On March 2, 2012 the NFL announced the findings of an investigation into the “bounty system” operated by, then New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. Since 2009, Mr. Williams operated a program of pay-for-pain wherein defensive players were given bonuses for intentionally hurting opposing players. In the process of indefinitely suspending Mr. Williams, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also suspended the New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton without pay for the entire 2012 season.
This decision by Goodell highlights an ethical odyssey of the NFL in the last decade. The question at hand: How do you balance a business of violence with long-term health care for employees? By slapping the Saints franchise, Mr. Goodell defined the future of the NFL’s business model–violence must not interfere with profitability, especially in light of perceptions of fairness and the reality of rising health care costs.
And yet a second ethical dilemma faces Christian fans of the NFL: Should these policies affect the way that Christians watch the NFL? Allow me to weigh in on both questions.
The History of the NFL and Profitability
The first NFL players in the 1920s played football in the evenings as a second job. There were no guaranteed salaries or contracts or medical benefits. It was not until 1956 that CBS broadcast the first NFL game on television and helped launch the modern business-model NFL. In other words, it was not until the 60’s that the NFL players had a financial interest to protect.
Forbes has noted that since the original CBS broadcast in 1956 the NFL has become one of the most profitable sports businesses in the world, with franchises making an average of $33 million in profit per year. Relatedly, the NFL players have found a similar measure of success, with the average NFL player earning $1.9 million per year and a generous medical benefit package.
When Long-Term Healthcare Eats Into Profit
Ironically, this benefits package came about in the last decade due to mounting pressure from retired players. When the University of North Carolina released findings from a 2001-2004 study of 2,500 former NFL players, it found a strong correlation between football head injuries and clinical depression. Other former players soon spoke up:
- Dallas Cowboys defensive back Mel Renfro suffers from depression in connection with the 9 concussions he experienced during his football career.
- Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk died in a car crash, but his autopsy revealed brain damage caused by football related trauma.
- The autopsy of deceased wide receiver Chris Henry revealed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), an injury from head collisions that would have resulted in depression, dementia, memory loss, and confusion had he lived.
- Dave Duerson, a retired All-Pro safety for the Chicago Bears, committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain for medical study–which revealed CTE, the same brain condition that befell 19 other former NFL players.
- Ray Easterling, a retired safety for the Atlanta Falcons, died on April 19 from CTE-related trauma while still embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the NFL.
In light of these stories, the NFL finds itself facing an odd wrinkle to the ethical dilemma. Is a business culpable for the long-term health problems of retired employees? Commissioner Goodell has responded by establishing a retired players lifetime benefits package and has begin enforcing preemptive player care rule changes to protect future retired players:
- In 2007 NFL medical policy began protecting players who experience concussions and concussion-like symptoms in the midst of play.
- In 2008 the concern shifted from protecting those experiencing concussions to preventing concussions on the field of play. The league improved NFL head gear and began implementing rules to protect players by preventing injuries from violent hits.
- In 2009 the NFL created a rule protecting defenseless wide receivers from violent hits and protecting quarterbacks from unnecessarily rough hits below the knees.
- In 2010, the term “defenseless players” was applied broadly in order to protect all players from unnecessarily violent hits.
- In 2011 the “defenseless player” category was expanded to include punters and kickers.
The NFL ethics odyssey communicates so much about the current intersection of sports, business, and American culture. Although it may appear as a goodwill move, it is ultimately a profit and loss decision. Consider the following factors:
- Longterm healthcare was not even on the radar of the first NFL players’ minds. These were men who would show up drunk to games and who a decade later charged onto the beaches of Normandy. And yet, healthcare is an important value in the world of 21st century America, as Ben Bartlett recently discussed. Perceptions affect the bottom line.
- Former NFL players have enough legal leverage that the NFL would lose money in the appeals process.
- Current player injuries, especially in light of the UNC and WVU studies, can result in added expenses and litigation.
The Second Question: Should Christians Care About The NFL Rule Changes?
The value of the human body was an important discussion in the heresy trials of the patristic era, with the Church taking the position that God does value the human body in this life and the life to come. After all, The Bible says that Jesus will raise believers in bodily form during the final days and Paul admonishes the Corinthian believers to be good stewards of their bodies. Goodell’s policies may aim to keep the talent healthy and deliver a better sports product, but, they also align with God’s design for the human body. The Great Equipment Manager only issues us one set of gear. It is our responsibility to ensure that it lasts until He reissues us a perfect set in eternity.
This doctrine of the body can also serve as a call to Christians to reconsider their viewing appetites. The non-aggression principle of pacifism, to quote Ayn Rand, teaches that “force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.” I worry that some Christian viewers may view Goodell’s policies creating an “Sissy NFL.” But remember, God cares about the human body and so too should Christian viewers of the NFL.