The Immorality of Football

I make no secret of the fact that I have no love for football, or any organized sport. I can’t get into them. Friends have tried. Girlfriends have tried; so for the guys out there, you don’t have a prayer of convincing me. Don’t even bother trying.

But I’m about to look like a fan compared to one Tom Krattenmaker, writing at USA Today about how watching the Super Bowl is immoral. He describes football as equivalent to a tyrannical government forcing children to kill each other as punishment for a previous generation’s rebellion. No, really, he compared it to The Hunger Games.

Fallacy Ref Divine Fallacy

We Catholics get insulted frequently for trying to “impose” our morality on other people. Since all that amounts to is doing what this guy is trying, namely convincing someone of the strength of his position (though, and pardon me for the distinction, he does it badly), I feel quite comfortable in weighing in on this particular argument. After all, as a Catholic, I know all about imposing morality, right? And as a decided non-fan, I can’t be accused of having even a chihuahua in this fight.

This is a full fisk, so you don’t have to read the article first. It’ll all be reproduced here. 

There is mounting evidence and public awareness that playing football is bad for your brain.

So is hockey. Not a lot of outcry there. Have you seen hockey, Mr. Krattmaker? Football is cricket compared to that.

If we’re about to start proclaiming the immorality of activities based on how hazardous it is for your health when done wrong, then I want to know your thoughts on participating in dangerous pastimes like driving.

And if we’re going to start condemning things for being bad for one’s brain, we might have to add your articles to the list. I’ve only read the one, but really. Do you realize how much work it’s going to take to regrow those brain cells?

And now, to dramatize the statistics and grim anecdotes about ex-players succumbing to dementia and early deaths, we have Concussion — a major Hollywood movie starring Will Smith.

If Hollywood is a barometer of truth, then I’m still waiting on Will Smith the fighter pilot to help defeat an alien invasion. Will Smith the football player can wait.


But is this having any effect on our country’s passion for the fascinating, violent sport that holds our attention more than any other, by far?

A new survey released in the run-up to the Super Bowl this Sunday suggests yes — and no. More Americans than ever before say they would not let their sons play football. Yet football remains our favorite spectator sport (it’s not even close) and there is nothing to indicate that’s about to change.

First, I think you forgot a word in there. I think you meant “nothing else is even close.” And that’s quite true, and lamentable in its own way, though not for anything about brain injuries. I’m of the Greg Dean school of kids and sports:

Real Life sports 20120104_2797

See, I remember being a kid. I remember being a rambunctious kid. I wasn’t nearly as rambunctious as many of my friends, and yet I still managed to receive a staggering number of injuries. Being a kid is pretty dangerous, and it gets more dangerous if you wrap those kids in plastic bubbles and try to shelter them; they’re going to have to deal with it eventually. Pain, both physical and mental, happens throughout our lives. I’d much rather have any kid of mine try and get hurt, rather than be afraid of being hurt and never try.

So at the same time that more and more of us would not let our own sons play, we apparently have no qualms about watching while other people’s sons risk brain damage to entertain us on the fields of the NFL.

You know, you’re right. We shouldn’t be watching little kids fight each– wait. They’re not little kids. NFL rules require someone to be three years out of high school before they’re eligible for consideration. Since that is functionally a 21 age limit, you might as well be describing the immorality of alcohol based on how kids are allowed to drink booze.


The new Public Religion Research Institute survey shows that in just one year, there has been a 9 percentage point rise in the number of people who would not let their own kids don the helmet and shoulder pads. When PRRI polled Americans on this question last year, 22% said they’d keep Johnny off the gridiron; now the figure is 31%.

This bodes ill for football’s long-term viability as a venue for boys and young men to chase athletic glory and develop character, teamwork skills and the like — benefits of football long touted to justify its popularity despite the fact that you tend to get hurt playing it.

My sport of choice when I was a teen and young adult, before I became handicapped, was karate. Now, those two parts of my life — the one with cane and wheelchair, and the one before it — are not related, except that it’s very hard to spar when you have arthritis and fibromyalgia. However, do not for one minute assume that you can’t get hurt playing it. The word “martial” isn’t attached to “art” just because the word looks pretty.

And you don’t even have to go that far. Baseball, basketball, non-American football (also known as soccer), hockey, rugby, and many others have their own dangers. Some of those sports have more physical contact and many have less protective gear than the NFL requires. The only reason to focus on American football is precisely because it is so popular. After all, the only thing more Americans have either participated in or been spectators for is dodgeball — oh, wait. That was the last “for the children” sports crusade.

Dodgeball death sport

As a spectator experience, however, football stands taller than ever in American culture. The television ratings of last year’s Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots set a record — not just for a football game but for any TV program of any type. This is not only a Super Bowl phenomenon, the product of viewing parties, halftime spectacles and the best the advertising industry has to offer. As USA TODAY reported in November, the dozen most-watched TV “shows” last fall were regular-season NFL games.

Again, I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing either, but I don’t think it means it’s a bad thing. Just because I can’t understand the fascination doesn’t mean I have to hate it. I know, I know; that’s contrary to the modern understanding that one must either be completely for it or completely against it and anyone who associates with it to the third degree of separation.

When it comes to football, “show” is definitely the right word. Surprisingly, few of us have actually played the sport. Unlike the other popular athletic pastimes in America, football is played almost entirely by males, which halves the potential participation rates. Of those surveyed by PRRI, a skimpy 12% report having played football in their youth, in contrast with the 27% who report having played baseball or softball.

And I have only anecdotal evidence for it, but I’m pretty sure even fewer people who like hockey have played it.

Well, except for Canadians. And maybe Minnesotans, but that’s basically Canada too. (Hang on, I have this weird feeling . . . like my Minnesotan and my Canadian friends are thinking very dark thoughts at me for that comment . . .)

Canaday hockey babysitting


Juxtapose the sport’s massive spectator popularity with our growing knowledge of its dangers, and with the reality that most of the men playing in the NFL are black and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds, and you end up with a creepy feeling.

The linked article uses two data points to prove this. You can read it for yourself, but here’s the summary. First: players rarely talk about being from wealthy backgrounds, and instead we normally hear about humble beginnings. Therefore, a vast majority of players were originally poor.


Even if no player would ever omit being better off than their fellows, either their neighbors or fellow players, this assumes that you would get equal reporting. Everyone prefers the underdog, rags-to-riches story. Add that the celebrity in the story is famous for doing something that requires a lot of hard work, and not simply inheriting something or getting preferential treatment, and you’ve got a great tale that overshadows any players who might want to talk about how they grew up in a mansion.

The second data point in the article Krattenmaker links to is that roughly two-thirds of the NFL roster is African-American. Somehow, that’s a bad thing. Also somehow, if you’re black, you’re automatically poor and can’t do anything on your own.


Now, I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed, nor do I care to look closely. I’ve thought more about football while writing this article than I probably have since I was complaining about it interrupting my normal pastimes last Super Bowl season. However, every time I see people enjoying a football game, they care far more about the colors someone is wearing rather than how deep their skin tone might be.


I’m guessing, Mr. Krattenmaker, that you have no idea of the struggle it was to get minorities involved in football, or sports in general. Actually, let’s not even stop at blacks; let’s go right for the other anti-football narrative’s jugular and talk about the struggle to get Native Americans recognized in the sport. (I haven’t read that book yet, but it’s been highly recommended to me.)

At least I do, which is why I stopped watching the NFL three years ago and why, despite relapsing during last year’s playoffs, I have resumed my football abstinence this season despite retaining full knowledge of the fact that it offers the best spectating of all our sports (notwithstanding the incessant commercials). Seriously, what other sport combines the athleticism, action, strategy, violence, unpredictability and drama in one package?

Karate, judo, taekwondo, jujitsu, shinkendo, Western fencing . . . oh, wait, you probably meant team sports.

(Seriously, watch a regional or national taekwondo tournament from South Korea sometime. Those can be intense.)

In view of the TV ratings, I appear to have little company in my quixotic exit from the crowd of people watching football. That’s not surprising. Football is embedded deep in our culture. Vast amounts of money, passion and loyalty are invested in the game. These will not vanish overnight.

But as the years pass, I suspect qualms like mine will start infiltrating more fans’ heads. More will begin to see the ways in which our football spectating resembles the “sport” perpetrated in The Hunger Games, albeit without the direct killing. More of us realize that what we take to be a “game” that young men “play” is actually not a game, but a path out of poverty pursued mainly by the desperate.

“Mainly by the desperate”? Finish the thought, then. If everyone knows that football is so dangerous that only the desperate would play, then that means that the only reason that the majority of players would sign up would be for the money.

But what that really means, since it’s almost impossible to get drafted if you didn’t play college football, is that you’re saying these players can’t get by based on a college degree. Let’s assume they only got into college because of an athletic scholarship; that still means they have a path to education that is less dangerous than pro football. Why do they go to the NFL, then?

I’m sure it can’t be because they love the game.

As the sports-and-politics columnist Dave Zirin aptly puts it, the day is likely coming when “no one will play this game if they don’t have to. … The pool of players will become smaller and less economically affluent in the years to come. We will then have to reckon with just what the hell it is we are watching every Sunday.”

Or, in the case of more and more of us, what we used to watch on Sunday.

You can move on to whatever you like. You can predict the downfall of football as much as you want. Nothing you have said, however, makes watching this immoral. All you have managed to conclude is that there are some people who are moving on from the game, even as ever-increasing numbers enjoy it. And because there is a tiny minority who agree with you, ergo your point is proven.


Except it isn’t. You have claimed it is immoral, and your only evidence is circumstantial claptrap about some players who used to be poor, and are now paid hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars per year.

Of course, I don’t like football as much as you do, Mr. Krattenmaker. After all, you used to like it, and I never did. So let’s examine things from my own interests. If I had been able to continue with karate and get a six-figure contract, much less seven or eight, would I have done it?

It would have been tempting, but ultimately I’d have hated it. I’d have liked the money, sure. But I never did tournaments. I enjoyed full-contact sparring, testing myself against someone else; I didn’t like playing for points by tournament rules. I could only ever enjoy a point system when having sword duels with Ross (one of our authors here at The Catholic Geeks). When it came to actual karate, there was only one point awarded, and only to the one who didn’t give up first. My sensei tried several times to get me to do tournaments, but I always refused; it would become work, and it would stop being fun.

If there had been a few thousand dollars attached, not as a prize but as a salary, maybe I would have reconsidered. I’ll never know. But I know this: it would have been a job, and it wouldn’t have been something I could enjoy doing for very long.

I don’t enjoy watching football, but I see enough from where I sit that it’s obvious no one would play that game for so long, from high school through college and into the national leagues, if they didn’t want to be there.

So, for all the members of the CG audience, feel free to watch or not watch the Super Bowl this Sunday. There’s nothing immoral about the game. These are adults; even if it were as dangerous as people like Mr. Krattenmaker said, it would be ridiculous to assume they were being taken advantage of. You’d have to also assume they were somehow idiots who don’t know anything about sports injuries.

Go on, enjoy your party, root for your favorite uniform color, and don’t let concern trolls and manufactured outrage get you down.

sontaran superbowl

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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2 Responses to The Immorality of Football

  1. masgramondou says:

    Nice fisking of a stupid article.

    I think you have to be born/raised American to actually believe:
    [Football] offers the best spectating of all our sports (notwithstanding the incessant commercials). Seriously, what other sport combines the athleticism, action, strategy, violence, unpredictability and drama in one package?

    I know a bunch of non-Americans who like watching the sport, including me, but I don’t think any of us would consider it “best” except in the limited way that all those commercial breaks mean you don’t have to worry about having to hold your bladder for 30 minutes lest you miss some critical piece of action.

    American Football with all its pauses and first/second/… downs reminds this non-American of nothing more than the trench warfare of WW1. Now if you want a game without incessant commercial breaks but with all the “athleticism, action, strategy, violence, unpredictability and drama” I suggest you watch one of it’s cousins either Rugby or Gaelic (or Aussie Rules) and learn to pace your beer drinking so you avoid the bladder problem.


    • Never having been interested in those parties (I was at one once as a teen, but just spent the time reading in another room), I never thought about plumbing issues. I suppose that means, logistically, that American football (well, “handegg”) has one advantage for the big viewing party events. The additional breaks mean no long line at the bathroom.


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