It is almost that time of year. My favorite time of year. No. Not the Barbarians going back to school. No, not PSL season. Although I LOVE both of those.
No. It is time for Seahawks (Yes, Seattle, I am not changing team loyalties…) training camp, which means that football season is right around the corner. During the last season, I listened to much debate about the Anthem protests with players kneeing to protest police brutality and the treatment of minority communities more generally. The President weighed in and famously condemned the protests, using them as a constant point of tweet storms, a habit which promises to continue into this season. There were concerns about the mostly white ownership and exploitation of mostly minority players especially as stories about concussions and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and concussion related issues were highlighted. It seems that the NFL is profiting off the pain and suffering of its employees and as fans we are supporting that dynamic.
Add to that long standing issues with how the NFL treats (or ignores) highly problematic behavior like drinking (and driving) drug use, gambling, and especially domestic violence and sexual assault. Looking at the list of problematic stories and issues, it is entirely understandable why many friends have opted to boycott NFL football.
As an ethicist, I am not insensitive to these issues; they are important. My question to myself is constantly the ethical one: how can I support such exploitation, violence and complicity with racism and white supremacy?
A couple of things that I have been thinking about. First, we have the classical argument that boycotting will serve to change the behavior of a business, in this case the NFL. Having taught business ethics for 15 years, I am not convinced that anything sort of a massive scale boycott (which would need to include most of the NFL fan base) would be effective in this regard. I understand and support those who boycott based upon principle, but I am not convinced this will change behavior. Former customers and fans have much less leverage witch a company than current ones do.
Second, while there is much discussion of the ethical problems with the NFL (which are serious and I take them seriously), there is much less discussion of the same problems with college football, especially with the large Pac 10 schools. This is what I call (technical philosophical term, y’all!) the So’s Your Momma Argument. Nearly every ethical problem that has been raised against the NFL can also be raised against college football; arguably the ethical severity is even worse as these are college students, not professional athletes under employment contracts. So why the outrage and ethical boycotts in one place and not another? It is, in my view, the exact same (if not worse) ethical dilemma.
Third, football is hardly the only sport which trades on violence and a male dominated, warrior, aggressive dynamic. It is hardly the only sport where we see reprehensible behavior from players and also from management. This is not to say that these issues are not important, but rather is to say that the problem may well be more professional (and college) sports and that culture, as opposed to football per se. Let me be clear, I am not arguing for letting football off the hook, but rather to broaden the ethical discussion.
So where does this leave things? Will I watch football? Will I buy NFL and college gear? Will I support with my money and time what look like manifestly unethical practices? Yes. And I will also use my voice and leverage as a fan and customer to put pressure on NFL ownership to address the issues I highlighted. I will make clear that I support the right of players to protest, if they see that as indicated. If there are fines and consequences to those players, I will contribute towards paying fines and making clear my position as a long time fan. I will also ask the football community to take seriously TBI and other health related issues that players face. Some of these issues are part of the game, but it also seems that there are steps that can be taken to mitigate them and make the sport safer, while still maintaining the integrity of the sport.
In my classes, I talk about football as the contemporary incarnation of Greek phalanx warfare. If that analogy is right (and you might not think it is), that bring with it certain ethical problems, just as war brings with it ethical problems. One position (held by many friends and colleagues I respect) is to say that we should not engage in ,or in any way support, this unethical activity. Another is to say that given that we will engage in this activity, we should try and reduce unnecessary suffering and limit harms to both combatants (players, owners and the sport) and non-combatants (fans, family, community.) That is my position, but I recognize that it is increasingly difficult position to hold. Therefore, I reserve the right to change my mind. #GoHawks #pleasehaveanOffensiveLine