With tens of millions of other Americans, I have once again turned my sports-craving attention to the new seasons of the National Football League and NCAA football. While humbled by the first week, I look forward to another successful season of my Cincinnati Bengals, led by Ohio native Joe Burrow. The Bengals and whoever is playing the Pittsburgh Steelers are my two favorite teams. And my qualified loyalties for Notre Dame, Boston College, Duke, the University of Cincinnati and The Ohio State University ebb and flow from week-to-week. But all is not well with my conscience, even as I look forward to watching the next game and rooting for the good guys to crush the bad.
Like last season and the ones before that, my inner conflict about the legitimacy of football and my complicity in its proliferation continues to grow. And because I keep watching, my sense of bad faith also grows apace. I do not have the same sense of unease about the two other team sports I follow closely — baseball and soccer. And I watch cycling races in Europe with a clear conscience and unmitigated pleasure. Why, then, does watching football give me an escalating sense of discomfort?
Where assault is allowed
Unlike any other team sport, the object of football from the defensive side is physically to assault the offensive opponent. The mandate is to find the ball-carrier and forcefully throw him to the ground. The more violent the hit to accomplish that end, the louder the cheer from that team’s supporters. The object of the offensive team is forcefully to restrain the defensive players from accomplishing that assault. In short, the goal from one side is to assault; from the other it is to prevent assault. But both sides agree to the legitimacy of this arrangement. The offensive player consents to being assaulted by the defensive; the defensive to being forcibly restrained. I concede that the intention of the players is not to cause injury, from either side. But the intended actions to accomplish the respective purposes of offensive and defensive players are actions that any reasonable person would expect to result in injuries.
And, of course, contact-related injuries are higher in football than in any other sport. In no other context does playing by the rules have such a high risk of severe or even disabling leg, head, neck or spine injury. Playing football as it is intended is inherently dangerous on every single play from scrimmage. Kickoffs and punts multiply the risk. The NFL and helmet manufacturers have faced billion-dollar lawsuits from former players and their families, claiming permanent and even fatal brain injuries from playing the game precisely as it is meant to be played. And billions of dollars have been disbursed in settlements to resolve those cases.
In none of basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, softball or volleyball (to name a few) is the object of each play to assault the other player. On the contrary, such an action is considered a foul, resulting in a penalty or, in some cases, ejection. But in football, the very purpose of the defensive player is to use as much force as necessary to throw another player to the ground, with express approval of all parties. In this respect, football more resembles boxing or so-called “mixed martial arts” than any other team or individual sport. These are “sports” that I categorically condemn and strongly believe should be banned.
Is it worth the risk?
Outside of these sports, consensual assault is not permitted in American civil law because it is against good public policy. In non-sports related contexts, a party cannot contract to be intentionally assaulted. Indeed, one cannot contract to commit any intentional tort, nor to have one inflicted upon him, whether the damage is to property or person. And if such a contract were entered into, no state or federal court would enforce the contract against the person who subsequently refuses to perform the attack. In some jurisdictions, in fact, it is even illegal to attempt to enter into such a contract, much less to carry out its provision.
But in football, we not only permit such contracts, the harder the attack the louder the cheer of approval. Yes, football has done a great deal in recent years to mitigate the risk. And, yes, injuries occur in all other sports. But these injuries are usually either despite or outside the rules of play, not because of them. Only in football does doing what one is supposed to do pose an inherent, and highly likely, risk of injury.
And yet, I watch and cheer for my favorite teams, right along with those who have no compunction about the risks involved. Is my enjoyment of the game hypocritical? Is my entertainment worth the inherent risk of injury to other human beings, even if they are doing it from their own free will? Is football different from boxing or MMA only by degree, not kind? Are there not plenty of other uses of my leisure time that are more edifying for all involved? These are questions with which I must grapple. And each season, they increase the conflict in my mind.