To Watch Or Not To Watch?

Jason Sommer

January 31, 2014

Dear Jason,

On Sunday, February 2, Super Bowl 48 will take place, between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Some people look forward to the day with nervous excitement, while others think it sounds about as fun as a root canal with no anesthesia. I’m writing because you and others may be interested in some developments to our previous discussions about the NFL.

With the Super Bowl approaching, the public discourse has covered nearly every imaginable topic, from the most relevant to the most ridiculous. We’ve talked about race and class and privilege. We’ve talked about role models. We’ve talked about Skittles. We’ve talked about sexism. We’ve talked about marijuana (dude, like, the Super. Bowl. get it?) We’ve talked about the weather and security for the game and ticket prices and parties. But what we’ve been studiously avoiding is arguably the most important: player safety.

Back in October, you and I wrote open letters to each other regarding the problem of head injuries in the NFL. You wondered if the mountain of evidence demonstrating the NFL’s blatant disregard for player safety would finally be enough to convince us to turn off our televisions, and asserted that you yourself were willing to do so. This week, Steve Almond agreed with you, penning an essay for the New York Times Magazine, titled “Is it Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?”

Almond writes:

Recently, though, medical research has confirmed that football can cause catastrophic brain injury — not as a rare and unintended consequence, but as a routine byproduct of how the game is played. That puts us fans in a morally queasy position. We not only tolerate this brutality. We sponsor it, just by watching at home. We’re the reason the N.F.L. will earn $5 billion in television revenue alone next year, three times as much as its runner-up, Major League Baseball.

Never is this sponsorship more overt than next Sunday, for the Super Bowl has become an event of such magnitude that it ranks as a secular holiday at this point, as much a celebration of the sport’s ability to draw multimillion-dollar ads as the contest itself. More than 100 million people will watch the game. Most of my friends will be parked in front of their TVs. For the first time in 35 years, I won’t be among them.

From your piece:

football isn’t as barbarous as feeding live people to lions.  but that doesn’t mean dudes aren’t being killed for our entertainment.  it’s just a longer line to connect the dots: football players aren’t dying on the field, but rather sometimes years later (from CTE, suicide, etc.).  we can justify the violence happening for our amusement because that remove makes it “safe” for the fans—it absolves us from any complicity in the darkness that descends on former nfl players after their playing days are done.

You pointed out that until fans stop voting with their dollars– until they stop watching games on TV, buying jerseys, etc– the league will simply continue to march on, allowing players to sacrifice their bodies, minds, and future to an unstoppable juggernaut that only cares about raking in billions upon billions in revenue every year. Despite your lifelong love for da Bears, you thought that this moral quandary was enough to make you shut off the television.

I attempted a response in which I pointed out that an en masse boycott, while a  noble cause, was unlikely. I pointed to the example of the NHL, where players led the charge to make the league safer, and posited that the crux of the problem was not simply the horrible juggernaut rolling over players’ wishes– but partially that the players themselves are unwilling to concede concussions are a problem, and that until the players believe that science is science, and say so publicly, a handful of us turning off our televisions wouldn’t accomplish much.

However, I do feel that continuing to watch, by extension feeding the juggernaut, does put me in that “morally queasy territory” Almond describes.

As you may know, I do plan to watch the Super Bowl. I am a Seattle Seahawks fan. I will be a nervous wreck. I will be wearing the same shirt, scarf, and hat that I have worn for each of our playoff wins, and I will be using my lucky Hawks coozie.Yes, I am that person. I am already apprehensive about watching the game in someone else’s home with a group, for fear that I will be annoyed by others’ reactions/commentary/lack of attention to the game and that those things will ruin my experience. I am already heartbroken that win or lose, I won’t be in a little dive bar in Seattle surrounded by friends for the game, with every single person hanging on every single play, with the communal gasps of surprise and exclamations of joy. I will resent the commercials for being commercials, and I will feel disgust at the spectacle, and I will worry about players– any players– getting seriously injured.

But I will watch.

I could choose not to watch. I’d be disappointed, sure. Maybe I’d be a little lonely on that day for a few hours, missing out on a collective experience that I’d wanted. But I could walk around confident that I held the moral high ground. I could feel superior, and decide that everyone watching the game was less sophisticated or ethical than myself. But would my supposed moral superiority have any practical effects? Would I have advocated in any way for player safety, other than attempting to explain to a few friends why I wouldn’t watch the game at their house? Would I have convinced anyone else (who wasn’t already going to avoid/ignore this game) to do so with me? I very much doubt it. Will Steve Almond? Maybe. He’s speaking to a much wider audience via the NYT mag. And if his decision strikes a chord with others who, upon examining their own moral code, decide they couldn’t sleep at night if they condoned the NFL’s treatment of players by watching the Super Bowl, that would be a best case scenario. It would be a small step, noted by few people, but maybe an important one.

Isn’t it a C.S. Lewis quote about how real integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching? I respect the hell outta Almond, and the way he applies his moral code to his behavior. (High-five, “Off-The-Charts Left Guy!”) I’ll respect you, whether or not you choose not to watch. And it goes without saying that I’m justifying my own decision to continue to watch by pointing out the lack of practicality in the protest, the need for the players to admit there’s a problem before any meaningful change can occur, etc.

And yet I’ll still be watching. Will you?



P.S. As always, I have an aside. I think there’s an important distinction between choosing not watch because of the NFL’s lack of response to the problem of head injuries/player safety and choosing not to watch because a person doesn’t like sports, doesn’t like football, doesn’t care about these particular teams, etc. Some people may think that’s splitting hairs, but if you, Jason Sommer, choose not watch, I’ll know it’s because you are protesting what you see as unacceptable behavior by the NFL, and not because you’re capitalizing on an opportunity to moralize when you wouldn’t have watched the game anyway. Because that would just be bad form.

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