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Americans Are Not Barbarians For Enjoying Football, Even If It Is Dangerous


Several months ago, my son and I were up late one Saturday, and found ourselves watching “Gored,” a documentary on Antonio Barrera, history’s most-gored bullfighter. It was in Spanish (which we do not speak) and I couldn’t get the subtitles to work. So we enjoyed it purely as a visual experience, watching the massive beasts charging while Barrera threw himself into the path of danger.

Reading up on the documentary the next day, I learned that the director, Ido Mizrahy, saw Barrera as a good subject in part because he isn’t known for his grace and captivating beauty. Mizrahy wanted to give people, “an honest look at the ancient spectacle that would fully demonstrate its brutality,” choosing an unlovely matador to ensure that “there would be no risk of the viewer getting caught up in the romance or artistry of it.”

If that was truly the goal, it was a massive fail with my son, who firmly concluded that bullfighting is awesome. Even a skeptic like Mizrahy, purportedly anti-brutality, was unable to film this dramatic sport without lighting boyish imaginations on fire.

Danger For the Win

Boys are fascinated by danger, of course. I have four, so I’ve had occasion to learn a lot about climbers, base jumpers, and tamers of dangerous animals. We read about daring military feats, rescue swimmers, and the horrific executions of the martyrs. They also love the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome. Even now, I hear them in the living room arguing about which one gets to play the Thracian today.

I thought about all of this as I read Jonathan Tobin’s recent article suggesting that fans of American football should stop watching for moral reasons, given convincing medical evidence that football puts players at high risk of developing C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease that could blight their later years. Tobin shames Christians and patriotic Americans for allowing healthy men to suffer brain damage for their entertainment. He asks: “How long can an activity that may carry with it the likelihood of an awful life-shortening ailment continue to hold the imagination of the country?”

As a longtime football fan, I’m not unconcerned about this. I approve of the league’s efforts to improve the safety of the game, though I realize there may be limits to what they can do. I’ve reflected as well on whether I want my sons playing a sport with these kinds of attendant dangers.

Still, I think Tobin’s analysis is lopsided. It’s seems evident that he would not mourn the death of football. If you presume that football has no (moral) value as such, you’re in a poor position to evaluate these tradeoffs.

On the Side of the Mollycoddles

Tobin’s distaste for football comes through loud and clear. He refers to Americans as “obsessed” with the sport, and wonders whether they will “continue to spend considerable portions of their lives glued to TV sets” in light of the news about C.T.E. Tell us what you really think, Mr. Tobin!

The article does quote Teddy Roosevelt’s proclamation that efforts to ban football are for those who would turn out “mollycoddles instead of men.” Evidently Tobin is on the side of the mollycoddles, quickly concluding that “a decent respect for incontrovertible medical evidence is not proof of moral decline.”

A decent respect for science requires us to acknowledge that football players run a non-trivial risk of damaging their brains. That’s not Roosevelt’s point, though. He thought football had virtues that went beyond issues of physiological health. It’s not mere “bluster” to suggest that sports can be salutary for young men, helping them to build character and maturity.

Sports may also be good for the health of a nation, since the widespread celebration of thumotic excellence can ground national solidarity and inspire other kinds of greatness. Recall the Duke of Wellington’s famous statement about the Battle of Waterloo being “won on the playing fields of Eton.” Was that also mere “bluster,” or is it a real insight about how sport can develop vital moral qualities in young men?

The natural (especially masculine) attraction to danger should not be endlessly indulged. It needs to be disciplined and channeled, lest it become violent and rash. Properly developed, though, this can be an integral part of virtuous adulthood, and especially manhood. The obvious way to do this is through sport.

Anyone for Tennis?

The Eton quote naturally raises another possibility: couldn’t we transition our attentions to other sports that don’t incur such a serious risk of head trauma? They didn’t play American football at Eton, after all. Why can’t we celebrate thumotic excellence through some other sport?

Over the long run, maybe we will. If parents start switching their sons from football to other sports, presumably the dollars and star appeal will trickle in another direction. That might ultimately be for the best, though it’s not a sure thing. All sports are not equal, and all do not embody the same excellences.

I have nothing against tennis or golf, but those sports cannot replace football, which brilliantly combines high-level strategy, intricate teamwork, and raw physical power. No other modern sport can quite measure up to football for simulating warfare. Beyond that, football is a great American tradition, and traditions by nature are not the sort of thing one can simply choose to replace.

Football’s Good Isn’t Just in the Money

Although he doesn’t think the sport should be banned, Tobin laments the allure of fame and fortune, which will sorely tempt any young athlete (but especially ones from non-privileged backgrounds) to put his brain at risk. This, presumably, is why he would like fans to stop watching. If the fans give up on football, young men won’t be tempted to play. And isn’t it somewhat exploitative to get your thrills from watching poor kids throw each other to the ground, if you wouldn’t want your own sons doing the same?

Consider how much good that sport has done for so many former players, at all levels of the game.

I would answer that Tobin is overlooking the enormous good that football has done, not just for the elite athletes, but also for more ordinary boys, especially from hard-luck backgrounds, who found a lifeline to order and discipline in their football team. Many teachers, school counselors, and pastors have reflected on how important sports can be for enabling troubled boys to pull themselves together.

Those boys needn’t all become stars; in fact, they’re likely better off if they don’t. (It’s hard to manage fame and fortune with grace when you’re 23 and lacking a decent home and support structure.) But the experience of playing football teaches kids about work, discipline, and being part of a team. Those lessons may set some up for a much more successful life than they would otherwise have had, knocks to the head notwithstanding.

Tennis and golf aren’t going to accomplish this same end, at least not for very many people. Even basketball has less potential in this regard, because the teams are so much smaller. Football really is extremely good for this purpose, as a physically demanding team sport, which taps into a long American tradition. Before we start shaming fans for enjoying a hard-hitting sport, consider how much good that sport has done for so many former players, at all levels of the game.

Football Is Not Barbaric, It’s Heroic

Americans are currently having a conversation about the risks and rewards of football. Up to a point, that’s good. Brain damage is no laughing matter, and C.T.E. can precipitate real tragedy, as when beloved linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012. Maybe Americans will decide in the end that they’d rather shift attention to a different sport. That’s something we need to work out organically, over time.

In the meanwhile, we should insist vociferously that scientists will not be making this decision for us. They’ve given us relevant information, but as Roosevelt aptly pointed out, the scientific evidence cannot be dispositive when moral questions are in play. Football involves some danger. Physical danger is an organic component of some thumotic sports. Even if the danger is non-trivial, there are clearly distinctions to be drawn between sports like football (where we do make real efforts to avoid and mitigate the physiological harms), and gladiatorial contests where maiming and killing was actually the goal. We are not barbarians for enjoying this superb sport, which has done so much to develop and display thumotic excellence.

Whatever the future of football, it is a proud American tradition. Its players should not be pitied, and its fans should not be shamed.