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Junior Seau is Dead; When Will We Seriously Debate the Ethics of Supporting American Football?

About a year ago I asked a similar question when former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson killed himself.  Today, we learn that a person who has also likely developed brain injuries as a result of playing American football, the all-world linebacker Junior Seau, also killed himself.  (Both avoided further injuries to their brains by shooting themselves in the chest–Duerson did so explicitly so that his brain injuries could be studied after his death.) ESPN recently did a feature on Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon, a man who now will often walk into a room and immediately forget the reason he was doing so.

This is becoming an epidemic.  How long can we go on supporting an activity with these kinds of violent consequences?  The NFL shouldn’t be worried about lawsuits, they should be worried about a mass exodus of support for their whole operation.

I’m not where Ta-Nehisi Coates is, but I’m close:

I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart–destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people with whom I would not pass other words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It’s like losing a language.

How close are others?



  1. Thanks for this, Charlie. The quote from Coates really resonates with me. I discovered the power of football to bind people to one another as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, and I have always valued it (especially at the college level) ever since. I think the picture of such injuries statistically in the past was that their was a real but small risk that one might sustain a hit that could do real damage. But the evidence is shifting the picture from one that involves a small risk of an extraordinary injury that MIGHT occur to a picture of the ordinary levels of contact in the sport causing serious brain damage in the ordinary course of events.

    I haven’t thought much about this (perhaps I’ll do a follow-up post), but I think that some of the things that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about prostitution might be helpful for an analysis of this. (Acknowledging the wrongfulness of the act itself, but also the economic forces that push prostitutes into that line of work.) Actually, I wonder if some of the thinking on pornography might also be a way into the morality of commercializing the watching of bodies being used in ways that are contrary to God’s intended purposes.

  2. Thank you for this, Charlie. I find this question powerful and disturbing, especially coming from another cradle fan of a renowned NFL team. I would like to reiterate Dana’s economic question above – how do we weigh the moral agency of the players in this situation, especially in light of powerful economic forces at hand? In many instances, the players have a limited range of economic choices, but this is certainly not the full story. Other ethical questions arise from the practice of trading, especially of bodies commodified for their physical capabilities and promise of reaping a financial profit. Again, players do have some degree of agency (they can always choose to not enter the draft or leave the game if they are dealt to another team), but this liturgy is disturbing even for a lifelong fans. Thank you for this brief and thought-provoking post. RIP, Junior.

  3. This is hardly a novel point, but it is quite striking how Coates’ language indicates how sports – but perhaps football in general, with its Sunday ritual, and single-game universal “feast” – are a substitute religion in a pluralist society. The spectre of the “human sacrifice” in the game only makes the parallel more chilling.

  4. This something I’ve been thinking about for a while, especially because I’m a big football fan. I find myself torn about this. I’m very much a believer in all the things that the NFL has been trying to do to improve things (save for the fact that they want to add two games to the season, which seems at best inconsistent with their goals), but I’m not sure it’s enough (or if anything could be enough). Still, I think it’s going to be a while before I get to the point that I can forsake football. I guess I’m still trying to find the loophole, even though I know it’s probably not there.

  5. Charlie, so glad you’re asking these questions! I’ve been reading through TS’s Notes on Moral Theology from the 50s and 60s and was quite astonished by how often the morality of boxing was addressed by theologians then. I was thinking how moral theologians today don’t seem to be debating football to the same extent, though it is similarly important to the faithful as boxing was then and has similarly harmful consequences. A former boxer myself… and a big (college) football fan… I have to say I’ve never been privy to discussions on the moral issues in these topics. It’s no sacrifice for me to boycott the NFL (even if I do now live in Jersey with all those overjoyed Giants fans), and I think I could be morally persuaded even to forgo college football (especially if ND keeps losing!!!).

    It’ll have to be one of our evening debates at NWNW!


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