Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The NFL and Evolving Morality

I'm a little late to this one, but I still find it fascinating: Will Leitch, one of my favorite sports writers, has a pretty provocative piece in New York Magazine this week. The title alone ought to tell you what's up: "Is Football Wrong?"

There's certainly going to be a lot of people who immediately dismiss such questions. (Kissing Suzy Kolber kinda does, but that might just be the site's instinctive propensity for dick jokes). But- and this will surprise no one, as I have, at length, discussed my problems with the NFL- it's something worth discussing. The long term injuries in the NFL seem to be piling up, and I think it's okay to question if you want to keep watching that. And Leitch doesn't even get into Roger Goodell's dictatorial control over the league and the players, the league's woeful labor practices, and the way dreams of NFL glory are mutating college and high school football programs. There's good reasons to change the channel.

But still, I hesitate to call the entire game immoral, or even amoral. From a tactical standpoint, I think such terms necessarily imply a judgment call that puts fans of the sport on the defensive, less willing to consider any change, any improvement to the sport. From an equity standpoint, I don't think it's fair; all sports have their shitty, exploitative elements, who the fuck are we to declare what's better? Everyone should be allowed to like the sport they like without judgement, unless it's clearly, inextricably harmful.

Which brings me to my most important point: I don't think there's anything fundamentally immoral or amoral about professional football. I think the NFL pursues some immoral and amoral policies, and I think the NFL allows immoral and amoral things to occur. But I think those are policy failures with clear (if not simple) solutions. Player injuries can be addressed with better training, tweaked rules, better equipment, and better medical staff. Goodell's powers could be curbed by the other owners. Labor practices could change if the union and the fans stood united. I'm not saying these things will happen; I'm actually pessimistic about curbing Goodell's power or fixing labor problems. But I'm saying they could happen without fundamentally altering the sport. And that, I think, means that the amoral and immoral aspects of football can be separated from the game itself.

It's possible that I'm wrong. But I'd like to try it my way before I give up on football.

And if I'm right, then I think it's more important for the football fans with a social conscious to stay engaged with the sport. We need someone watching the sport to say this shit ain't right, and we want the Commissioner and the owners and the coaches to do something about it. I don't think it will be nearly as effective if those voices come from outside the football community; we've seen time and again that the major sports leagues are more responsive to their existing fan bases than to potential fans or lapsed fans (there's a lot of argument that hockey would be more popular without the fighting, but old time hockey fans still think it's essential, so the NHL keeps hockey; baseball refuses to adopt instant replay because it'll give George Will a sad; hell, even the NFL slow-walking new concussion policies is part of this). Plus, if you like football, you shouldn't have to do without just because Art Modell and Jim Irsay are turds. That puts the onus on the fans, and that's bullshit; we're not the ones fucking up the game here.

Of course, if you can't stand the carnage anymore, than you can't stand the carnage anymore. You don't have to watch, either. I think that's what KSK is kind of missing here; even if we can make a plausible case that the players have given well-informed consent to the risks, that doesn't necessarily make it fun to watch men doing long-term damage to themselves. But you can both like football and be struck by the consequences of the game as it's currently played. And if you are, I think you need to stay engaged.

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