The unfortunate reality-both now and throughout recent decades-is that football as the NFL practices it is the most popular sport in the United States. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but this fact nonetheless speaks ill of our ability as a people to make sensible choices as consumers. Subjectively, as a nation it’s a matter of our favoring a sport that’s far less entertaining and compelling than what MLB offers us; objectively-and more importantly-it’s a case of our favoring a sport that’s morally bankrupt in comparison to leagues of similar aims and dimensions.
It’s not a question that’s often asked: Is the NFL somehow less “moral” than MLB? However, it’s an important one to ask, and it’s one that, I think, has a clear answer.
First, in comparing the two industries, there’s the noisome labor structure of the NFL. It’s the most violent of major professional team sports (more on that in a moment), and it’s the one that’s most structurally hostile toward its workforce. Mostly, this is the fault of the NFLPA and Gene Upshaw, who’s less a fire-eyed labor leader than an obedient valet to the owners. So, we’ve got a league that has a salary cap and non-guaranteed contracts. It’s tempting to view the outgrowths of labor-management negotiations as value-neutral and beyond some common range of moral understanding. If those subject to the NFLPA’s terminal ankle-grabbing were, say, actuaries, schoolteachers, or lawyers, then perhaps that would be true. But professional football players have dangerous jobs. Whether it’s the cumulative harm absorbed or the single, transformative incident-a crack-back block, a blind side sack, or a receiver simply going across the middle-the NFL player’s gladiatorial existence means he should be entitled to more safeguards. But the owners won’t give it to him, and the union won’t fight for it on his behalf.
In spite of those grim possibilities, NFL players have their wages capped, and the concept of “contractual obligations” doesn’t extend to their employers. This is precisely the sport that shouldn’t countenance such an arrangement. That’s because, as intimated above, the game of football at the highest level is uncommonly violent. There are those who have suffered life-altering spinal injuries (Darryl Stingley, Mike Utley, Dennis Byrd, and, more recently, Al Lucas, Kevin Everett, and Cedric Killings, to name just a few), there are those who have died from heat stroke (Korey Stringer), and then there are those whose brain functions have been hopelessly compromised (Andre Waters and Ted Johnson, among countless others). It’s that last category of horrifying danger that’s particularly troubling. While the neck injuries and heat-related deaths can be callously dismissed as trumped-up anecdotal accounts, the head injuries cannot. In fact, according to a University of North Carolina study conducted 1995-96, more than half of NFL players had been knocked unconscious at least once, and almost a third had suffered three or more concussions. Worse, almost three-fourths of those suffering concussions were given no time to recover from their injuries.
All of this is to say nothing of the epidemic of obesity among interior linemen. In 1990, for instance, 39 NFL players weighed in at 300 pounds or more. By 2005, that figure rose to 338. NFL organizations cherish beefy linemen, and there’s a financial incentive for amateur players to meet the size standards established by the NFL. But what becomes of them after they retire, when the 10,000-calorie diet isn’t at least partially mitigated by the rigors of the job? Most are luckier than Thomas Herrion, in that they make it to retirement. However, later in life retired NFL linemen suffer heart disease at more than twice the rate of “civilians” of the same age.
Of course, if a player indeed suffers one of these workaday terrors, then his own resources may prove to be more useful than the league’s disability plan. That disability plan, based on the demerits, was the subject of recent Congressional inquiry, and Upshaw has been known to threaten critics of it with severe bodily harm. On a certain level, it makes perfect sense-the NFL so routinely damages its employees that it necessarily must neglect some of them in order for its pension and disability systems to remain viable. If that’s the case, then the structure itself is to be demonized and bullied, not those who seek redress.
This discussion of sports and their individual moral implications would be incomplete without touching upon the matter of performance-enhancing drugs. On this point, the NFL fails miserably. While baseball has been subject to transcendent levels of ridicule over its supposed problems, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s vaunted testing program was manifestly inadequate until recent changes took hold. But this does nothing to forgive the NFL’s ugly, extensive history when it comes to steroid use, especially as exemplified by the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty of the ’70s. Imagine the spittle-flecked outrage that would follow if one of baseball’s signature dynastic franchises had ever similarly been so indulgent of PED abuse.
It’s football’s sanctioned violence that urges so many players to seek such self-destructive edges over their rivals for roster spots and opponents on the field, and it’s also that sanctioned violence that leads to violent tendencies among players, even at the lower levels. It doesn’t take an accomplished theorist to surmise that, in the NFL, the scourge of domestic violence is an echo of those early tendencies. While no major sport does an exemplary job of punishing domestic violence, the NFL stands out as a main offender. In 2006, for instance, the Washington Post compiled a non-exhaustive list of NFL player arrests for the year. Of those 41 (!) arrests, five were for various flavors of domestic assault. Those numbers are hardly aberrant. They also don’t include some of the more famous incidents (Warren Moon, Lawrence Phillips, Michael Pittman, and, of course, O.J. Simpson).
None of this is meant to imply that baseball is somehow a paragon of responsibility and virtue-it isn’t. However, the facts bear out a few straightforward claims. Major League Baseball is less deadly, less physically damaging, less imbalanced in terms of player-owner relations, less socially perilous, and less culpable when it comes to the pervasive “Steroids Age” than is the more popular and more profitable NFL. That the NFL is, in fact, so popular and profitable should be a source of shame to American consumers-ruthlessness may be profitable, but it’s not a virtue. It’s a blood sport, so lavish it in scorn, not dollars.