Dr. Pam Sailors

Risky business: The future of football in the United States

Would you allow your child to play football?

If you said yes, Dr. Pam Sailors encourages you to reconsider.

“Kids start playing football as soon as their little necks can support the helmets on top of their heads,” Sailors said. “By the time they are old enough to make the choice to play, a lot of the damage has already been done.”

Professional and college football is one of the most-watched dramas in the U.S., but it’s become known as a risky activity.

“I’m torn about this. It’s kind of like ignorance is bliss in many ways. It’s hard for me not to watch football, but I feel kind of scuzzy about it if I do because it’s like watching people in a fight club or something. Because you know they’re hurting one another and you’re taking some sort of pleasure in it.” — Dr. Pam Sailors

Sailors, associate dean of the College of Humanities and Public Affairs, focuses her research on philosophy of sport. She reviews previously published pieces, then adds her own ideas to the discussion.

She’s written more than 60 papers, presented at about 50 conferences and appeared as an expert source in more than a dozen media publications.

Sailors published Personal Foul: An Evaluation of the Moral Status of Football in 2015. The paper was the first to use philosophical argument to challenge the ethical acceptability of football, both amateur and professional.

“Pam’s research is novel and makes not only an important contribution to the literature, but is also applicable to real-life scenarios,” said Dr. Charlene Weaving, an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. “She has an ability to make ethics come alive.”

Players pay the price later in life

Book cover for Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines

Dr. Pamela Sailors contributed a chapter, entitled Borderline Cases: Crossfit, Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, to this 2016 book, “Defining Sport: Conceptions and Borderlines.”

Playing football is ethically problematic for three reasons, Sailors said: the likelihood of brain damage, objectification of players and a culture that entitles players to free passes for some social offenses.

When it comes to the likelihood of suffering brain damage, Sailors specifically referenced chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, or brain deformation caused by repeated subconcussive blows to the head.

“We know now that smoking causes health problems. We don’t let kids do it,” she said. “We don’t even say, ‘We’ll just let them smoke a little bit until they’re 18, and then they can choose.’”

Sailors cited one National Football League, or NFL, survey that showed almost half of retirees said they suffered from severe pain as a result of playing. The game’s head injury risk could affect its popularity.

“We still have boxing, but it’s not as popular as it once was,” she said. “I think football may be on a similar track unless there are some radical changes. The changes might be so radical that we wouldn’t even think it was football anymore.”

Why make millions when others make billions?

Football players should be paid appropriately for taking on those health risks, Sailors said, but that isn’t happening in the NFL or university teams. She cited a 2013 report which stated the top 10 NCAA football programs banked more than million and did not pay their athletes.

“I know professional football players make what seems like a lot of money, but compared to what the owners make, and the number of years they make it, they don’t,” Sailors said.

“College players are not supposed to make money. I think there’s just a huge profit being made on the backs of people who are the ones who are having the bad health consequences, but they’re not getting their fair share of the profits.”

A culture of acceptance, no matter the offense

Finally, there’s the issue of players seemingly getting free passes for bad behavior off the field. Sailors described it as a problem with football culture, exemplified most recently by Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon.

He was a first-round draft talent whose stock fell after video surfaced of him hitting a woman in a restaurant. The Cincinnati Bengals still drafted Mixon in the second round and will give him an opportunity anyway.

Sailors noted in “Personal Foul” that a culture of violence and “idealized masculinity” contributes to such behavior, especially against women.

These issues are not unique to football, she said. But here’s what is.

“Other sports have brain injury trauma problems, take advantage of players for profit and have a culture of entitlement,” Sailors said. “But what makes football unique is it’s got all three.”

The next step in Sailors’ project is determining what this means for spectators and fans of the game.

Further reading

Major in philosophy

2 Responses
  • Bob Jones

    Thank you Dr. Sailors. I’ve known you as an ethicist for many years, and even tried to capture bits of what your conscience was saying on questions of importance during these years. But I had no idea you were working on developing and articulating a position on big time sport. I’m guessing this has taken some courage in the face of convention and loyalties. Thanks for being a strong voice of conscience—and for making me glad we didn’t let our sons play football!

  • Lana

    Dr Sailors,
    You are preaching to the choir here! I have been sure that football was too violent and dangerous for years. Thanks for making a study that gives backing to my theory.

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