Now that the professional football season is over I have a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer, although I think it needs one:
Is it a sin to watch professional football?
Why ask? In three letters, CTE. (For the non-neurologists, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – accumulated brain damage, usually from repeated blows to the head, that leads to memory-loss, loss of inhibitions, depression, paranoia, and eventually dementia.) There is increasing evidence, including from autopsies of the brains of ex-professional football players, that playing football puts one at substantial risk of CTE. (To be fair, there are not yet definitive studies; for inconclusive findings, see here.)
I’m not the only one asking this question. Last October USA Today ran a column headed, “NFL Violence a Moral Thorn for Christians.” In 2012 Crisis magazine, which calls itself “A voice for the faithful Catholic laity,” had an article titled, “Brain Damage and the NFL: Is Watching Football Immoral?” Also in 2012 The American Conservative ran a piece called, “Is Football Immoral?”
Here’s where the moral question comes in for fans (as distinct from players or others who profit from the sport). If a sport (and we could include boxing, perhaps hockey, maybe others as well as football) involves substantial risk to the well-being of its players, is deriving enjoyment from watching that sport morally permissible? As a thought-experiment consider the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome, the purpose of which was often for one participant to murder another. I suspect no one would think that deriving enjoyment from that would be moral, and in fact the Christian writings from the time make that point explicitly. And although there’s some danger in any sport (indeed, in getting out of bed in the morning), the moral question turns on whether the danger to life and limb is an unfortunate and unwished-for occasional occurrence (e.g., a competitive skier losing control on the downhill and hitting a tree), or intrinsic to the conduct of the sport itself (e.g. “hits” in football, or KO’ing an opponent in boxing).
(By the way, this isn’t just a concern about professional football. A study published this past March indicated that college-level players, even when they suffer hits that don’t cause concussions, show evidence of brain-damage that may lead, in the authors’ words, to “future risk of cognitive changes.”)
If you’re a fan you’re probably aware that the NFL is trying to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by more than 4500 former players about potential brain damage, in which the league is promising health-monitoring for players, money for research, and compensation for victims. That doesn’t settle the moral question, and I can’t settle it for you here, either. There’s no specific church teaching on this issue (as there isn’t on most moral questions we face every day, which does not mean that they’re not moral questions). As with so many things, we have to choose in areas where there’s no clear, black-and-white rule. Is the enjoyment that fans get from watching football a sufficient counterbalance to the likely risks to players? Or is this not a balancing act at all, but a choice where no amount of good (enjoyment, excitement, relaxation) on one side can offset an evil on the other?
I honestly don’t know. But I’d be interested in hearing thoughtful comments from parishioners – whether you’ve been troubled by this as the issue of CTE has come to prominence over the past few years, or haven’t thought much (or anything) about it until you read this column. Watching football is such a big part of American cultural life that it deserves some thought on the part of Jesus’ disciples: Is it harmless, or do we put ourselves in moral jeopardy if we support it as spectators? Something to think about before next season. Until next week, peace.
 “Consequences of repeated blood-brain barrier disruption in football players.” PLOS One: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0056805