The NFL and The Principle of Harm

The National Football League is one of the most recognized and respected organizations in America. The league is an incredible revenue generator — the executives, players and coaches amongst others all have six to seven figure salaries. The television market is very large, and they also have ownership one of the most viewed sports events in the world: the Super Bowl. People love to watch football. Some fans of the game watch football religiously, treating every Sunday (and Thursday and Monday) as a holiday. Along with the revenue the league generates, a tremendous amount of money is gambled on the games as well. In the United States, the NFL is the most sport most gambled on, which simply reflects the devoted interest.

Even the most routine plays can injure players. Sometimes concussions leave permenant damage

All in all, the sport has been successful, popular and is continuously growing. As a Fantasy Football player myself, I have watched quite a bit of football without a strong interest in the teams, but rather the players. What I continue to see, game in and game out, is players taking hits. Hard hits. Helmet to helmet hits. Blindsided hits. Fans love the violence in football; I don’t see the appeal. Instead what comes to mind is the injuries, concussions, and long term effects of each and every hit. In our Political Science lecture “Freedom, Harm, and Responsibility,” we used social epistemology of John Stuart Mill to unpack the harm principle — an idea that can be directly connected to the National Football League and the violence within it.

Injuries are said to be “a part of the game.” If these injuries effect the long term physical and mental capabilities, isin’t it harmful?

When the word “harm” is brought up, it is usually in a negative context. Doing things harmful to oneself or to others is not typically thought of as a productive way to handle a situation. Determining the definition of harm, and what constitutes harm is key. In class, each student was asked to plot on a horizontal coordinate plane what they feel is considered harm. The results (seen below) were scattered, but there was a significant cluster in the middle that helped indicate the general consensus as to what harm is. “Moderate Pain” and “Feeling Hurt” were the median selections, which leads me to ask “Is football (NFL) a harmful sport?”

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Scott Clement’s article in the Washington Post provides an in-depth analysis on the injuries that NFL players have endured over the years, and most importantly the long term effect on their brains and bodies. In addition, he looks beneath the surface at the way the NFL and it’s doctors have handled injuries as well as addressing the “Play through the pain” nature.

In addition to the plotting of points that was completed in class, we also had further discussion on the topic. As a result, we were able to elaborate on what exactly is “harm.”

○ Decreasing quality of life

○ Inhibits future practice of one’s own liberty

○ Something that will be remembered and change how one acts in the future

○ Insults and offends either identity or physical body

○ Damage to characteristics beyond one’s control


 I don’t think there is any grey area. Football is a harmful sport. From Clement’s study it was reported that “About eight in 10 reported suffering from pain that lasts most of the day. Among younger retirees, aged 30 to 49, one in three said he was unable to work or limited in work. And almost 30 percent of them rated their health as only “fair” or “poor.” The numbers speak for themselves. The bodies and minds of these players have changed permanently. The damage is out of their control at this point, and the remainder of their life is affected as a result. Clement continues with “If you didn’t hurt while you were playing, then you weren’t playing,” yet “Forty-nine percent of the former players surveyed said they wish they’d played while hurt less often.”

J.S Mill’s epistemology states “I consent that established custom, and the general feeling, should be deemed conclusive against me, unless that custom and feeling from age to age can be shown to have owed their existence to other causes than their soundness.” Simply meaning If we have an established custom that makes sense and continuously makes sense, let’s look at this custom, but ask why we value them. What we need to do, is look at why we value NFL football — why these customs matter to us– and then determine if why we value it justifies the sacrifices made by these players. My hypothesis: we value the NFL for entertainment, and for some the winnings of gambling. To me, that doesn’t sound like justifiable values considering the harm these players undergo on a regular basis.

Is it up to the players to step up and ask for reform, or should we look to Commissioner Rodger Goodell to make a change?

Perhaps it is being “soft,” but I constantly remember Mill’s Rule of Thumb: How we evaluate actions depends on their consequences. The consequences of an action are what matters.

The consequences that happen as a result of these hits is enough to change the actions, which I don’t see happening in the near future, however for the safety of all current and future players, it is necessary for reform.



  1. hsharf · December 3, 2014

    I agree that football is a harmful sport. The injuries that players get while playing are grueling, and the constant grind on their bodies ultimately has a lifelong impact. Morally, we should sympathize for these players. Nonetheless, I have little problem with it and no sympathy. First of all, these player are payed handsomley for their talents. It’s not like they are making peanuts. They are paid millions of dollars. There is a high health risk, but there is also a high reward. Furthermore, the players no the risks of the game. They know the violence that occurs and the potential for harm (long term and short term). At any point they can stop playing if the harm is too much.


  2. noahblum · December 4, 2014

    While football is a harmful sport, it does not fall under Mill’s harm principle. Mill states that the state is justified in restricting liberties when they bring harm to others. In the case of football, players are knowingly and voluntarily bringing harm to themselves. They are making a conscious decision to engage in harmful activities, so the view that you are taking is actually that of a paternalist: that the state is justified in restricting liberties to prevent harm to oneself. Additionally, there is no doubt that the NFL brings more good than harm, which would override the harm principle. Jobs created by the industry, charity work done by the NFL, enjoyment brought to the general public, along with many other benefits surely outweigh future medical problems of a very small percentage of people.


  3. maxmcquaid · December 5, 2014

    While I agree that football is a very violent sport, I do not think the harm principle applies to it. NFL players understand the harm they put on their bodies when they play. They make a choice, and sacrifice their health to play the game they love and make millions of dollars. Also, it’s not like the NFL is going out of their way harm the players. The NFL is taking measures to make football less harmful and violent, attempting to protect the players.


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