CBSSports.com National Columnist

NFL players choose to play, so choosing to watch isn't fans' fault

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NFL players are more aware than ever before about the risks of their violent sport. (US Presswire)  
NFL players are more aware than ever before about the risks of their violent sport. (US Presswire)  

Football players are killing each other. The death sentence isn't immediate, but it's there -- and we all know it. Whether they die from dementia or Alzheimer's or their own hand, NFL players are dying too young because of the terrible toll of their game. Not all of them, no. But enough of them. Denying that fact would be stupid. We're not stupid.

And still, we watch. Still, to be perfectly clear, I watch. And I'll keep watching. And I'll keep watching and not feel bad about it -- although in the aftermath of Junior Seau's suicide, the morality of the football fan is being questioned. What is our duty, as football fans, as the evidence reaches overwhelming levels that the sport we love is killing the athletes who play it?

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We buy tickets and jerseys. We watch on TV. We have the Detroit Lions lawn chair, the NFL-licensed Terrible Towel, the official cornhole game of the Cincinnati Bengals. By supporting football, are we enabling the destruction of football players?

Is this our fault?

That's the question being asked right now, and it's being asked in the most introspective way. After Seau's suicide, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that he's done watching football: "I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while. ... My moral calculus is my own [and] it is my right to decline to watch. The actions of everyone in between are not my consideration."

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point, recently told Slate.com, "As long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated, then I'm not sure we can stop people from playing. A better question is whether it is ethical to WATCH football. That's a harder question."

At Midwest Sports Fans, Josh Tinley wrote, "As we learn more about the connection between what happens on the field and what happens in a former player's head later in life, we will have to make difficult choices about what we're willing to watch and support."

And the AtlanticWire.com asked: "Is it ethically defensible to watch and enjoy a game of football?"

Fascinating question. Without fans, football dies. With fans, football players die. It's probably not that simple, but this statistic here begs to differ: According to a study at the University of Michigan, retired NFL players in their 50s are five times more likely to have been diagnosed with a dementia-related syndrome -- and retired NFL players from age 30-49 are 19 times more likely to have such a diagnosis.

Nineteen times more likely.

Staggering fact. So we're back to the question: Knowing what awaits NFL players after retirement, is it ethically defensible to watch it -- and enjoy it -- as they do this to each other?

Staggering question, and for me, there is no single answer. Your answer is yours, just like my answer is mine. For me, it comes down to choice -- and football players have a choice whether to play or not. It's not a blind choice, either. This isn't the 1960s, when Colts tight end John Mackey had no idea what the violent collisions were doing to his brain. The greatest tight end of his generation was showing signs of dementia in his 50s, in an assisted-living center at age 65, dead at 69. Mackey never knew the risks, but today's players know. Playing football is like smoking a cigarette: This isn't the 1960s; everyone knows the risks.

That's why I can watch football. Don't ask me to shrug off the bounty system of the Saints (and surely other franchises), because there is a difference between accidentally injuring a player and trying to do so, but I can and do support the NFL. I'll watch it, write about it, enjoy it. Football isn't dog fighting, where mistreated animals take it out on each other in a cage. Those dogs have no choice. NFL players do.

And let's be honest: The lifestyle of an NFL player is incredible. Even if it ultimately shaves years off their lifespan -- and lessens the quality of those remaining years -- there's an argument to be made that it's worth it. The fortune, the fame. The thrill of the crowd. That's a lifestyle they can't get anywhere else. Live like a king at 30, hobbled at 50, dead at 65? Not sure I'd take it, but many would. And do.

The lifestyle of a college player? Not so precious, not when weighed against the odds of (not) playing in the NFL for a decade. College players risk similar collisions and head injuries as NFL players, only to have an overwhelming chance of being in the same general workforce as the rest of us.

Still, I'll watch college football. Those are young men who made a choice. In lots of cases, those are young men who wouldn't be in college -- wouldn't have a shot at being in the same general workforce as lots of us -- without football. Playing football is a risk, but it comes with a reward. So I'll watch college football and not feel badly about it.

Boxing, mixed martial arts? Sure, I'll watch those too. James Toney, still boxing at age 43, has never suffered a knockout loss -- but he has had 86 career fights, and the accumulation of damage has affected his speech. Listen to James Toney in 2005, and then try to understand him in 2012. What will he sound like in 2015? Not good. But if in the meantime he has a fight worth watching, I'll watch it.

That's my choice, because fighting or playing football is theirs. Horse racing? Not their choice. I can't watch it, and have written as much, because so many of those beautiful animals will run to their death. One counter-argument is that, if those horses weren't bred to run, they wouldn't be alive in the first place -- and isn't a chance at life better than never living? It's a compelling argument, but at the end of the day I just can't enjoy horse racing. My choice.

An NFL linebacker tackling an NFL receiver? I can enjoy that. Their choice to play, mine to watch.

But don't ask me to watch them as they get older, fall apart, start dying. Maybe my moral calculus needs work, because I'd just as soon not watch that.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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