football. This August, my family decided to start a Fantasy Football league. Most of our league’s members were new to Fantasy Football, and a few in-laws were relatively new American football.

After explanations from us “experts” about such elementary fantasy issues as why one should not draft a team defense in the first round and what a “flex” position entails, and after the resulting snickers from the foreign in-laws about the term “tight end,” we held a draft and are well on our way to conducting a successful Fantasy Football league.

I have been amazed at how well some of the non-football fans in our league have come to understand the pigskin game just by reading and listening to expert advice on Fantasy Football. Media analysis of Fantasy Football has become so complex and detailed that it is difficult to argue that interest in Fantasy ownership necessarily encourages fantasy owners to neglect certain crucial aspects of actual football in attempts to win Fantasy Football games. Much of the production of the playmakers that top the Fantasy Football stat charts comes from healthy and serviceable offensive lines, advantageous defensive matchups, and the wily game plans of offensive coordinators. Understanding these complexities requires more than just a surface-level knowledge of football.

Fantasy Football has also become a way for my family to bond. While we’ve never failed to find activities around which we’ve enjoyed each other’s company, we can now add Fantasy Football to our list. The last few Sundays have been filled with “trash-texting” and needling emails, and I am reminded of how much fun Fantasy Football can be for a family that has great interest in competitive sports but no real long-standing connections to any particular NFL team.

Therefore, I feel the need to temper my thoughts on Fantasy Football’s lack of value. Kept in context, the game can serve as a fun diversion—among many others in this world.

But Fantasy Football is healthiest when kept in metaphysical context. As I write this, I sit at 0-2. My first round loss was to my brother. While he convinced us that he didn’t put much time or effort into his team, I at least took solace in the fact that he knows football and Fantasy Football relatively well. However, my Week 2 loss to my, gulp, mom, has me reaching deep into the ontological stronghold of my memory to keep focus on the fact that Fantasy Football is a game involving a great deal of luck just like poker. My mom is a great athlete, but she doesn’t know football (in fact, she didn’t know what the “Bye” column next to her roster of players meant until after Week 1). This led me to believe that my matchup with her would be as easy as taking candy from a baby.

In actual sports, each player’s agency is far greater. When I’m losing a sporting contest I can try harder or play smarter and often have my efforts rewarded on the scoreboard. If I found myself running neck and neck in a footrace with my mother I could, theoretically, try harder and end up winning as a result.

Fantasy Football is different. It is not a sport. More effort, better skill, or a deeper knowledge of the game will not necessarily result in a better performance. While I see that from one perspective as I lose to my mom, I see it from another angle regarding my dad. Dad came to our draft with a 3” three-ring binder full of draft analysis, printed tips, and notes to himself that he referenced while using all of the 90 seconds allotted to him for each pick he made. He spends a great deal of time studying expert analysis, offering trade options, and hovering over the waiver wires. And as the only former football player in our league, he has the highest expectations for the season.

But as of Monday night, he also sits at 0-2 in our league. The former quarterback (Dad) and the philosopher (that’s, um, me) have nothing to show for their relevant areas of expertise. And this reminds me that Fantasy Football is not an actual sport. It is a game that requires more luck than skill. So my response to the “trash-texts” I’ve received from my mom since my loss to her is: “You’re not better than me. The Fantasy Football gods simply found more favor with you than me.”

Does my loss make me a lesser athlete? Of course not! But does my response to the loss make me a bad sport? Well…


Filed under Fandom, Fantasy, games

What Crying Brazilians Tells Us About Fandom

In the wake of the devastating shellacking of Brazil at the feet of German side, we saw hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of crying and tearful Brazilians. Many sports fan empathized with these pictures. Part of being a fan is suffering through bad losses. Every true sports fan has been on the losing side at one time or another. We know how those Brazilian fans felt.

Others raised the ridiculousness of crying over a game, especially a game one didn’t even participate in. It is one thing if you played in a game, gave your proverbial all, and then were overcome with emotion (such as Columbia’s James Rodriguez). But for fans in the stands or out on street to cry strikes many as silly. Something must be really out of whack.

There are really two questions here. One: is crying an appropriate emotional response to a sporting event? Two: is it appropriate to have one’s identity so connected to a sporting event/team?

The second question arises because of what I think the correct answer is to the first question. Sports fan invest a lot of themselves into their teams. This is not just a financial thing (tickets, merchandise, etc.), but a connection to one’s identity. For a die-hard sports fans, the game isn’t something we watch as entertainment the way one might watch and be fans of Games of Thrones(*). One’s sense of self: who they are, where they are from, what they value; is wrapped up in their sports fandom. Fandom is a mode of self-expression. To say one is a Boston Red Sox fan tells the world a little something about who one is.

It is apt that sports fans speak of having their hearts broken by their teams: there is something analogous between close personal relationships and sports fandom. The relationship takes time to build and develop. Whatever you think about ‘love at first sight’, the relationship – its meaning and role in one’s life—takes time. And one doesn’t just become a Red Sox fan. You have to grow into it; you have to earn the ability to say you are a true fan.  (Side note: this is why I don’t call myself a Liverpool fan. I follow them. I root for them. But I haven’t earned the title of fan yet. To stretch the analogy here: we are dating and having fun; seeing where it might go.)

Much more could and needs to be said about the connections between identity and fandom. However, if we can see that many die-hard sports fans, like many Brazilian futbol fans, have a deep identity connection to their team, it makes sense that such a devastation loss (especially in a World Cup on your home soil where you were one of the favorites to win) would lead to tears.

This is where the second question comes in to play. Is it rational or moral to have one’s identity so profoundly connected to a sports team?

My short answer is yes. While, as with anything, one can go too far here, by and large, I think deep fandom is a healthy and fun way of being one’s self. The longer answer still needs to be worked out and developed but let me suggest a few points.

The fun part is mostly self-explanatory. It provides moments of joy and excitement. Still, there are times that it doesn’t feel very fun (that’s what all the crying is about after all). But, overall, in the bigger picture of a being a fan, it is fun and thrilling.

Sports Fandom is also by and large healthy. Fandom is an expression of choice and commitment. It is part of a process of self-definition. We define ourselves by the choices and commitments we make and this includes which sports and teams we choose to follow.

Fandom ties one into a community, providing feelings of connectedness to a region, city, or tradition. It is a way of being with others and sharing values with others.

Being a fan of a sport team or club is better than something more insidious like seeking the sense of community from a gang or looking for greatness in pushes for national conquests. Better that nationalism gets expressed in a sporting event than in geo-politics. The former might unfortunately lead to some fist fights in the stands, but the latter leads to wars.

Go ahead and cry Brazil. Let it all out.

(*)Update clarification: I don’t mean to imply or suggest that non-sport fandoms can’t or don’t invest part of their identity in their fandom. (As a Browncoat I wouldn’t want to make that mistake.) I only mean to say that sports fandom is not just about entertainment. I am not trying to say anything about other kinds of fandoms.


Filed under Fandom, soccer, World Cup

The Sports Ethicist Show: The Paradox of Fandom

The next episode of The Sports Ethicist Show airs Monday, March 31, 2014 at 6 pm CT on Rockford College Radio.

In this episode of The Sports Ethicist Show, we focus on the value of being a sports fan. In her paper, “Being a Sports Fan: Paradox and Intrinsic Value,” Prof. Gwen Bradford (Rice University) defends a view of the value of being a sports fan based on the idea that it is a good thing for fans to value the good of their team winning.  This, however, seems to lead to a paradox because fans do not value the same good when their team’s opponents win. Prof. Bradford and Shawn Klein discuss the value of being a fan, this paradox, and other issues arising in fandom.

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A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.

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Filed under Fandom, IAPS, podcast, RadioShow

The Sports Ethicist Show: Santayana on the Value of Sport

Apologies! Rockford College Radio is replaying Psychology of Mental Toughness show. You can still get the podcast for the Santayana show here right now:

The Sports Ethicist Show airs this Monday at 6 pm CDT on Rockford College Radio.

George Santayana is one of the great American Philosophers and his essay “Philosophy on the Bleachers” he argues for the value of athletics for both participants and spectators. In this episode of The Sports Ethicist Show, Shawn Klein and Matt Flamm discuss Santayana’s essay and his ideas. Profs. Klein and Flamm cover a wide range of themes from the connection between athlete and spectator to role of the martial virtues in human life to the effect of industrial revolution on human existence.

Related/Discussed Links:

Prof. Flamm’s articles in the Bulletin:

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Filed under Fandom, Philosophy, podcast, RadioShow

The Sports Ethicist Show: Fandom Origins

The Sports Ethicist Show airs tonight at 6 pm (Central) on Rockford College Radio.

Most fans are fans of a team because of geography. But not everyone becomes a fan that way. Sean Beckmann and Mike Perry join The Sports Ethicist, Shawn Klein, to discuss their fandom-origins and other issues in being fans.

Listen on Rockford College Radio (6pm Central): (Click on the Listen Live button)

A podcast of the show will be available after the show airs.

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Filed under Fandom, RadioShow