When Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement, using the simple words “I’m in pain,” it sparked a new round of discussions about the physical toll American football takes on its players.
“For the last four years or so,” he said, “I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab, injury, pain and rehab, and it’s been unceasing and unrelenting, both in-season and offseason.”
In 2015, former Wisconsin Badgers star linebacker Chris Borland, after playing only one year for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to retire rather than risk the long-term and potentially devastating effects of brain trauma from repeated concussions. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced,” he said, “I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
It is hard to argue with athletes like this, hard not to respect them for the difficult choices they make in spite of the disappointment they cause both teammates and fans.
But the severity of that disappointment — some people in Indianapolis booed Luck as he left the press conference — raises an ethical question: What should fans of football do in light of the harm it causes to its participants?
More and more fans are deciding to stop watching the sport. They say they cannot justify encouraging young men to endanger their lives for entertainment.
Of course, nobody forces men to play football. There may be some coercion at younger ages, but by the time young men reach the age of playing either college or professional football, they choose to do so. And in a society that offers few opportunities for glory, football is one option.
In Homer’s “Iliad,” the Greek hero Achilles is given a choice: Return home and live a quiet, unremembered life, or stay in Troy and die a hero. He chooses the path of glory. The “Iliad” has kept his name and his deeds alive for more than two thousand years.
Did Achilles make a foolish choice? I’m sure some would say so. But I don’t think it was an irrational choice. After all, length of life is not its only measure. Most of us also seek some kind of quality of life, and that is measured in different ways: in the height of achievement, in the breadth of experience, in the depth of relationship.
Every path in life has its costs, and people routinely choose a path that has significant cost, either in terms of physical risk, financial burden or loss of other opportunities. Sports are just one type of path, and when it comes to the most dangerous sports in the world, football is just one among many.
A total of 6.5% of the people who attempt the summit of Mt. Everest die in the attempt. Nobody pays them to do it. Instead, they pay about $45,000 for the privilege.
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White-water rafting, cycling, luge, dog sled racing, car racing, snowboarding, cave diving, rock climbing, surfing, bull riding, base jumping and gymnastics are all responsible for high rates of serious injury among participants. The biggest difference between these sports and football is their relative popularity.
I talked to a friend from high school. He is in his mid-50s, he has worked in the construction trades since he was 15, and he has had constant joint and back pain for the past 20 years. Would he trade his life pouring concrete driveways for a career in the NFL? In a heartbeat. But he never had that choice.
I find a disingenuousness in the voices of many contemporary football critics, a lack of sincere imagination.
After all, we pay people to get hurt all the time, and we usually don’t pay them very much. The most dangerous occupations—far exceeding that of football—are commercial fishing, logging and roofing. Most of those jobs pay less than $40,000 per year.
The most significant ethical question raised by football is not, “Should we pay people to play it?” The big question raised by the sport is, “What is worth spending one’s life on?”
We all spend our lives on something, whether we make a conscious choice or not. It is not obvious that a long, relatively risk-free life spent in idleness is better than a short, injury-prone life spent in pursuit of high achievement.
It seems to me that the problem with football is not that young men feel pressured to play the game, it is that our society does not sufficiently celebrate the many ways of living a meaningful life — especially for men — other than the path of professional sports.
Professions such as medicine and nursing, social work, teaching and counselling offer abundant opportunities to help others in need.
There are trades and crafts, like home builder, plumber and electrician, which provide communities with shelter and security.
Working in the arts, creating literature, sculptures and music can bring beauty into the world.
Life is an adventure worth seizing, and there are an abundant ways of being a meaningful presence.
That is something worth encouraging.