Keisha Ray

Publish date

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Every year the National Football League (NFL) makes between an estimated $7 billion- $9 billion making it the most profitable American professional sports league. The players are arguably what attracts most people to the game and how the league makes its money, whether that be through game attendance or the sale of player related merchandise. The mental health of current players and especially retired players has come under a magnifying glass within the past decade. Past players and the families of past (and deceased) players have accused the NFL of mishandling players with concussions. Four thousand-five hundred players filed a lawsuit against the NFL accusing the organization of ignoring or not properly treating players who have received concussions while playing football and that this negligence led to their diagnoses of Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, heightened and uncontrollable aggression, Parkinson’s disease, and other neurological disorders and cognitive impairments.

The NFL’s alleged negligence has also been said to be the cause of ex-players’ deaths with one of the most notable claims coming from the family of Junior Seau, a popular former NFL player who committed suicide in 2012, who was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (Although Junior Seau’s family is not a part of this particular lawsuit they have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL) . It’s important to note that many ex-players could have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but because it is only diagnosable after death and many players won’t display any adverse symptoms, many players won’t know they have it, but their families will know after an autopsy at their death.

In July of 2014 there was a preliminary win for NFL players when a federal judge granted compensation in the sum of $675 million for ex-players and their families. Some of the settlement will also go to future players who develop neurological disorders.

There have been some changes to the NFL rules in lieu of these accusations, including the type of acceptable hits that players can make against another player, but the game of professional football is still brutal and aggressive, and players are still going to have concussions and there is still going to be mishandling of those concussions. So knowing that there is a great chance that our favorite player could spend his life after football with neurological disease can bioethicists watch professional football?


When considering the answer, it’s helpful to think about what we expect of bioethicists outside of the workplace. One approach is to liken our expectations to what we expect from other professionals. Some people may expect physicians not to smoke cigarettes because they know the dangers of tobacco and should be an exemplar of health and the goals of the health care profession. Or some people may expect lawyers, judges, senators, congresswomen, or the president not to break the law because they are thought to be the individuals who uphold the law and ought to be exemplars of law-abiding citizens. As a parallel, we may see bioethicists as exemplars of ethical conduct in medicine and health care. If this is our expectation of bioethicists then we have to consider if we are being exemplars of ethical conduct when supporting a league that has not behaved ethically in matters of its players’ health. We have to question if we can watch a game that we know has a good chance of ending with players getting a concussion and that concussion being mishandled.

If we do not have these kinds of expectations for other professionals and take the approach of separating professional lives from our personal lives then I suppose as long as we don’t watch football at our place of employment we are off the hook. This would be similar to the idea that as long as physicians and nurses don’t smoke at their place of employment then smoking during their own personal time is acceptable.

There is also at least one other way to approach the issue and that is with the idea that NFL players are autonomous individuals who have freely chosen to play a game that they know can result in injury or disease. This means that watching football could be a show of support for free choice. Autonomy is a pillar idea in bioethics and some bioethicists even advocate autonomy over beneficence so we can look at watching the NFL as being in accord with the values of bioethics.

Non-Human Animal Testing

Another concern for bioethicists who support the NFL is that the $675 million settlement includes an allotment of $10 million for research on sports injuries. The NFL has awarded grants to institutions that do research on non-human animals, such as the UCLA Brain Research Institute. The concern from animal activist groups, like PETA is that this settlement is going to encourage more tests like the ones currently conducted, including experiments involving repeatedly concussed mice.

If we separate our professional lives from our personal ethical choices, then there is no problem: we can watch NFL games with a clear conscience, however, if we find this duality problematic and believe that we have just one moral life, then the mishandling of players concussions and the testing done on animals as a part of rectifying their mistakes poses problems for bioethicists. The problem we face is can we spend our time and money on a game that is unhealthy for its players, or at the least poses a serious risk to its players health?

Whether bioethicists can support the NFL is a question about our position as exemplars and what it means to be an exemplar begs the question: Are we always representing our profession, even when we are at the pub watching a football game or are we only representing the profession when we are on official business? And if we are always representing the profession, is supporting the NFL contrary to the goals of our profession? These concerns can be applied to the NFL, but they are general questions for the field that can be applied to other activities such as boxing or mixed martial arts fighting (These concerns, however, would not extend to everyday activities like driving a vehicle or riding a bike, which have the possibility of injury or disease because they are not inherently violent and do not require violent or aggressive behavior to accomplish its goal).

Every year the NFL culminates in the Super Bowl, a showdown between the two best teams in the league. The Super Bowl is the most watched sporting event, creating even more support and money for the NFL. Undoubtly, there are bioethicists who are giving their time and money to the NFL to support their favorite team or to watch this big event. However, it is important to question whether supporting the NFL detracts from our duties as bioethicists and the goals of our profession.

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