Recently, the New Orleans Saints were dinged with a heavy penalty for “bounty hunting.” Bounty hunting in football is when players, in this case the defensive line, are offered cash incentives to knock out a particular player on the opposing team. The Saints’ defensive coach offered two different rewards, one if the player has to be taken off the field and another, larger incentive, if the player is knocked out. When a key player is injured, the tides can quickly turn in favor of the other team. Additionally, injury can jolt the flow of the game. Some teams will agree that one of their own players is going to take a hard hit so that an injury will occur, stopping the game, and stopping the opposing team’s momentum.
In researching the death of twelve-time pro-bowl player and twenty-year NFL veteran, Junior Seau, I found quite a few references to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Thus far, Seau’s death has been deemed a suicide due to a gunshot wound to the chest. The family is still deciding whether to allow an autopsy of his brain which would is the only way to determine if he suffered from depression caused by CTE. As of now, and despite what some media reports may say, the reasons for Seau’s suicide are unknown.
Unfortunately, though, CTE is a possibility. CTE is a degenerative brain condition whose cause is unknown. Scientists suspect that it is due to receiving multiple concussions. Concussions, themselves, are difficult to determine. There are many definitions of a concussion, and there are many types of concussions. With such an unclear definition, they can be difficult to diagnose. The one common factor with people who have had a concussion is difficulties paying attention or mentally tracking. CTE can only be diagnosed after death, but there are some similarities in symptoms among those who have been found to have CTE: depression, erratic behavior, forgetfulness, memory loss and other signs of dementia. After death, the brain with CTE generally has an abnormally high number of tau proteins. Actually, some reports I’ve read said that the number of tau proteins are extremely high and that upon opening the skull, the brain looks like “mush.” One case was that of a 45 year-old former football player, whose brain, neurologists said, looked like that of a 90-year-old with advanced Alzheimer’s.*
Scientists have found example after example of former football players with CTE, and have found cases in former boxers and hockey players. Not all players seem to exhibit signs and not all brains that have been analyzed have tested positive for CTE. However, there are a large number of former athletes who have been found to have CTE. The story of the youngest, a 21-year-old football player from the University of Pittsburg, Owen Thomas, can be found here.
A lengthy investigatory report on the founder of CTE can be found here (note: some of the quotes contain mild language).
As more of this research has come to light, the NFL commission has made some efforts to change rules to protect players. For example, players cannot jump off of the ground, head first, and tackle another player in the head. Also there are now stricter rules for when a player is allowed to return to play after suffering a concussion. However, these rules have sparked debate about whether this dilutes the game, and whether it may eventually completely change the game.
I bring this up because I think it poses interesting questions about the ethics of sport. To get a couple of caveats out of the way, first, I love watching sports. I am from Dallas, so sports are part of our culture, and I enjoy participating in that culture. When I say “audience” I am including myself. Secondly, this is not a question about whether sports are okay. Generally, sports are great for teaching teamwork, healthy competitiveness, and overall fitness. I can think of many examples where sports have helped people with confidence, helped people with disabilities, and have been a healthy outlet for those who have gone through trauma or loss. The question is about the professional sports industry and the relationship between the athlete, the audience, and the business. Athletes are treated as commodities, items that are worth millions of dollars (for a few years, anyway) and are shuffled around and negotiated for as if they were a prized cow. It is a billion-dollar industry where audiences enjoy paying the ticket prices to see athletes who are bigger, better, faster, and stronger do things on a huge scale. The suits love it because they make a substantial amount of money, and the athletes get to bask in the glory and the limelight while bringing home a sizable paycheck playing the sport that (hopefully) they love to play. It is a complex industry that demands everything from players who are more than willing to voluntarily give it while we clap, cheer and maybe vicariously enjoy the thrill of winning.
In the sports industry, theoretically, everyone is engaging in it voluntarily, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to participate. Yes, it treats people like commodities, yes, athletes are brutal to their bodies, and yes, it’s all voluntary. But just because it is voluntary, that doesn’t mean that there should not be standards, precautions, and considerations in place. There should still be an ethics of sport. The New Orleans Saints were punished for bounty hunting. Of course, the players did not have to participate in the sense that the D-line didn’t have to try to knock a player out. They could just get him down, call it a tackle, and the play is done. The problem was incentivizing. Similarly, the industry (and that includes us audience members) incentivize extremes. We want to see bigger, stronger, and faster, but we get mad when an athlete tests positive for steroids. We want to see the fierce competitiveness and sheer physical prowess in football, boxing, or hockey, but we call for tighter regulations when we see the heavy toll it takes on the retired athlete’s body. Unfortunately, safety doesn’t sell. Breaking records sell. Winning sells, and for many sports, it is the possibility of injury, danger, or risk is a selling point.
*The accumulation of tau protein tangles in the brain is associated with Alzheimer’s disease (See www.alz.org), but is also associated with other neurological issues.
Note (05/25/12) ABC posted an article on brain injuries in football players.