Bioethics Forum Essay

Does the NFL Need PETA?

An article in this week’s New York Times revealed new evidence of a disturbingly high risk of dementia among National Football League players. Conducted at the University of Michigan and commissioned by the NFL itself, a not-yet-published study reportedly finds that “players ages 30 through 49 showed a rate of [dementia-related diagnoses] 19 times that of the national average.”

Meanwhile, NFL player Michael Vick has just finished serving an 18-month prison term “for running an elaborate and sadistic dogfighting ring.” Back into dangerous play goes Vick.

Considering this juxtaposition of NFL news, I involuntarily recalled that the social prohibitions against cruelty to children grew out of social prohibitions against cruelty to animals. During a Victorian meeting of animal rights activists in London, the President for the Society for Protection of Animals was quoted as saying, “I am here for prevention of cruelty, and I can’t draw the line at children.” Children, she argued, deserved at least as much protection as dogs.

Well, I’m having trouble drawing the line between dogs and professional football players. Don’t the latter deserve some protection against a game that puts them at serious physical risk? Is it time for PETA to tell the NFL that men are animals, too?

It’s true that football players are consenting adults, and, unlike dogs and children, they get paid buckets of money to let others smack the heck out of them. But, given those buckets – and given the lack of lucrative, fame-making alternatives available to most of the players – is players’ consent to physical harm reasonably uncoerced?

In an article entitled “Athlete or Guinea Pig? Sports and Enhancement Research,” Nancy M. P. King and Richard Robeson consider the conundrum of many athletes. They write: “Competitive athletes are often encouraged to sacrifice long-term health benefits for short-term gains; cultural mythology about sports and high-stakes financial investments at the organizational level in team sports exercise great influence on individual athletes’ range of choices.”

It may be appropriate, King and Robeson persuasively argue, to think of athletes, “at least in some circumstances … as vulnerable research subjects, akin to desperate patients.” King and Robeson are talking especially about when athletes are subject to performance-enhancing experimentation pushed by coaches and team doctors. Just as the desperate patient will do anything to survive, the desperate athlete might agree to anything to play.

King and Robeson reasonably argue that bioethicists really ought to care more about issues of health and medical care in sports. My own recent participation in public discussions of Caster Semenya, the South African runner whose sex has been called into question, inclines me to agree. The question of whether it is fair to let Semenya compete as a woman may be a reasonable one, but why should an athlete’s medical history be open to public scrutiny? Must athletes, by virtue of agreeing to participate, relinquish all rights to medical privacy? And oughtn’t bioethicists care about this, too?

Of course, more effective than bioethicists caring would be the fans of these sports showing that they care. Practically speaking, it is the fans to whom the franchises respond. And so, ethically speaking, I think it is ultimately the fans of such high-risk sports who must ask themselves to what exactly they are buying a ticket.

Michael Vick’s dogs surely deserved protection. Now – given what looks like a sizable risk of a damaged brain – what about Vick himself?

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