There are some who believe that taking physical risks in pursuit of a communal goal — and even watching people take risks — has its benefits. “We learn from dangerous activities,” said W. David Solomon, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and director of its Center for Ethics and Culture. “In life, there are clearly focused goals, with real threats. The best games mirror that. We don’t need to feel bad about not turning away from a game in which serious injuries occur. There are worse things about me than that I enjoy a game that has violence in it. I don’t celebrate injuries or hope for them to happen. That would be a different issue. That’s moral perversion.”
Sean D. Kelly, the chairman of Harvard’s philosophy department, has a book coming out in January, co-authored with the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus of the University of California, Berkeley, that argues for the value of sports in a secular society. “You can experience a kind of spontaneous joy in watching someone perform an extraordinary athletic feat,” he said when we talked last week. “It’s life-affirming. It can expand our sense of what individuals are capable of.”
He believes that it is fine to watch football as long as the gravest injuries are a “side effect” of the game, rather than essential to whatever is good about the game and worth watching.
But what if that’s not the case? What if the brain injuries are so endemic — so resistant to changes in the rules and improvements in equipment — that the more we learn the more menacing the sport will seem? Where will football, and its fans, go from there?