New Publication: The Value of Play and The Good Human Life

Along with several philosophy of sport colleagues, I have an article in a recently published special issue of Cultura_Ciencia_Deporte (Vol 13, No. 38). The issues explores philosophical theories of play, sport, and games.

My article focuses on the value of play and argues that play, like virtue and friendship, is an important part of the good human life.

The Value of Play and The Good Human Life by Shawn E. Klein


The dominant conception of play in philosophy of sport is that it is autotelic. This conception is the subject of important criticisms by Stephen Schmid and others. With these criticisms in mind, my paper seeks to move the discussion of play beyond the apparent dichotomy of autotelicity and instrumentality. Drawing a parallel to the role virtue and friendship have in a broadly construed (neo-)Aristotelian ethic, I argue that play is an important part of the good human life. Like virtue and friendship, play is chosen both for the sake of its importance to the good life and for its own sake. It is partly constitutive of the good life and thus chosen as part of and for the sake of the good life. At the same time, however, play is chosen for its own sake: for what it is distinct from any further ends it might bring about. Thus, play is not autotelic, but nor is it instrumental. Play should be considered, therefore, a constituent value of the good human life.



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Examined Sport: Russell, “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?” Part 2

J.S. Russell’s “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?”, published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport in 1999, presents a theory of sport adjudication that Russell argues better explains sport, the role of officials and umpires, and guides those officials in officiating their sports. Russell’s paper is one of the first explicit attempts to explain and apply interpretivism, one of the central philosophical accounts of sport. This is part two of two episodes on Russell’s paper. Part One.

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Examined Sport: Russell, “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?” Part 1

J.S. Russell’s “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work With?”, published in the Journal of the Philosophy of Sport in 1999, presents a theory of sport adjudication that Russell argues better explains sport, the role of officials and umpires, and guides those officials in officiating their sports. Russell’s paper is one of the first explicit attempts to explain and apply interpretivism, one of the central philosophical accounts of sport. This is part one of two episodes on Russell’s paper.

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I’ll Take That Bet: Gambling and Sport

I am not a gambler: I rarely, if ever, make a ‘friendly’ bet on a game. And it’s been over a decade since I was in Las Vegas and made any kind of legal bet. I don’t even make out NCAA brackets.

This is not for any moral reasons against gambling, I just don’t like to lose money. Indeed, gambling in itself seems morally unproblematic. The moral arguments, such as they are, against gambling are rather weak and tendentious. It is true that many religions have prohibitions against gambling, and so the religiously observant might regard the failure to obey such prohibitions as a vice. But that puts gambling, in my mind, in a similar position to bacon (mmmmm bacon). Observant Jews and Muslims might regard the eating of bacon as a violation of their religious commandments and that violation an immorality of sorts, but bacon itself seems beside the point. It is the keeping of the religious commandment that is important (and the failure that is regarded as sinful). Those who do not keep kosher or halal are not immoral for eating bacon.

Like many otherwise innocuous activities, there can be harmful consequences to overindulgence or dependency (again, bacon is a good analogy here). Behaving irresponsibly or impulsively seems to be the cause of the problem in such cases, not gambling as such. I don’t want to trivialize the negative consequences for those with gambling problems. The response, though, should not be moralizing, but psychological. We ought not to turn those people into “sinners” or criminals, but work to help them solve their problems.

Much like arguments for the prohibition of other ‘vices’ like drinking or sex, the arguments against gambling are most often based on a supposed link between gambling and the debasement of one’s moral character. Somehow gambling itself turns us into bad individuals, encouraging the uglier parts of ourselves. I am skeptical of such a causal link in part because it ignores any difference between use and abuse. That is, sex, drugs, gambling can all be abused and engaged in with harmful and deleterious effects. But they can also be used in unproblematic and beneficial ways. Given how long these sort of ‘vices’ have been a part of human civilization and how many people casually partake in them, it’s hard to believe the “abuse” should be the dominant paradigm here.

Gambling and Sports

The issue of gambling and sport is more complicated. Whatever the status of the moral arguments about individual gambling, there are real worries about the integrity of sport. There is great concern that gambling interests would interfere with and corrupt games. Fears of match-fixing, shaving points, and broken knee-caps abound. These are legitimate and well-founded concerns. There is a history of such activities in the US and around the world. No fan of sport wants that.

Aside from important legal and jurisprudencial issues resulting from the recent US Supreme Court decision in Murphy v NCAA, there will be a radical change to the relationship of the professional leagues and gambling. As more states will likely follow New Jersey and legalize sports gambling, the leagues will find ways to profit from gambling. The most obvious and likely immediate source of revenue will be advertising and co-branding, but there is no doubt that they are working on other creative ways to tap into the gambling dollars.

As the US moves forward with what will likely be a huge increase in legal betting, it is important to maintain the integrity of the leagues and games (and kneecaps).

There are a few main reasons why I think legalization will not undermine the integrity of sport.

First, the leagues do not want to be seen as turning into the WWE. Any whiff of fixing or seeming appearance of interference will be met by the leagues harshly. The have strong incentives to keep such interference out.

Second, legalized gambling is run by casino and gaming companies, not mafioso and gangsters. Steve Wynn is not Michael Corleone. There is little reason to watch or gamble on a sporting event that is fixed, so these businesses have a strong incentives to keep at arm’s length from the games themselves. The cynic might say: at least appear like they are arm’s length. But the easiest way to appear as though one is not interfering is not to interfere. And in most cases, the house wins regardless of the outcome of the game so there is little point in trying to interfere. In other words, the payout for such interference is not worth the risk.

(an aside: there will be individual actors for whom the payout is worth the risk. Such individuals already exist and take that risk today. If anything legalization will further marginalize these individual actors as they get pushed aside by legitimate organizations.)

Lastly, legalization reduces hypocrisy. Captain Renault is not the only one shocked to find gambling going on. Illegal gambling of all kinds is widespread and persistent. Anyone who wants to gamble can easily, I assume, find a bookie and place a bet. Betting odds for games are widely reported on all major media outlets. The hypocrisy of the current system does far more to undermine morality and respect for law than threats posed by legal gambling.

While I think gambling should be legal, I also think that strict fraud regulations should be enforced. Anyone in the leagues involved in any match-fixing or other gambling interference should be held liable and prosecuted for fraud. Since these individuals hold a kind of trust from the fans, sponsors, and others that they aren’t going to fix games or the like, then violating that trust is the violation of a kind of fiduciary duty. The violation of this duty might then lead to the violator being civilly or even, in egregious cases, criminal liable. This is one way to help keep such interference limited.

Be it drugs, gambling, prostitution, or alcohol, prohibition doesn’t stop the behavior it is prohibiting. It merely pushes it into the shadowy darkness of a criminal underworld. Most of the harmful consequences of these activities are caused by the illegal status, not the activity itself. In general, then, sunlight is the best antiseptic for corruption. Transparency of law keeps things above board and away from the criminal organizations. Of course, legalization is not a panacea. There will be problems. But legal sports betting is better than illegal sports betting. The problems can more easily be identified and dealt with—and without breaking kneecaps.


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Defining Sport Reviewed

When a book you edited gets a positive review in the top journal in your field, a little tooting of your own horn is justified. So: Toot! Toot!

The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport published a review by Steven Piper of my Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines (Lexington Books). If you have access to the journal, you can read the review online.

Here’s the closing paragraph:

There is an endearing honesty of endeavour to this book that renders it difficult not be persuaded by many of the claims made by its various contributors. That is not say that this book is naïve or lacking philosophical ‘heft’, indeed, quite the opposite is true. One of the main strengths of this book is that it has achieved something fundamentally necessary for any philosophical work to be successful: it has taken complex concepts and ideas and distilled them into something palatable enough for students to understand, but robust enough for scholars to refer to. It has also successfully taken work by philosophers fundamental to the discipline (Suits, Meier and Huizinga most notably) and found fresh ways to build on their fundamental ideas and concepts. This book is a fine addition to the philosophy of sport, and will ensure that students and academics alike will continue to engage in the questions that surround any attempt to define what sport is or could be for years to come.

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Examined Sport: Peter Arnold, “Three Approaches Toward an Understanding of Sportsmanship”

Peter Arnold’s 1984 article “Three Approaches Toward an Understanding of Sportsmanship” looks at sportsmanship as a social union, as the promotion of pleasure, and as a form of altruism. Arnold also criticizes James Keating’s view of sportsmanship that was discussed in a previous episode.

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ASU: Sports Ethics and Philosophy of Sport

The ASU Schedule of Classes for Summer and Fall is now available. I am teaching two sport philosophy related classes.

Fall C Session: PHI 394: Sports Ethics

MWF 1150 AM – 1240 PM TEMPE BAC-201

Course Description:

A study of moral issues in sports, including but not limited to the nature and application of sportsmanship, the prohibition of performance enhancing drugs, ethical issues in the economics of sports, the role of violence, and fandom.

Tentative Reading List

Unit: Philosophy and Sport: What is ‘sport’ and why study it?

  • Heather Reid, “Socrates at the Ballpark” Baseball and Philosophy. Edited by Eric Bronson. Open Court: Chicago, 2004, pp 273-283.

Unit: Sport and Society: What is the social impact of sport?

  • Jonathan Eig, “Some Good Colored Players” Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. Simon and Schuster: New York, 2007, pp 26-34.
  • Jane Leavy, “The King of the Jews,” Sandy Koufax. Perennial: New York, 2002, pp 167- 174, 193-4.
  • The 16th Man, Dir. Clifford Bestall. ESPN 30 for 30, 2010. Film.

Unit: What is sportsmanship?

  • James Keating, “Sportsmanship as a Moral Category,” Ethics 75, No 1, 1964, pp 25-35.
  • Randolph Feezell, “Sportsmanship,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol 13, 1986, pp 1-13.

Unit: Is it ethical to run up the score?

  • Nicholas Dixon, “On Sportsmanship and ‘Running Up the Score”; Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol 19, 1992, pp 1-13.
  • Randolph Feezell, “Sportmanship and Blowouts: Baseball and Beyond” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol 26, 1999, pp 68-78.

Unit: Is it wrong to foul?

  • Fraleigh, Warren. “Intentional rules violations — One more time,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 30, No, 2, 2003, pp 166-176.
  • Simon, Robert. The ethics of strategic fouling: A reply to Fraleigh,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 32, No. 1, 2005, pp 87-95.

Unit: Is competition moral?

  • Kretchmar, R. Scott. “In Defense of Winning,” Sports Ethics: An Anthology. Ed. By Jan Boxill. Blackwell Publishing, 2003. pp130-135.
  • Simon, Robert. “The Critique of Competition in Sports,” Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport. 2nd Edition. Westview Press: 2004. Pp 19-35.
  • Kohn, Alfie. “Fun and Fitness w/o Competition,” Women’s Sport & Fitness, July/August 1990.

Unit: Violence in Sport: Can fighting or football be justified?

  • Dixon, Nicholas. “A Critique of Violent Retaliation in Sport,” Journal of Philosophy of Sport, Vol 37, No. 1, 2010, pp 1-10.
  • Zakhem, Abe. “The Virtues of a Good Fight: Assessing the Ethics of Fighting in the National Hockey League,” Sports, Ethics and Philosophy, 9, No. 1, 2015, pp 32-46.
  • Russell, J.S. “The Value of Dangerous Sport,” Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 32, No. 1, 2005, pp 1-19.
  • Findler, Patrick, “Should kids play (American) football? Journal of Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 42, No. 3, 2015, pp 443-462.
  • Pam Sailors, “”Personal Foul: an evaluation of moral status of football,” Journal of Philosophy of Sport, 42, No. 2, 2015, pp 269-286.

Unit: Should performance-enhancing drugs be banned?

  • Savulescu, Julian, Roger Crisp, and John Devine, “Oxford Debate: Performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport” University of Oxford, 2014.
  • Simon, Robert ” “Good competition and drug-enhanced performance,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 11, 1984, pp 6-13.
  • Hemphill, “Performance enhancement and drug control in sport: ethical considerations,” Sport in Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2009, pp 313-326.

Unit: How should we balance fairness versus opportunity?

  • English, Jane. “Sex Equality in Sports” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol 7, No 3, 1978, pp 269-277
  • Sailors, Pam. “Mixed Competition and Mixed Messages.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Vol. 41, No. 1, 2014, pp 65–77.
  • Edwards, S.D. “Should Oscar Pistorius be excluded from the 2008 Olympic Games,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 2, No. 2: 112-125.
  • Burkett, Brendan; Mike McNamee & Wolfgang Potthast. “Shifting boundaries in sports technology and disability: equal rights or unfair advantage in the case of Oscar Pistorius?” Disability & Society 26, No. 5, 2011, pp 643-654.

Unit: What is the role of money in sport?

  • Duncan, Albert. “Does A-Rod Deserve So Much Money? Yes” Baseball and Philosophy. Ed. by Eric Bronson. Open Court: Chicago, 2004. pp 297-299.
  • Shuman, Joel. “Does A-Rod Deserve So Much Money? No,” Baseball and Philosophy. Ed. by Eric Bronson. Open Court: Chicago, 2004. pp 300-302.
  • Collins-Cavanaugh, Daniel. “Does the Salary Cap Make the NFL a Fairer League?” Football and Philosophy. Ed. Michael Austin. The University Press of Kentucky, 2008. pp 165-180.
  • Sheehan, Joe. “Salary Cap,” Baseball Prospectus. Feb. 19, 2002.

Unit: Is being a fan moral?

  • Dixon, Nicholas. “The Ethics of Supporting Sports Teams,” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 18, No. 2, 2001, pp 149-158.
  • Mumford, Stephen, “The Philosophy of Sports Fans,” PhilosophyFile, The University of Nottingham, 2011, video.
  • Aikin, Scott F., “Responsible Sports Spectatorship and the Problem of Fantasy Leagues” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 27, No. 2, 2013, pp 195-206.

Summer Session A Online: PHI 394 Philosophy of Sport

Course Description:

An inquiry into philosophical issues in sport. Topics and readings will vary, but may include: the nature and definition of sport, the mind-body relationship in sport, epistemological issues in sport technology and officiating, and the aesthetics of sport. Since “Sports Ethics” examines ethical issues in sport, this course will not primarily deal with ethical issues.

Here’s the tentative reading list:

Reid, Heather. An Introduction to Philosophy of Sport. Rowan & Littlefield (2012)

Definition of Sport

  • Bernard Suits, “The Elements of Sport” in Osterhoudt, Robert G. The Philosophy of Sport: a Collection of Original Essays. Springfield, Ill., Thomas, 1973
  • Loy, John. “The Nature of Sport: A Definitional Effort”, Quest, 01 May 1968, Vol.10(1), p.1-15
  • McBride, Frank. “Toward A Non Definition Of Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 2, 1975, pp. 4–11.
  • Schieman, Kevin. “Hopscotch Dreams: Coming to Terms with the Cultural Significance of Sport,” in Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines. Ed. Shawn E. Klein. Lanham, Lexington Books, 2016.

Sport and Play

  • Suits, Bernard. “Words On Play.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 4, 1977, pp. 117–131.
  • Roochnik, David. “PLAY AND SPORT.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 2, 1975, p. 36.

Sport and Games

  • Suits, Bernard. “Tricky Triad: Games, Play, and Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 15, 1988, p. 1.
  • Meier, Klaus V. “Triad Trickery: Playing With Sport and Games.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 15, no. 1, 1988, pp. 11–30.

Sport and Art

  • Cordner, Christopher. “Differences Between Sport and Art.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 15, no. 1, 1988, pp. 31–47.
  • Kaelin, E. F. “The Well-Played Game: Notes Toward an Aesthetics of Sport.” Quest , vol. 10, no. 1, 1968, pp. 16–29.

Mind and Body

  • Wertz, S. K. “The Knowing In Playing.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 5, no. 1, 1978, pp. 39–49.
  • Breivik, Gunnar. “Zombie-Like Or Superconscious? A Phenomenological And Conceptual Analysis Of Consciousness In Elite Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 2012, pp. 1–22.

Officiating and Rules

  • Russell, Js. “Are Rules All an Umpire Has to Work with?” Journal of The Philosophy Of Sport, vol. 26, 1999, pp. 27–49.
  • Dixon, Nicholas. “Canadian Figure Skaters, French Judges, and Realism in Sport.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 30, no. 2, 2003, pp. 103–116.
  • Collins, Harry. “The Philosophy of Umpiring and the Introduction of Decision-Aid Technology.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 37, no. 2, 2010, pp. 135–146.
  • Mcfee, Graham. “Fairness, Epistemology, and Rules: A Prolegomenon to a Philosophy of Officiating?” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, vol. 38, no. 2, 2011, pp. 229–253.

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Tonight: Nature and Value of Play (Central APA/IAPS)

Tonight! Come and join us to discuss the nature and value of play.

The IAPS meeting at the next Central APA (in Chicago) features Stephen Schmid. In “Reconsidering Autotelic Play” (JPS 36.2)  and “Beyond Autotelic Play,” (JPS 38.2),  Schmid challenges the view that play necessarily is an autotelic activity and presents his own view of the nature and value of play. The APA panel will revisit and discuss the arguments and ideas raised in these papers. Hope to see you there!

Time: Thursday, Feb 22, 7:40 pm – 10:40 pm.

Topic: The Nature and Value of Play

Chair: Shawn E. Klein (Arizona State University)

Speaker: Stephen E. Schmid (University of Wisconsin–Rock County)


  • Adam Berg (University of North Carolina at Greensboro)
  • Colleen English (Penn State Berks)
  • Francisco Javier Lopez Frias (Pennsylvania State University)

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Examined Sport: Randolph Feezell, “Sportsmanship”

In his 1986 article, “Sportsmanship,” Randolph Feezell argues that James Keating’s classic account of sportsmanship goes too far in radically separating sports and athletics. In this episode, we examine Feezell’s criticism of Keating and then look at Feezell’s account of sportsmanship as a virtue between seriousness and non-seriousness.

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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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