Football Fans and Vegans: Some Very Confused Thoughts

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Last year at this time, I gave up on college sports. After a lifetime of watching every game on Saturday afternoons, caring deeply about whether Michigan would win the Big Ten championship, and arguing about whether the Big Ten was a better football conference than the SEC (an argument that was at least colorable until about 2005), I gave up. In part, this was because I had taken extended trips abroad during the football seasons of 2009 and 2010, and I had not missed the games nearly as much as I thought I would. In larger part, however, it had simply become impossible to continue to ignore the game's obvious corruption.

This was long before the Penn State scandal. The proximate causes of my disgust were the scandals revolving around Auburn's star quarterback, Cam Newton (who led his team to last season's national championship), and Ohio State's star players (who had been violating rules by selling team-related merchandise, but who were allowed to play in a major bowl game, with their suspensions to be served during less important games the following season). We did not yet know that Ohio State's then-coach, the unctuous Jim Tressel, was thoroughly corrupt (and, as a great article in Sports Illustrated later laid out in great detail, always had been).

Both cases involved players who were obviously being given special treatment by their universities and the NCAA's enforcers, with no possible explanation other than the amount of money at stake. The TV ratings would go down if the best players were not on the field, so the rules were being bent or broken. (In the Newton case, the NCAA's well-established -- and very sensible -- rule making players liable for the acts of their representatives suddenly no longer mattered.)

In addition to the obvious financial corruption of college football, the increasing evidence of the physical toll on young men's bodies from playing against other agile behemoths made it impossible for me to watch football. I had reached the point with football that so many of us had reached with boxing years before. Yes, there is a truly interesting sport involved in each case, but the direct costs of engaging in the sports made it too difficult to watch. (I had mostly lost interest in the NFL years before, for different reasons, but the injury issues there are even worse than in the college ranks.)

One of the most overlooked scandals in 2011 involved the University of Miami. It turned out that a rich alum had been paying players under the table for years. This led to sanctions, but the turmoil died down quickly. What was especially sickening, however, was that the alum had specifically paid players bonuses to "head hunt" -- that is, to deliberately injure players on the other team. This was mentioned in passing, but the outrage centered around the payment of money in general, not the criminal assaults for hire.

When the 2011 football season began, I barely paid attention. Soon, however, I did find myself flipping on ESPN to watch the scores. That meant watching the highlights, which meant watching the carnage. What was most disturbing was that the glorification of violence had not abated, even after a year in which head injuries had become a major issue in football, and the NFL and NCAA had both taken some important steps to reduce the frequency of those injuries. In particular, there was renewed attention to preventing helmet-to-helmet hits.

Even so, on ESPN one morning in early September, they were showing highlights from the previous week's games. They ran a clip of a receiver being hit directly in the head by a flying defensive back, in an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit, snapping his head back violently. The analyst shouted: "BOOM!!!" They ran the same clip again, and the analyst smiled and screamed: "BOOOOOMMMMM!!!!!" The other analyst did nothing to correct him or to suggest that this was outmoded thinking. Later that day, after twice showing an equally brutal hit from another game, a different analyst did say: "That was the kind of hit that should make you uncomfortable -- but apparently not so much that we didn't show it to you twice."

Each game had players being carried off the field on stretchers, with word that ligaments had been torn, bones broken, concussions suffered. Yet I found myself watching the games again. By the end of the season, I was back to watching about a fifth or so of the games. Still a big decline, but I can tell you exactly who beat whom in every important game, each team's record and place in the standings, and all of that.

Now, what about the title to this post? When I became an ethical vegan, I knew that I would never again consume or use animal products, and I have never even once felt any temptation since then to waver. It would simply be repulsive. When I gave up on college football, I thought that I was going through a similar epiphany.

Why did I backslide regarding college football? One can, if one is so inclined, convince oneself that one's own tiny contribution to the problem is inconsequential. That, however, is no better than littering and fhen denying that "ever litter bit hurts." The same false logic could be applied to veganism as well, especially in situations where one is at a buffet, or at a conference dinner where the meals are pre-arranged and placed in front of the diner. Sending it back does nothing to help the animal who suffered and died a horrible death, before being dismembered and scorched. Even so, I would never eat animal products, even when doing so has no apparent consequential impact on suffering.

To be clear, in the paragraph above I am giving the rationalizer as much room as possible, allowing for the possibility that "just one steak" does not change the world in any way. In reality, I do believe that there are important symbolic effects of refusing to eat meat, telling caterers that you do not want their "free" animal products, and so on. Similarly, one could argue that watching a game on TV has no impact on whether any player will be brutalized and possibly crippled for life. Maybe watching at home (as opposed to supporting a sports bar) is the equivalent of eating a cheeseburger that one finds in a kitchen, already cooked. That argument still feels weak, however.

The only explanation that has made even a little bit of sense to me is that consuming animal products -- even in circumstances that do not apparently contribute to animal suffering -- still involves actually consuming animal products. This means, I suppose, that ingesting the results of the brutalization of sentient beings is worse than watching the brutalization of sentient beings for entertainment purposes. Yet even that would not explain the refusal to consume animal products in a way that does not require taking the product into (or even touching them with) one's body, such as a refusal to have leather curtains in one's house.

So, I am stuck. I absolutely will not backslide on veganism, for ethical reasons. I now know that I did backslide on football, despite the ethical case against it. Maybe I have a limit to how much I am willing to change my life for the benefit (admittedly marginal) of others. I hope not.