What should be done about football?

The tragic death of football great Junior Seau has caused even more discussion over the danger of the game, and what, if anything, can be done to make it safer. Slate is hosting a debate on whether the collegiate game ought to be banned. One of the participants, Malcolm Gladwell, has also written an article comparing football to dogfighting. It’s an interesting comparison, but to my mind, the central and very significant difference is that dogs don’t know what’s happening to them. They can’t agree to fight or not. They’re trained for it and they don’t why. Football players are human beings who can make an informed choice.

There is also the oft-made comparison of football players with Roman gladiators, but I believe that many, perhaps most, of the gladiators were captive soldiers from armies the Romans had defeated who had been enslaved and forced to be gladiators. Again, they had no choice in the matter.

But, you may say, it does not matter whether the fighters are man or beast, slave or free; the problem is in what such a violent sport means for our society. What kind of people are they who watch a violent game, with the participants suffering awful injuries, for entertainment? As Gladwell observed, it is the support of millions of fans that makes the choice to play pro football so appealing.

For myself, I never watched football for the “big hits” or anything like that. I watch for the strategy and the fun of seeing how teams use schemes and planning to foil their opponents. But it’s true that hitting hard is a key part of the game. It is well known, for instance, that a key part of New York’s ability to stifle New England’s offense is that they are able to hit Brady and throw him off his game.

And the violence and the injuries do create a conundrum for the well-meaning fan. No one wishes such ill on another person who is, after all, just someone earning a living. But there is still the inescapable truth that if a star on your opponent is unable to play, it makes it that much easier for you to win. And winning is “the only thing”, at least according to the great football coach Vince Lombardi. It was this unavoidable system of incentives that led to the Saints’ bounty scandal. It is also what makes people concerned that such a violent game is so popular today.

I don’t think anyone can ever ban football entirely–it would confirm the worst nightmare of every libertarian were the government to do that. The government would, however, be entirely within its rights to ban minors from competing in it, which I think would cause irreparable harm to the college game, and probably change the pro game quite a bit.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?