Examining the ethics of football concussions

In 2007, investigative journalist Alan Schwarz broke the story that football causes much greater trauma to the brain than we realized. Doctors at institutions like the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) demonstrated that even the minor hits football players repeatedly experience can accumulate, causing many players to suffer from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which results in early-onset dementia and depression—and may even lead to suicide. The NFL could no longer deny the connection. A recent settlement of $765 million in a class-action lawsuit between the NFL and more than 4,500 retired players is just the beginning of the legal action; the cap on the settlement amount was even removed this summer.

While the effect on pro players is disconcerting, to say the least, deeper concern has grown regarding minors who play football. More than 225,000 children participate in Pop Warner football—though the number is decreasing due to the growing awareness of concussions—and more than 1 million high school students play football. Children, whose brains are in critical stages of development, are at an even greater risk.

At this intersection of science, policy, and moral theory, the philosophical issues become more complicated. This intersection has been the focus of some of the work being done at places like Santa Clara’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE). In 2013, for the fourth annual Sports Law and Ethics Symposium, ISLE hosted speakers including journalist Schwarz and former 49er Ronnie Lott. While the NFL has been in the ethical spotlight this year for its handling of players who’ve committed violence off the field, the concussion issue hasn’t gone away. In fact, international soccer star Brandi Chastain ’91, who was part of the ISLE symposium again this year, has been working to draw attention to the danger of concussions that young people are exposed to when heading the ball on the soccer field. She is currently working with SLI and ISLE on a movement to prohibit headers in soccer leagues with players younger than 14.


Here is a snapshot of some of the concepts entrenched in discussion of the concussion issue in youth sports.

Consent: Kids cannot give consent to certain forms of activity, especially those with great potential for causing harm. This is not only a legal issue—though this explains the release form parents sign denoting their child might die in said activity—but also a moral one. If children aren’t capable of making a decision for themselves, we ought not act in such a manner that could cause them undue harm. We ought to help keep them out of harm’s way.

Conflict of Interest: Given the money involved in pro football, to ask those with big financial stakes to police themselves puts them in a tremendous bind. A similar conflict arises in hockey: When a player violently injures another in an excessive manner, the league argues that it should punish the player—with a seven-game suspension, for example—and the legal system remains at bay.

Moral Duty: As the science informs us of harms being committed, especially to children, this is no longer a matter of taste or of what’s best for a particular sport. Morality is nothing if not an attempt to address actions that cause harm. So what is feasible? Cutting football programs? Changing the rules? Various proposals exist aimed at maintaining the spirit of the sport yet making changes to reduce concussions—such as eliminating the kickoff, forcing players to stand at the line instead of being in the 3-point stance, and harsher penalties for targeting. Similarly, proposals to revise youth soccer would allow kids to enjoy the great benefits of soccer while easily avoiding repeated head trauma.

Complicity: Given the above, is a football fan complicit in the unethical nature of the institution—just by watching? Pro sports require viewers to thrive. So, is the minor act of sitting on one’s couch watching football “complicit enough” to warrant a boycott altogether?

This is a conversation worth having. Like most philosophical issues, examining it not only allows us to act in a more informed manner and on behalf of society as a whole, it provides a moment of reflection on our own lives and on what we value most.

Jack Bowen is on the board of SCU’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics. He is the author of three books and teaches philosophy at Menlo School in Menlo Park.

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