Economics, Fairness, and Football

23:40 Mon 19 Oct 2009
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Living in a capitalist society, many of our pastimes and interests are based on exploitation of one kind or another.

Some of these forms of exploitation are reviled because of their outright cruelty. This revulsion isn’t consistent. One of the things that keeps us calm about them is a veneer of fairness, which allows us to move along in acceptance instad of trying to figure out how to fight. Even if we don’t believe it, either enough other people do or we think enough other people do, which is one of the things that keeps our current system ticking along.

Does our requirement for “fairness” increase the more direct the connection is between the exploitation and our enjoyment? This question is one that struck me while reading Malcom Gladwell’s “Football, dogfighting, and brain damage”.

The essay is an exploration of the dangers of playing football, particularly on the lines. It’s quite scary, and certainly suggests that it results in extremely serious long-term ill effects. Given this, however, what do we (individually or societally) do about it? Ira Casson, co-chair of an NFL committee on brain damage, said:

No one has any suggestions—assuming that you aren’t saying no more football, because, let’s be honest, that’s not going to happen.

As Gladwell points out, we know that boxing has similar effects, but people still box, and watch boxing. It appears that these two sports have brain damage more or less built into them, rather than it being something that happens only to the very unlucky. Given this, should people be playing those sports?

People should be able to do whatever they want; if they want to play dangerous games, let them. That being said, it should be apparent to them, and to everyone involved, just what the danger is.

Given that information, and choice, quite a few people will still choose to play. Why? Some for the love of the game; some for the sheer contrariness of it; some because they’d feel that living life to the full in the short term is more important than longer or later life. But those would all be minority reasons in comparison to the fact that our economy would still drive people to it, because it’s a popular game.

Gladwell addresses that popularity at the end of the essay:

There is nothing else to be done, not so long as fans stand and cheer. We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else—neither considerations of science nor those of morality—can compete with the destructive power of that love.

That love, however, is refracted through our capitalist society, and amplified. It is not the pure love of fans that drives players to risk brain damage—although it contributes—but rather money, money circling around that love so tightly that sometimes we can’t differentiate between the two.

Forgetting about the exploitative nature of professional sports (and college sports…) for a moment, it’s worth considering what it says about our society that we’ll happily encourage—very strongly encourage—plenty of people to risk very likely serious brain damage in order to enjoy the spectacle of particular sporting events. There we run right into having to then also consider what other ways we push people into risky endeavors. That will proceed into either the conclusion that the entire system is morally untenable, or that everything is just fine because “the free market” determines these things and is inherently fair. Another possibility is placing sports in a separate box, one where things are mostly fine because we think sporting activity is inherently meritocratic (and thus fair).

Personally, I like to watch football. I occasionally like to watch boxing but am a little more conflicted there—which, given the evidence presented in the Gladwell article, isn’t necessarily rational. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but I’d be very curious about some kind of high-tech touch football emerging as an alternative to the inherent violence in the game. As for how I should act on the information contained in the article—just as with yesterday’s post, I don’t know.

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