Should NFL Fans Feel “Morally Compromised”?

by Randy Shaw, 2012-12-05

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher's December 1 murder/suicide has renewed concern over what conduct fans are supporting when they watch the NFL. Some contend that fans should feel “morally conflicted, even morally compromised” in getting joy from a sport that leaves far too many athletes physically broken, unemployed and even suicidal soon after their careers end. I understand this concern, but wonder why we hear far less talk of “morally compromised” college football and basketball fans. The vast majority of former college football players also suffer from concussions and lifetime physical misery, and gain neither a college degree nor NFL paycheck. College basketball players do not usually get concussions, but they make millions of dollars for universities in exchange for “scholarships” that typically do not lead to a degree. If we want to raise moral qualms about sports, big-time college athletics is the place to start.

Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide led me to recall something Professor Harry Edwards said in his Sociology of Sport class at Cal in the 1970’s. Edwards, who gained fame by organizing a black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, said that we should not be surprised to see criminal violence by successful football players because the same physical and mental skills that make a violent criminal can also make one a very successful football player.

NFL players have long engaged in off-field violence, and it has not diminished interest in the sport one bit. Nor has the growing concern with player concussions and shortened lifespans of former NFL players stopped fans from cheering RG3, Andrew Luck and other newly minted stars.

I think fans do not feel “morally conflicted” because they see the NFL as a business, and players recognize this fact. True, it is a business that leaves broken lives and broken bodies. And as the San Diego Union-Tribune put it, “within 12 to 24 months of retiring, three out of four NFL players will be one or more of the following: alcohol or drug addicted; divorced; or financially distressed/bankrupt.”

But if we are making moral judgments, college football and basketball are far worse.

The Exploitation of College Athletes

I know many people who disdain the big salaries and culture of pro sports and focus on what they perceive as the “purer” athleticism of college sports. They have no moral qualms about young African-American athletes making millions of dollars for schools only to leave without either a degree or any chance of a good job. Nor are they bothered by the violence among college athletes, which is often covered up by college administrators for the good of the team.

College football has all of the violence of the NFL, but the players suffer disabling injuries without getting paid. And the “scholarships” that some argue represent payment mean little when they simply maintain an athlete’s eligibility, rather than ensure they actually get a college education (many athletes are too busy with practice and games to keep up with classes, and then leave school once their eligibity expires).

While NFL players have a union to negotiate for a “piece of the pie,” college players do not even get crumbs. A sport that leaves players uneducated, impoverished and physically broken should do more than leave fans feeling morally compromised: it should compel them to end this massive hypocrisy whereas overwhelmingly white NCAA Division One football coaches get rich while their players get nothing.

College basketball lacks the high risk of brain damage, but still has the violence, lack of graduation, and the exploitation of low-income African-Americans for profit. I always think of the “legendary” University of Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins, whose 1989-2005 tenure with the Bearcats saw few starters ever graduate and many engage in criminal acts.

Nobody complained about the “immorality” of Huggins’ success; fans loved that he won. He’s now at West Virginia.

I find college sports fans pay little attention to former stars once their eligibility is up, just as NFL fans have little idea what happens to former players unless they commit suicide like Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and many more. Fans do not want to know, as the reality is too disturbing.

To be sure, there are clean college sports programs. But for every Duke basketball and Stanford football program there are dozens more where athletes leave school with serious physical and health issues and little chance of well-paid employment.

We all have standards for morality, but at least the NFL claims to be a business. College sports claim to represent broader values, adding hypocrisy to its immoral treatment of the athletes making money for everyone but themselves.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.