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Why don’t we just replace professional sports with paté baking already?

As the new season started, there was in the United States debates around the health of participants, responsibilities in and the ethics of American football. In September this year, a 16-year-old player died after a collision with another player. Earlier in the same month, it was reported that brain trauma affects one in three retired players of the National Football League. In a column in the New York Times Magazine, Chuck Klosterman (the magazine’s “Ethicist”) poses the question: “Is It Wrong to Watch Football?” Is it? I think the very institution is the problem.


First of all, let me reframe the issue. Harms that arise as an effect of participating in sport is in no way confined to American football. Boxing has had its fair share of serious injuries. Ice hockey is a sport in which interpersonal violence is part of the game, and breaking the rules for the expressions this violence is “allowed” to take is part of the spectacle, especially in the National Hockey League (practices are somewhat different in other countries). Not surprisingly, it is a sport in which participators recurrently get harmed. Numerous soccer players have died in relation to practicing their sport in recent years. Professional participants of other sports get harmed in less direct ways. In some cases, where professional cycling seems to be the prime example, there is a culture in which participants need to use harmful illegal substances in order to be competitive. The ethically relevant question is not confined to American football.


Before I continue, it should be pointed out that it is obvious that not all harms that happen in relation to sports can be blamed on the sport. Some soccer players who die on the pitch had heart problems made the mere exercise the cause of the harm. Some athletes would use harmful illegal substances even if they were not competing with anyone. Yet, it is equally obvious that the competitive logic of sports encourages participants to take risks, to put life and limb (one’s own as well as the competitors’) at risk to get the upper hand, or to increase the team’s chances of winning. If harm is possible and related to behaviour that can be beneficial (conditions that are obviously met by the vast majority of professional sports), the competitive logic of sports entails that the risk for harm increases.


The standard position of those defending sports in which participators get harmed is that we have a right to engage in dangerous activities if we wish to do so. It is my business if I want to risk my life trying to climb K2. It is my right to try to sail over the Atlantic if I think it will improve my wellbeing. Likewise, one could argue, it is my right to take my chances as an American football player, risk my health, in order to try to achieve a better life, filled with money and fame for myself, and for my family.


This argument has its obvious flaws when transferred to organised, professional sports. We do think that certain, potential “sports” (I will use this term very loosely in what follows) are ethically indefensible. These include games in which humans purposefully harm each other such as gladiator games, jests in which combatants enacts wars and fight with sharp weapons, or the (so-far) fictional Hunger games. We, most of us at least, seem to think that I don’t have the right to pick up a sword and try my chances in the arena against an opponent who wilfully faces me in order to gain fame and fortune. An even stronger intuition tells most of us that it would not be ethically defensible to allow a venture capitalist to organise jests with sharp weapons in which participants who choose to enter can win $1,000,000, and the capitalist sells the right to commercial TV stations. What is it that makes these sports relevantly different from other, allowed, sports in which participants get seriously hurt?


There are two obvious differences between gladiator games and jests, and professional football. First, in gladiator games and jests the purpose is to harm the opponent. Second, the extent of harm in proportion to the amount of participators seems larger. Otherwise put: gladiators attempt to wilfully harm each other, and – by hypothesis at least – there are relatively more injuries among gladiators. Do any of these aspects make a decisive ethical difference?


Is it the purposefulness that makes the ethical difference? It is hard to see how that could be so. Imagine a sport in which the purpose of the participants is not to harm each other, but where the outcome is significant harm. Examples of such sports could include downhill skiing competitions on avalanches, swimming contests in piranha-filled waters, or formula 1 without seatbelts. There is no purpose of violence in these examples, but it seems obvious we should not sanction them. The reason is that participants will get harmed.


Let us move on to the second difference. The relative extent of harm is higher. This is not obviously and necessarily true. We can imagine gladiators on the arena fighting with sharp swords, bruising each other, cutting up open wounds, bleeding in front of cheering audiences, but with an extremely low rate of fatal injuries. Perhaps these gladiators will even have the genuine intention of killing each other – but as it happens, they are so skilled at defending themselves so that no one ever succeeds. We would still disapprove. The mere risk of fatalities would be enough reason for us to object to two men swinging sharp swords at each other. Yet, even if it we were certain that the harm is lesser in professional sports that our societies now support, it is hard to see how it makes a decisive difference. Participants still die, shorten their lives, contract brain damages, and get physically handicapped.


The (very good) reason why we disapprove of jests, gladiator games, the (so-far) fictional Hunger Games, downhill skiing on avalanches, swimming contests among piranhas and formula 1 without seatbelt is that it is harmful to the participants, and justifying this on the grounds that some would like to watch it is unthinkable. This argument seems as applicable to existing organised, professional sports as it is to non-existing sports. Creating an incentive (typically money and fame in this case) in order to get people do engage in activities that will be harmful for them is condemnable.


It is sometimes said that the only reason why tobacco and alcohol are permitted consumer goods is tradition, and in the case of tobacco, the fact that it is highly addictive. The drugs have been around for centuries, they are part of our culture, and in the case of tobacco: there are millions of people with physical addictions. It seems to me the same is true for (at least some) sports. They are anachronistic remnants of a society that (like, we should remember, fascism) fetishisised physical strength.


French utopian thinker Charles Fourier contemplated replacing wars with paté baking some 200 years ago. Perhaps it is time to pick up on this idea, and replace organised, professional sports in which participants can gain an advantage by risking harming themselves or others with just that, paté baking. Not only would this improve the world by removing unnecessary harms, it would also (contrary to conventional sports) produce a good: some pretty good paté recipes.


Professional sports is harmful to participants, reinforces societal ideals that at best fill no purpose and at worse are detrimental, and glorifies values that to have no place in a contemporary society.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. So if a sport involves a significant risk of harm to the participants, it should be banned? Or should be not banned but rather no longer supported by sport institutions? Or just the private ones? Or its rules, settings, etc. should be changed so as to make it less risk to participants?

    In short: could you be more specific? What should we make of the alleged blameworthiness of potentially harmful sports?

  2. Fortunately, elites in fancy universities lack the power as well as the mandate to destroy the beauty and cultural significance of professional football (in all its forms).*

    You’ve imagined a bunch of sports that are worse than those we have today, argued that they would be intolerably bad, and then inferred that – because these hypothetical sports amplify characteristics we already see in today’s sports – we should ban/get rid of (that’s a synonym for “ban”, right?) today’s sports. This is a bad argument, because it leaves a whole bunch of things unaddressed. One is a serious treatment of actually observed risk. If your objection is to the risks involved then first on your list ought to be difficult sports undertaken by amateurs who place themselves at unnecessary risk, so hiking, mountaineering, skiing and so forth would seem to be problem areas. In many places, these sports kill more people than professional sports (this is true where I live (in NZ) where outdoor pursuits kill and maim far more people than professional sports like rugby or cricket). To get anywhere at all with your argument you would need to show why professional football(s) should be banned before mountaineering. If you really believe that “Creating an incentive in order to get people do engage in activities that will be harmful for them is condemnable” then I presume you think that we should not portray mountains (and rivers, and the natural world more generally) as objects of exploration, wonder and mystery, since these portrayals deliberately create incentives “to get people do engage in activities that will be harmful for them.”

    I suspect the risk-based argument is a bit of a fig-leaf, and the real objection is that you don’t like the values sports you perceive sports as embodying – perhaps hero-worship, winner-takes-all mentalities, and the celebration of martial virtues. But sporting hero-worship is no different to the hero worship that university undergraduate programmes routinely encourage by celebrating some historical/intellectual figures and demonising others: the lives of Socrates and Martin Luther King (to take two examples) are routinely presented as inspirational as well as instructive. Hero worship is at least as common in philosophy departments as it is in sporting circles. It’s also just as prominent in other cultural practices – fans of music celebrate Mozart, or Miles Davis, or Kenny Rogers. Music, and to some extent the humanities, also resemble winner-take-all markets – for every Kenny Rogers there are thousands of unsatisfied high school music teachers who could have been stars but for some accident of fate. Sport is not unique in its pay-off structures. But you didn’t call for us to ban music.

    If the objection is to the moral signals sports send – the “anachronistic” celebration of martial virtues – then what you’re expressing seems to me just to be a matter of taste in virtues. To me, the martial virtues really are virtues. Courage, bravery, fortitude, persistence and self-sacrifice (to name a few), seem to me to be things very much worth cherishing. There may be other ways that people experience these virtues. Watching my mother fight and lose to cancer was one; but frankly I prefer the Champions League. (Safe bet that mum would have endorsed this preference.) Those virtues have a place because they are valuable as long as there is suffering in the world; I don’t think you actually made a case that the martial virtues were anachronistic. Plus, sport celebrates strength; but less so than it celebrates balance, timing, subtlety and movement – just like dance. Smearing sport but not dance with the memory of fascism seems hysterical as well as arbitrary.

    So I don’t think any of the objections you’ve raised show that sport is any more toxic than a whole bunch of other activities, from academic pursuits to music and culture. My guess is that your real problem is that you don’t like the cultural dimensions of modern professional sport, because you don’t approve of it. But it brings joy and reflection and wisdom to billions of people around the world whereas pate recipes do not. (There’s no depth to a recipe.) I’ve seen sport change people’s lives for the better, and it’s something I’m actively encouraging in my kids, because I think it’s a great way to learn to lose in something you care about, but which doesn’t actually matter. It’s like eating a chilli – the pain is real; but it doesn’t actually signify burning. Learning to lose, especially, is one of life’s central lessons. Sport teaches this more directly than just about anything. If the price to pay is Robbie Savage on your telly… so be it.

    *My guess is that European integration would never have got out of first gear if not for the European Championship, UEFA Cup and Super Cup in the 1960s/70s/80s, which for many people outside the elites, was the first regular mass contact between cities – kind of like the pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, except featuring many more cities, large stadiums, and the away goals rule.

  3. Andrew: what I had in mind was the institution and its support. I have no illusions that we can ban popular sports even if I think they, in some sense, perhaps ought to be banned. Similarly with cigarettes. I have no illusions that they will be banned any time soon. There has been a change in perspective however. We view smoking in a different way today compared to 50 years ago. I would think a similar change in perspective with respect to professional sports would be a good thing.

    Dave: This is a lot of comments, thank you. First of all, let me assure you that it is not a personal dislike of sports that drives me. There are those who love sports more than I do, but I can very much enjoy watching sports. I grew up being quite emotional about my favorite team, there were seasons when I would travel around the country to see there games, and more recently I have very fond memories of following the world cup last summer. As a personal anecdote, because it seems relevant: the team I love happens to be very bad, and so I experienced losing regularly – but it seems I am as bad at losing as I ever was.

    So, to the comments. I see a quite significant difference between amateur sports and institutions that incentivises self-harm. In the first case we infringe on an individual’s decisions, in the latter we create reasons to risk self-harm. I also don’t think pictures of mountains is a good analogy. Perhaps they have an allure on people and make them want to spend time in nature, but it has little to do with climbing mountains. Paying someone to take risks so that others get pleasure out of watching it is quite different.

    You are right to say that I don’t mind hero worshipping, and we deeply disagree about which virtues are valuable, and also what virtues are actually found in sports. Where you see courage, fortitude, persistence and self-sacrifice, I see genetic luck, self-harm and negligent behaviour, in combination with admiration for physical strength. Whether watching sports make people wiser or not is an empirical question that I guess neither of us know much about in the end, but I am very, very skeptic toward it. Although, I guess I could see how it can make you a better atom in a very individualistic, capitalist society because it shows the importance of competitions. I would not call that a virtue, even if I can see that it can be useful in our world.

    I also think your analogy to academic pursuit, music and culture is misleading. First because I can’t see the harm produced in these areas. Second because the purpose of all these activities is to produce something, to perfect something if you like, and I really, really cannot see that a football game produces anything except a winner and a loser, which is fine of course – but utterly pointless.

    1. Crucially… it’s not FC St Pauli, is it? Your team, I mean… the bit about how sports makes you a “better atom in a very individualistic, capitalist society” sounds like the sort of thing St Pauli fans might chant. Maybe.

      I think we agree that we just see different qualities in sportspeople, and we probably weight these differently. I see vast amounts of teamwork on a football pitch or rugby field. It’s true that individual sports such as tennis or golf don’t work that way, but they weren’t the ones you were objecting to. Basically, life is full of cooperation and competition. In football you cooperate with N people and compete with N+1.* But team sports are very much not about being a better atom in an individualistic system – they’re about teamwork.

      But just as I see positive qualities in sportspeople and you see negative ones, so I see just as many negative qualities in academics, culture and music. Vanity and narcissism, especially, but also shallowness, pretentiousness, overconfidence, self-harm**, and the Nabokovian vice of incuriosity***. Major atheletes (esp in US) frequently set up charities, and most major sports teams anchor their teams to their fanbase through good works in the community. Rock bands and mega-wealthy film directors generally do not. [The All Blacks here in Wellington are conspicuous by their good works; local residents James Cameron and Peter Jackson****, far less so.] etc. The point is – just as you can tally up a bunch of negatives about sportspeople and their activities, so others can tally up a bunch of bad things about artists/academics/etc. [I haven’t really said much about intellectuals, but I take Naomi Klein to instantiate the case – completely devoid of any economic literacy or sense, and duping millions of young people into policies that are against both their own and the common good.] Lastly there is perfection – Generally I regard perfectionism as a great vice. But I think sport is as capable as art of perfection. Bob Beamon, 1968. Dennis Bergkamp’s goal vs Newcastle. The shot heard round the world. Joe Montana’s The Drive against Cincinnati. Some of these are perfect aesthetically, and some have narrative perfection. It’s true that someone wins and someone loses, but there is more to it than that, just as there is more to literature than Tolstoy’s summary that either a stranger comes to town or a person goes on a journey.

      Anyway… my point is that you can of course tally up a bunch of bad things about sportspeople, and present these as a prosecution case. But my point is that people in other areas of cultural significance are just as vulnerable to similar allegations, and their activities just as reducible to simplistic cliches. I still see no more case for banning professional sports than I do for banning music or film. All you’ve really done is stated that you don’t much like professional sports; but you haven’t really come up with anything uniquely toxic about it. And it brings joy – genuine joy – to billions of people. (So any cost-benefit argument against sport would need to show that its costs were so astronomical that they outweighed those astronomical benefits.)

      *N+2 if you’re the All Blacks and Wayne Barnes is refereeing.
      **I would argue this tendency is at least as pronounced in music, where it is romanticized (e.g. the deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams…) as it is in sport where it is met with alarm and calls for regulatory intervention/institutional support (see any recent pronouncement by Roger Goodell on the subject).
      ***I know you all probably hate Rorty, but I found his discussion of cruelty as explored by Nabokov in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity to be a beautiful exposition of something I hadn’t really thought about before.
      ****Plus, the All Blacks do not lobby the government to get labour laws changed to make life easier for Warner Brothers.

  4. I think you definitely have a point, Anders, when you write that

    Creating an incentive (typically money and fame in this case) in order to get people do engage in activities that will be harmful for them is condemnable.

    . But I don’t think that this criticism applies to sports. In sports, as in other institutionalized activities, people do engage in activities that could be harmful for them. What’s more, the very institutions that encourage taking risks often promote or implement measures to curb the risks to some extent by working on different parameters on which those activities depend (training, equipement, setting, rules, etc.). So given the fact that the problem concerns risk-taking, and thus concerns harm only indirectly, you have to support your claim with an argument showing that that the relation between the potential harm (therearefter: “the risk”) and the measures promoted or implemented to curb its frequence and severity (therefater: “the mitigating measures”) are not adequate or proportionate. In short, you need to show that the mitigating-measures are less than efficient.

    When we assess the efficiency of mitigating measures, we do it relative to what’s at stakes . This can be glossed in game theory saying that the expected utility of a strategy (i.e. mitigating the risk) depends upon the total value of the game (i.e. what there is to be won by players using those strategies). Now I find it plausible to think that the higher the stakes are — the more the risk is worth-taking relative to what’s at stake ––, the more tolerant we are in our evaluation of the efficiency of the mitigating measures (game theory applied to strictly competitive games shows that this behaviour is even rational to some extent: the higher the game value is, the higher is are the expected utilities for all players).

    But if that is correct, any of the following two premises favours your claim:
    1) the stakes of most sports (i.e. the value that any sports usually produce) has an equally low value, to the effect that, risks being equal, better mitigating measures would increase the expected utility of such sports;
    2) the stakes of most risky sports which specifically depends on their risky aspects (i.e. the development of expert abilities, the strong emotions in the audience, the promotion of the virtues you mention) is about equal to the value of the stakes of the “same” sports minus their risky aspects, to the effect that, stakes being about equal, better mitigating measures would increase the expected utility of such sports.

    Either possibility would justify a significant revision of the way institutions promote such activities, for instance, adjusting the parameters mentioned above (i.e. training, equipment, setting, rules) so as to make the mitigating measures more efficient and thus increase the expected utility.

    However, notice that only (1) would justify your rather general statement that professional sports should be replaced with pâté baking (even if, notice, all sports are equally risky and/or equally valuable). For if (2) turns out to be the case, we need to proceed in a piece-meal way and, for each sports, check whether there is room for improvement regarding their mitigating-measures. We need to do it case by case because there is not reason to assume that, given the falsity of (1), the expected utilities of all sports should be the same, and therefore, that the efficiency of their respective mitigating-measures should be adjusted in the same way.

    Since I find (2) much more plausible than (1), I agree with you that there is much room for improvement regarding the mitigating measures of sports, and I agree that more efficient mitigating measures might justify transforming sports at a very deep level (i.e. their constitutive rules) or even, in the cases of sports for which we could not find efficient mitigating measures, giving them up entirely. Nonetheles, because of (2)’ plausibility again, I do not embrace your general statement that professional sports should be replaced by pâté (or, for that matter, any less humoristic but equally anti-casuistic approach to improving risk mitigation in professional sports).

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