Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral?

Every Sunday, from the kickoff to the final Hail Mary attempt as time expires, Americans glue themselves to their TVs and cheer on their team. Football may not quite be America’s Pastime, but it’s certainly America’s Game.

And yet, the most popular, the most watched, the most lucrative sport in the United States has a serious problem on its hands. People are still watching, buying tickets and expensive satellite TV packages. The NFL is still making money hand over fist. They don’t have a financial problem, they have a moral problem. And, we, the fans, have a moral problem.

Last week four players were suspended for their roles in a bounty program designed to give players bonuses for injuring the opponent. Extra cash if the player left on a stretcher. A couple weeks prior, their coaches were suspended for organizing and allowing such a program.

Last week, Junior Seau, former All-Pro linebacker for the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, killed himself. Seau, 43, shot himself in the chest. He didn’t leave a note, but it’s the same method Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears star, used to kill himself last year. The reason for the chest, and not the head? The brain would be preserved for scientific study.

This after former player Andre Waters shot himself in the head in 2006. The few parts of the brain left intact showed he had a degenerative brain condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Waters was 44 years-old when he killed himself. Dr. Bennet Omalu at the University of Pittsburgh said the brain looked like it belonged to an 85 year-old.

Duerson’s brain was studied and was found to have the same condition. We don’t know for sure yet in Seau’s case, but the smart money’s on him having CTE as well.

I’m not trying to condone anyone’s suicide. Far from it. But, this has become a trend. And it goes far deeper and far wider than the high-profile suicides.

Former players are reporting dementia, memory loss, and other symptoms of serious brain injury often and at early ages. Currently there are over one thousand former players suing the NFL, alleging that league did not do enough to educate players about concussion, nor are they doing enough to help players with their effects.

Players and coaches organizing bounty programs designed to seriously injure other opponents doesn’t help.

Much of this, of course, is between the players and the league. Compensation and education regarding concussions and post-concussion effects really has nothing to do with fans, aside from the fact that we like our institutions to care about this stuff and to act justly.

So, where do we, the fans, come in? Do we come in at all? Are we truly just fans, an audience watching the events unfold? On at least one level, yes. We are certainly spectators. We don’t call plays, we don’t sub players in and out. We don’t make tackles, catch passes, throw blocks.

But, on another level, we are intimately involved with a sport that, it’s becoming increasingly clear, is inherently violent and life-threatening, at least in its current form.

The NFL has recently begun cracking down on headshots. But only certain kinds. Lineman hit each other in the head on nearly every play, for instance. And running backs are generally not protected by the rulebook from blows to the head. In other words, it’s not just the blatant, deafening helmet-to-helmet hits.

Still, the NFL is taking some steps address the issue, and yet they continue to endorse the idea of extending the season, which would only open up players to more abuse.

The players, for their part, are not without blame. They play the game in the first place, and the overriding culture of toughness leads many players to try to play through head injuries, and in some cases even ridicule other players who won’t.

There are, of course, risks to everything we do. If people didn’t take risks, nothing would ever be done. You run the risk of dying every time you leave your house.

But there’s something different about football. Sure, there are risks to everything, but the amount and severity of head injuries to NFL players is becoming overwhelming. Sure, it’s the players who make the choice to play the game, but we make the choice to support it and derive entertainment from it.

Now might be a good time to note that I love watching football. It takes precision, teamwork, immense skill, and it’s just flat out entertaining. And that’s where I start to squirm.

A large part of the NFL’s entertainment value comes from the crushing hits. And it goes beyond just the illegal plays. Players who are legally tackled often get their head smacked against the ground. Linemen are constantly knocking helmets while jostling for position. Fullbacks, tight ends, receivers, and lineman often lead with their heads while blocking for the running back, who routinely takes shots to the head.

And we (you and I and millions of others) sit down every Sunday in the fall and winter and are entertained by it.

My thoughts keep getting drawn back to the gladiator games. The similarities are striking. Many of the gladiators possessed great skill ; they were paragons of man in his physical form. Disciplined. Athletic. Masters. The games themselves were awe-inspiring, entertaining events. They also frequently ended in death.

And while football players aren’t dying right there on the gridiron, they are dying. They are enduring years of brain damage, dementia, and memory loss at a high rate. It was their decision to put themselves in that position, certainly. But it’s our decision to watch them do it.

The Church Father Tertullian writes in De Spectaculis that “the innocent can find no pleasure in another’s sufferings” in reference, in particular, to the gladiator games. Football and the gladiator games are, of course different. The goal of the gladiator was often to kill or maim. And all for the entertainment of the spectator.

Football is different, of course. Despite some of the rhetoric that surrounds the game, the goal is to score more points than the other team (as John Madden will tell you), not to literally kill them. Brain injuries, memory loss, and sometimes death are by-products. And yet, they seem not to be merely accidental, but rather inextricably tied to the sport. The growing trend of brain-damaged players experiencing serious symptoms and even early death is alarming.

To be sure, football is not played in order to inflict brain damage. And we certainly don’t watch football in order to see people get brain damaged. But does there come a point where the harm the sport inflicts, intentionally or not, outweighs the merits of watching it?

Can we take delight in the well-executed block or the legal tackle, knowing what they’re doing over time to the players? Can we cheer the big hits? Marvel at the bone crunching collisions? Can we disapprove of those, but support the game as a whole. How many times can we cringe at a big hit, watch a player get carted off, and mutter, “What a shame. Hope he’s okay.” At what point does a shame become a trend? And at what point does a trend become part of the game?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But the issue, at the very least, deserves discussion. The consequences of playing football, it’s becoming increasingly clear, can be quite serious. Deadly, even.

We’d do well to at least begin to probe what the consequences of watching it might be.

Will you be watching in the fall?


After a brief career restoring timber-framed barns, Christian Tappe worked as an editor for Regnery and ISI Books. He is currently Editor of Saint Benedict Press/TAN Books in Charlotte, NC.

  • Pingback: Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral? | Catholic Canada()

  • JimClark

    It is an interesting discussion.  I personally wonder what part drugs (legal and illegal) have in the situation.  We all know that probably 50% (maybe 100%) of these guys are taking HGH, and additional cocktails of performance enhancing supplements.   That’s where I think the conversation should start.  I mean, the equipment these guys wear, from helmets to pads, are far more protective than what the guys in the 60’s and 70’s were wearing, but you didn’t hear about those guys getting hurt or suffering from concussions like we’re hearing today. 

    And also, if you’re going to call out football, what about Boxing?  What about Hockey?  What about driving a race car at 240 mph?  There are many sports/activities that we use as entertainment that create a high probability for injury or even death.   I think the NFL is doing everything it can to make the game safe.  Boxing on the other hand, leaves many of it’s champions either brain damaged (Ali), or just plain damaged (Mike Tyson).

    •  I don’t think it’s as simple as drugs and equipment. A lot of guys from the ’70s are succumbing to dementia and early death. You didn’t hear about concussions, not because they weren’t getting them, but because they didn’t know and/or care. They just kept going out there.

      If anything, it’s probably better today just because people know they shouldn’t keep trotting out there after getting their bell rung (though that doesn’t stop a lot of guys).

      Maybe the NFL has done everything it can to make the game safe. That’s kind of the point: it seems like it’s simply not a safe game. And so where is that line?

      Sure, throw boxing and hockey and NASCAR in there as well. I’m focusing on the NFL because we have the most information/it’s at the forefront of public debate.

      • JimClark

        “Sure, throw boxing and hockey and NASCAR in there as well. I’m focusing
        on the NFL because we have the most information/it’s at the forefront of
        public debate.”

        The title of your piece asked “Is watching football immoral?”  I understand that it’s a hot topic right now, but my point was more along the lines of why single out something that is clearly not the most egregious offender from a moral perspective. 

        It’s not as egregious as boxing because the point of boxing is literally to knock out the other person.  That is not the point of any play in the NFL.  I am not a hockey fan, so I can’t speak with authority, but I believe that just about every hockey game has a fight were they try to bloody each other (they throw off their gloves in order to inflict pain on each other).  I’ve heard many hockey fans say they watch hockey “to see the fights”.  Again, there is no play in the NFL designed to intentionally injure the opponent.  

        My secondary point was that you don’t see boxing or hockey doing anything to remedy that serious injury that is inflicted on the participants.   Conversely,  the NFL is being proactive in it’s safety measures for the players.  But maybe you could do a follow up article asking if watching boxing or hockey is immoral… that would make me happy, because I ain’t gonna stop watching football.  🙂

        • I think he didn’t mention boxing because (at least in the U.S.) boxing is not very popular anymore.  Back when it was extremely popular, the 1960s Catholic Encyclopedia had a whole article about whether boxing was morally justifiable or not.  The article made no firm conclusion but leaned toward the negative.

      • Tylermcatee

        I think calling out possible steroid use is entirely legitimate.  When I heard about Seaus suicide, my first thought was “possible depression from roid use?”  My second thought was “Oh, wait, the big ‘debate’ now is head injuries so no one in the media will question roids, but instead we’ll hear all sorts of speculation about brain damage related to his suicide.” 
        If football can be played with men intending only to bring down the opposing player and not intend to physically damge him, but merely be willing to put up with the unfortunate side-effect that he sometimes get injured, then the sport can totally be played/watched in good conscience.  That’s why, I argue, the cracking down on bounties is a good thing, whereas the “brushing the QBs helmet calls” (I’m not kidding I’ve heard that exact verbage from a ref explaining a call: Packers/seahawks 06) is excessive.  Also, because man is a rational creature, his ability to think is a basic human good that ought to be protected.  Therefore, I feel comfortable watching the NFL knowing that the league is legitmately adjusting the rules to eliminate the plays that more typically cause head injuries (helmet to helmet hits).

        • The suicides could be linked to roids as well, that’s true, but here I’m going off just he studies done linking the CTE to their conditions.

          Agree with cracking down on bounties, head shot rules, etc. The NFL’s continued push for a longer season, on the other hand, to me signals that they’re not overly serious about player safety.

          The main thing that concerns me are not really the illegal hits, the cheap shots. Those can be legislated out. It’s the constant collisions that over time cause serious damage.

          Like you said, there’s intent and then there’s the side effects, but at what point do the seriousness of the side effects outweigh the good?

    • Lizzie

      It has been known for decades that professional football players have a shorter life expectancy than the average person.   All the additional pads, helmets, etc. only make the problem worse.  They give the player an illusion of protection that is false.  It would be better if they just manned up and played like Rugby players.

    • rufey

      If performance enhancing supplements were causing brain injuries of that magnitude, then you would also see it in sports like cycling, baseball, etc that are known for doping, but have no contact. And you don’t. There is science behind this, proven brain trauma in even high school football players who have had multiple hits. The theory now is that the hits over the years causing non-concussive injuries add up, not just the single hard hits.

  • Rod

    There are a lot more important things to worry Catholics about like Cardinal Wuerl’s nonreaction to Georgetown’s Commencement speaker -Secretary Sebelius. Barry O might have a job for you at the Nanny State!

    • JohnOHerron

       As Catholics, we are both able to worry about more than one thing and able to distinguish between things the common man should concern himself with and the things the government should concern itself with.  I think you’ll find support for these principles in various Church documents.

  • Woody

    No, it is NOT immoral to watch, cheer for or play the game.  Why don’t you do the numbers and find out since the beginning of football, in America, how many of the players, at all levels, commit suicide because of head injury FROM THE GAME.  Interesting that Duerson, Seau and Waters all played defense and Duerson and Waters were defensive backs.  My take is that depression plays a bigger role in these poor souls lives than the fact they played football.   Now go out and give me 20 laps, you complainer!

  • Watching any sport, especially the NFL, is like going to the ancient Roman games including gladiatorial events.  We still like brutality and watching people get hit!!

    • lroy77

      Swimming brutal? People rarely get hit with with ski poles (okay they fall and break some bones), figure skating…you can fall on your caboose and can slice your partner with the blades but that is not exactly violent. Don’t put ALL sports into the same category. There are many sports that have a low violence rating, and most of the injuries is caused by lack of skill than players beating each others’ brains out.

    • JimClark

      Carl, you made me think a funny thought… so I had to share it:

      “Tiger lines up for a 4 foot put to win the Masters… a hush comes over the crowd.   He stands motionless over the ball.  He begins his back stroke, and OH SNAP!  Out of nowhere Phil Mickelson crushes him into the green.  What a great tackle by Mickelson!  Tiger shanks the putt, and Mickelson goes on to win another green jacket.”

      All sports really are too violent.  🙂

  • I think this is a very
    interesting and necessary discussion although there may be more hope to be
    gleaned from the ability of the American public to discern the nuances between
    American popular sports than Mr. Tappe indicates.

    For starters I believe baseball
    (a much more civil and thought provoking sport) is watched and attended by more
    people, which would seem a fair way to gauge our “most popular”
    sport. So there’s hope. In fact, most MLB franchises out-draw both the football
    and basketball franchises where a city has all three. In addition among
    professional sports football salaries are among the lowest (although not low by
    any means). Baseball, basketball, soccer and even cricket are on average higher
    paying sports.

    My point being perhaps the
    American public, or at least a large portion of us, are more discerning than
    you give us credit for. More likely our sports preferences may divide us along
    familiar lines.

    To quote George Will,
    “Football combines the two worst features of modern American life, it’s
    violence punctuated by committee meetings. In addition, football demonstrated
    the manic division of labor that makes life confusing and I should think

    We are more and more divided by
    those who appreciate and understand these subtleties and those who don’t.

    • Dgpregent

      This takes away from Mr. Tappe’s point and is off base to boot. The largest baseball stadium is the Dodger’s, checking in at 81st on Amercia’s biggest stadiums. Baseball may have greater season attendance, not hard to do with nearly ten times the games. Attendance per event football, whether college or pro, crushes any American sport. As far as salaries are concerned football’s are the lowest because their union is the weakest. Look at NFL revenues VS other sports- not too close. The dollars follow the viewer and football obviously has them (top ten TV events all time, all football- the list could go for days).

      It is an interesting point that the modern American fan is drawn to displays of violence (in baseball’s case power). The rise of MMA also speaks to this.

      I respect Mr. Tappe’s arguments but ultimately agree with OHerron. We all have our place.

  • janinep

    Football has moved away from being a sport and has become more of a cultist activity. Some people worship the sport more than they worship the Lord. I can’t tell you how many Sundays I heard the men at church make jokes about how they’d rather be home watching football. Pretty much anything that gets between you and the Lord is a sin, but, as the article points out, football is actually violent. I’d like to see it put in its proper place … not as a business or a competitive sport, but as a fun pastime for running around in the back yard.

  • Pingback: Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral? | Crisis … | Watch the NFL Online for Free()

  • Mike F.

    Correction in the article:

    “Our we truly just fans, an audience watching the events unfold?”

    Should be

    “Are we truly just fans, an audience watching the events unfold?”

  • lroy77

    I do not watch football, don’t even understand the game. Their arms are almost as big as my thighs. And I think it’s a sin they play such a stupid game on Sunday anyway. And, the cheerleaders (particularly Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders), are very immodest with very seductive moves which may cause lust in some men. That being said, I think any contact sport (including baseball and basketball) can be just as bad. I’ll stick to “safer” sports like skiing, figure skating, swimming which may have it’s own modest issues but very few people get injured to such a degree.

    • “I’ll stick to safer sports like skiing, figure skating, swimming…..” Oh really?! So you’ve never seen the ski crashes when a skier falls down and because they are going so fast they crash through or into every tree, every fence, every single object in their way until they are able to stop their momentum? Or in figure skating where they women wear EXTREMELY immodest costumes and are catapulted into the air, but then make a mistake and come crashing down to the ice, sometimes face first and break their legs, arms or necks sometimes, you never see that?

    • MarylandBill

      I dare say that skiing is a more dangerous sport than baseball.  Yes there are risks in baseball, but it is extremely rare for crippling and life threatening injuries to occur (yes deaths and serious injuries do occur, but when one considers how many people at all levels play baseball every year (and how many games are played) I think one will find that the risk of serious injury is fairly small.  And what is more, those risks can be mitigated far more effectively than in football where the use of helmets and pads seem to have encouraged harder hits.

    • Fitxberry

      Figure skating is modest?

  • Ang Horn

    Dare I say, yes.
    I am guilty of watching football, but over the past couple of years, my opinions of the game have changed. I had to ask myself, would I watch flag football with the same intensity? Probably not. Why? Part of the “excitement” is watching the tackles, the big plays, etc. I read this article awhile back, and it really began putting things in the perspective.
    The question about boxing was raised. I absolutely include boxing in the same category with football.
    Can we continue, in good conscience watch a sport that is causing horrific brain injury? Can we watch men, padded gladiators if you will, put their lives on the line for our enjoyment? Perhaps there are better ways to spend our Sunday.

  • I am absolutely shocked and knocked backwards from reading this article AND the comments that follow!! @f39ffed942d718b36927a77e8ef04f9d:disqus and @yahoo-UZKQ3DPYWKVAIYLKFBM53XLPTM:disqus , you wont be happy until we’re all sitting in our living rooms, legs crossed, in full suits and dresses, sipping vitamin water, munching on rice cakes in complete and utter silence, waiting until the Good Lord takes us to our final reward!!! My grandfather played football for Notre Dame in the 1930’s. He played when helments were nothing but glorified hats and padding was so unevolved and inept that it makes hits even worse than if you didnt wear pads at all. In one game’s time, my grandfather broke his nose three times and, because he wouldnt leave the game, stuffed mud and grass up his nose to set it so he could keep playing. I’d say we’ve come a LONG way in football, cus that story is far from the worst that went on in the 30’s!

    Why is there no article condemning MMA or Boxing? Those sports, two men spend round after round KILLING each other, literally! They beat each other to the point where one can no longer stand on his own two feet any longer!! You want to talk about gladiators, there you go! People used to admire Muhammed Ali as the greatest athlete of all time, but have you seen him recently? He’s hardly the sight on anything strong or victorious.

    Would you like to know why there is no mention of Boxing, MMA or other violent sports like Rugby, Lacrosse and Hockey. Money, Honey! The NFL is a multi-BILLION dollar business, according to the lock-out papers filed last year between the NFL owners and player’s union, the NFL yearly has $10 Billion dollars of unused, miscelaneous money to throw around! It’s EXTREMELY big busniess that no other sport can even come close to approaching! MMA is rising steadily and without dropoff, but let’s be honest, it will never match the popularity or following that Football does, and I personally doubt anything ever will!

    I’ll end with this, If you get a line drive or 98 MPH fastball to the face in baseball, your life is altered an threatened. If you get an elbow to the face or head or twist your ankle running up and down the court in basketball, your life is altered and threatened. If you take a hockey shot to the face or throat or are sent crashing into the boards, your life is threatened and altered. If you are tackled viciously in Soccer or collie with another player on the field, your life is altered and threatened. No matter what sport it is, there is calculated risk and potential to harm oneself playing a sport, but they do it ANYWAY? Why? Because they love it, it’s their passion, it’s what gives them the most joy.

    If you dont like Football, then dont watch it. But dont villify and make those of us who do watch it feel like animalistic Roman citizens or sinners…

    •  Not villifying anyone. As I said, I watch football and I like it. I
      understand that there are risks in all sports. Football, however,
      involves repeatedly knocking heads together and the brain damage that
      occurs is documented and, more and more, it seems, is severely harming
      people. Getting hit with a 98 mph baseball is a risk. Getting hit in the
      head in football is a reality, a part of the game.

      Further, just because MMA or boxing or whatever, is worse than football
      doesn’t make football exempt. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask these
      questions about football and not MMA or boxing.

      Like I said, I like football. I’m not trying to bury it. I simply think it’s important to examine the moral value of our entertainment.

    • MarylandBill

      Yes, there are risks in other sports.  And perhaps the NHL, and combat sports are too dangerous as well.  That being said, hits in the NHL are more limited than in the NFL.  As for baseball, basketball and soccer, in those sports there are risks on injury, but the sort of physical contact we see in football is very much the exception (and with the exception of a brawl, unheard of in baseball).  Yes, a player can get hit with a ball, but lets be honest its pretty rare. 

  • John

    My opinion is that the viewer / supporter of the NFL is in part to blame or at least must share in the guilt of what is happening. 
    The scary part of the concussion issue is the increased number in youth and high school level football.  Its is notjust the big hits that have caused much if the damage but rather the repetitive lighter hits that occur play after play.  Year after year.  More evidence is constantly coming out showing the cummulative effect of the impacts. 
    Will this ultimately lead to changes in the NFL?  It is my opinion that the eventual lawsuits and resulting penalties will lead to the NFLs eventual demise or at least relegation to a minor sport (like boxing and hockey). 
    The best solution is likely to eliminate pads and helmets form the game which in turn will eliminate the collisions and use of the pads as weapons.

    As a parent I know my kids will never play the game. 

  • Anon

    Thanks for the article. I wish more Catholics would write about this topic. We worship sports in this culture. That is not too strong an assertion. We spend more money and time on watching sports then most of us do on our faith.  Football, and other sports, are now our god.

    When will the Church put out some teaching on placing sports in their proper place? Right now interest in sports is not a minor past time but central to peoples lives.

  • Pingback: Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral? - Christian Forums()

  • I like pro football, but I don’t watch because it pretty much kills Sunday afternoon which is best spent as a family day, IMO. Plus the ED pill commercials… enough already.

  • Pingback: Is watching football immoral? | Ruminating Merlin()

  • Sorry that this post is so late to this discussion, but people might enjoy this article SPORTS MAD AMERICA:

  • Pingback: Is Football Immoral? | The American Conservative()

  • MichaelZ

    Don’t if I am ready to quit just yet, but I am moving in that direction. I think the NFL will be pretty much history in about 10 years. With what we now know, very few will allow their 13 year old to play this game. The 13 year olds of today will be the 23 year old NFL starters of 10 years from now. And there will be a lot fewer of them. My 95 year old mom had dementia – I would not wish that on any young man and after spending time around my mom and the daily frustration and anguish she went through I can understand why some of these players are ending their own lives.

  • paul martin

    john get your facts right boxing and hockey minor sports really.your a typical american boxing yes it has degenerated into a minor sport but hockey,wake up its one of the most popular sports in the world,but i know what you mean you consider it a minor sport here in the states,but your wrong even about that,yes its a minor sport in the south where they dont give a rats ass about it,but in the rest of the states especially in the north and east its a major sport,in many places more popular than baseball or basketball and second in these areas only to football,so get your facts straight before insulting so many people…

  • M.J.A.

    God bless , for bringing up this issue ..
    Would be good to ask too, what else could occupy the Sunday afternoons , other than nice family time – with families having good discussions , on topics that are true, noble, praiseworthy .
    .may be families getting together and visiting …nursing homes, inner city neighborhoods , on mission work ..even the confessionals being busier .. simple neighborhood games , walks and hiking with whole families, well arranged, to include college kids, while sharing meals and faith .. spiritual warfare walks and processions , without much fanfare too around neighborhoods that the flames of fear and hatred get extinguished before being set on fire , by the add ons to the existing invitations to the enemy , through sins against life , marriage , which get misunderstood as
    ‘race issues ‘ ..well, in one sense , the enemy does have have a grain of truth, since the powers be behind the evil condoning such choices can be seen as ‘racist ‘ or having been set in motion , by a particular race, even if , it all might have been introduced as for good , similar to that lie from The Garden !
    And to think what is being avoided ..all the occasions for adultery from lustful looks and all else that comes with same, including lust for power , control , worldly fame .even the spirit of murder may be ….with the related loss of faith and all that comes with same – sadly reported , in the tragic choices !
    ‘What you did to the least … ‘ are these players , who choose to offer up their lives for such passing fancies of the world – are they too, not among the least , in one sense !
    Hope there would be many who choose to listen to the voice of conscience ..and the money that the NFL might lose – hope some of it finds its way back , to be used for good causes , to remedy the tremendous loss in the Church , if the excess interest in pursuits such as above had much to do with the plague that afflicted the Church….devotion to
    Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal , one such good cause !