By Dr. Zac Cogley, professor of philosophy
I decided I could no longer watch football with a clear conscience right before what some call the best divisional playoff weekend ever.
Following Joe Flacco’s long bomb to Jacoby Jones that tied the game and sent it to overtime, Peyton Manning threw a dubious pass that was intercepted.
The Ravens snuck by on a field goal. Colin Kaepernick ran right over the Packers in an extraordinary playoff debut for the 49ers. And the Falcons beat the Seahawks by only two points after a hair-raising series right at the end of the game.
Only the Patriots-Texans game was relatively uninteresting.
I’ve never been a raving football fan, but my family has rooted for the Steelers since before I was born.
After I moved to Marquette, chatting with my brother about Pittsburgh’s ups and downs helped me feel connected over such a long distance. And I’ve had a blast watching games with other new friends at NMU (even when they root for teams as vile as the Patriots).
So it was a really hard decision to stop watching football altogether. But I realized I just couldn’t square my ethical commitments with football any longer. Many know—but some people still don’t—that playing football puts an athlete at significant risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
This condition results from repeated head traumas, which are endemic to football (as well as boxing, hockey, rugby and wrestling—soccer may even be implicated).
You don’t need to have a concussion to get CTE, but if you do, you can expect to suffer confusion, memory loss, aggression, insomnia and/or depression.
Unfortunately, you can’t find out you have the beginnings of CTE and then stop playing. For doctors to diagnose it, your brain has to be examined after your death.
An increasing roster of NFL stars have killed themselves in ways that are clearly related to their condition.
The most recent was Junior Seau, who shot himself in the chest, suggesting that he wanted to ensure his brain could be examined for CTE after his death.
Almost without exception, I think it’s wrong to gain significant enjoyment from major misfortunes of others. And that’s what I see football as more and more—a great game to watch that you’d be really unlucky to play.
When people hear of my decision not to watch football, I get asked a lot of questions, the most common being, isn’t it significant that athletes play football willingly?
They’ve made the decision to play, knowing the risks, so we can watch with clear consciences.
Sure, it’s true that no one puts a gun to football players heads to make them play. Most play for honor, the love of the game, a potential future paycheck and a whole host of other reasons. But no one starts playing football with a clear sense of the dangers.
Most professional football players started playing when they’re still children, long before they’re fully able to make decisions for themselves. People also ask, what’s the point of not watching football when my abstaining doesn’t hurt the NFL at all?
That’s certainly right, but—still—it’s wrong to enjoy something that entails significant future suffering for the participants. And the idea that my decision doesn’t matter ignores the complicated reality of society.
Just like no football game is won or lost on any one play, any socially or politically significant action relies on the assistance of many others, some of whom might be spurred to act by my own example.
I believe that what I do matters—whether big or small. And not only does it matter, but choosing not to watch football matters in a way that hits close to home.
As a professor, I try really hard to help my students be better thinkers, reasoners, writers and arguers.
But I can’t feel true to that commitment while enjoying a sport—especially college and professional football—that jeopardizes the ability of other students to do those very same things.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Zac Cogley is an assistant professor of philosophy at NMU.