Bowling Alone: Who does watching the Super Bowl hurt?


Like millions of others, I need to decide whether I’m going to watch the Super Bowl. In other years that choice was either a no-brainer or simply a matter of pragmatics (do I have a papers I need to grade for Monday?) or personal preferences (would I rather go skiing?). But now it seems the choice has taken on a moral or ethical significance.

Has it really? Is it really something that ethicists and people who are concerned with doing the right thing should be concerned with?

Friday’s New York Times has an opinion column by a woman whose 40-something husband, a retired NFL player, has experienced extreme mental deterioration, presumably because of CTE (permanent brain damage caused by repeated trauma to the brain). Isn’t it, on the face of it, wrong to support a game that predictably does this kind of damage to so many of its participants?

Yet Wednesday’s New York Times had an article “Football’s True Believers Circle the Wagons and Insist the Sport Is Just Fine.” The bottom line is that these are grown men who know the risk they are taking. Let’s think about this defense for a minute. Grant that grown-ups — at least those in their right minds — have the right to choose to engage in risky activities. Does it follow that it is right for others to encourage, and even urge them to engage in such activities by creating fantastic economic and social rewards? And what about the fact that, in glorifying football, the society creates extremely powerful incentives for boys and teenagers who are not grown up — after all, we say they lack the maturity to vote and to drink alcohol responsibly — powerful incentives to play brain-damaging football?

Given these issues, what moral considerations if any follow about whether I should watch the Super Bowl? Should I support the NFL and, by extension, the “football culture” by watching the Super Bowl? Assume it would be in the privacy of my own room and I would not be setting a bad example.

“Go ahead and do it. You’re not causing any harm. And refusing to watch is not going to affect the Super Bowl or the football culture.”

Is that argument compelling? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I believe “the football culture” is not a good thing. That glorifying football causes serious, unjustifiable harm to many of the children and teenagers who play football. That the fame and financial inducements are so excessive as to override the prudential decision-making of even grown men. Does anything follow from these beliefs about whether it’s morally wrong for me to watch the Super Bowl in the privacy of my little condo?

“It’s not going to make any difference, so why not do it if you’ll enjoy it?”

Is this a valid justification? I think not. Consider a similar argument that is clearly draws a mistaken conclusion:

“If I don’t vote, it won’t make any difference in the outcome. Therefore it’s OK if I don’t vote.”

The problem is, if everyone adopts this idea, it’s no longer true. Hence there’s something wrong when the individual acts on it. Hence the obligation to vote. In fact, the last presidential election was influenced, if not shaped, by the number of people who either did not vote or “wasted” their vote on a third-party candidate.

Similarly, if I shun the Super Bowl, it won’t make any difference. But if everyone or even a huge swath of the public shunned the Super Bowl, it would make a difference. So just as one has an obligation to vote even though one’s individual vote makes no difference, it would appear one has an obligation to shun the Super Bowl, even though one’s individual shunning makes no difference (assuming as we noted above that one does believe the culture of football is morally problematic).

There’s another, independent consideration that leads, I believe, to the same conclusion — again given the assumption that the culture of football is morally problematic. This argument focuses not on whether my behavior can affect the culture of football but on whether it is harmful to me to watch football. How could that be?

We are shaped, Aristotle pointed out a couple of thousand years ago, by the choices and decisions we make. If we want to be the kind of people who make good choices, good decisions, moral decisions, then we need to build the self that makes good decisions. We build that self by practice, by making good decisions and by avoiding bad decisions. If I lie a lot, it becomes easier to lie in the future. If I discipline myself to be truthful, it’s easier to be truthful in the hard choices. If I practice controlling my anger in small things, it helps me be the kind of person who can control his anger in big things. The kind of person you are as a result of your past decisions shapes the kinds of decisions you make in the present.

How does this apply? Well, again on the assumption that there’s something morally questionable about “the football culture” and therefore about the Super Bowl, if I make the seemingly small decision to watch the Super Bowl, am I not making one of those small decisions, like telling a small lie or letting my anger flare at a minor irritation, that undermines the kind of person that I really should be? It would seem that I’m letting personal enjoyment or cultural excitement persuade me to participate in something that I believe is morally wrong. Does this weaken my future resistance to engaging in something I believe to be morally wrong? Furthermore, by vicariously participating in gratuitous violence, am I not weakening my ability to resist and act against gratuitous violence?

So what about Bowling alone on Sunday? Do I cast my vote, however insignificant the vote may be? Do I participate in a morally questionable activity, however insignificant this particular participation might be?

[According to NFL statistics, there were 281 concussions in the 2017 season (practice, pre-season and regular season games). That’s almost one concussion (0.87) per game played.]

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