The new season of the National Football League is off to a rough start. Shocking revelations of domestic violence by Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and child abuse by the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, along with the failures of the teams’ owners and league officials to properly handle those cases, have stirred outrage on fan sites and call-in radio programs. Scandals such as these raise the question: When we enter the stadium to support our team, do we check our conscience at the gate? We asked four of our writers – philosopher Mike Austin, historian Amy Bass, psychologist Andrew Guest, and religion scholar Alon Raab – to map out the lines between fan loyalty and individual morality.  

Ray Rice was suspended from the NFL after a released video showed him punching out his then-fiancée (Keith Allison/Flickr)

Ray Rice was suspended from the NFL in early September after a video was released that showed him punching out his then-fiancée in an elevator. (Keith Allison/Flickr)


Let’s begin with a question that some fans of the Ravens, the Vikings, and the NFL in general have been likely asking lately: Is our moral character compromised when we continue to support a team, or even a sport, after the players, owners, or administrators do things that we – and most other people – find reprehensible?

Andrew Guest: The short answer to this question, with an emphasis on our moral character being compromised, seems to me an obvious yes. Just knowing that football players are almost certainly causing themselves brain damage for our entertainment ensures a degree of moral compromise for fans. But the trick is in that matter of degree – we make hundreds of tiny moral decisions every day, and that comes with a lot of compromise. In psychology, efforts to measure and assess “moral development” are most often done on a continuum of stages rather than on a binary of moral/immoral. The key thing is how we think about the issues and where we are willing to draw our lines.

For example, does the fact that NFL players are well-compensated, consenting adults make their increased risk for long-term brain damage a matter of personal choice that we fans shouldn’t judge? My undergraduate students think so: I recently had them read the Malcolm Gladwell’s 2009 New Yorker article that makes an implicit comparison between dog fighting (this was around the time of Michael Vick’s arrest) and watching football, knowing that each causes grievous harm. I then surveyed my students about each activity. None thought that dog fighting was moral – they were eager to judge Michael Vick as a person. Twenty-one of the 26 thought watching football was moral – they were generally happy to watch Michael Vick play. For most, the difference was consent.

Amy Bass: Sitting here in New Rochelle, home of Ray Rice, I find myself more conflicted about such questions than I have been previously. Rice is the beloved son here. Last week, when the high school administration took his photograph down from the “Wall of Fame,” students put a xeroxed photo back up. I understand their need to stick with him. I even understand why the high school football coach welcomed Rice to the sidelines last week, reiterating that Rice is still part of the “family.” But then I shudder to read comments of female students who wonder if Rice’s wife “deserved” that punch.

These situations are not singular to sport, let’s be clear. Every public entity, from corporations to universities, makes decisions that one can disagree with. This leads to the central question I find to be true of politics: what is the role of the individual within a social movement? Where do we draw the line between our passions and our politics? Can you be a fan of the football team in Washington without ever wanting to utter its name? Can you watch football, knowing what the league perpetrates on its athletes? Can you hold the NFL to higher standards than we hold other corporate entities? I hope Charles Barkley wasn’t right with his infamous statement that athletes aren’t role models, as I like to think athletes hold a place in our society that is almost unparalleled. But he may have been on to something.

Mike Austin: I think our character certainly can be compromised, but this is not necessarily the result of continued support. For example, a Washington Redskins fan can continue to support the team while at the same time working with others to change the team’s name.

In many cases, supporting a particular team might be like supporting a family member, friend, or even one’s own nation, in the following sense: I am committed to the team, even when I disagree with its morally reprehensible behavior. The key to avoiding moral compromise in such a situation is to avoid rationalizations or the behavior and to do what I can, out of my passion for the team and sport, to encourage moral reform where needed. Supporters of soccer clubs will come together in protest over a manager or owner’s decisions with marches, signs in the stands, and the like. What if fans did the same over racism, violence against women, and concern for the health of athletes?

Alon Raab: My lifelong support and love of the Maccabi Tel Aviv football team has not been affected by scandals, some racist fans, or ownership by an oligarch. My love of Macabbi was created and nourished by my father, when he took me to games, starting at age six, and regaled me with stories of his own playing days. The tales were accompanied by political lessons, as teams in Israel were historically divided along ideological lines. My tendency is to sympathize with the underdogs, with teams representing workers and minorities, and respect players who fight oppression. In the case of Maccabi Tel Aviv, however, I make an exception. “The Yellows” are now one of the wealthiest teams in the country; they are owned by Mitchell Goldhar, whose financial net worth is two billion dollars; and a contingent of its fans sometimes yells anti-Arab slogans in games. These are elements I detest, and I support grassroots attempts by fans to “take back the team.” Yet, I will always love the team.

To change allegiance and abandon this love is not possible. It will be a betrayal of my childhood, my dad’s love, the thousands of hours he spent kicking the ball with me, and the joy I’ve felt in my body and soul from playing, watching, dreaming.

If I were to support or be inspired only by those without a moral blemish then I would have to stop reading and loving Dostoevsky and Dickens (for their anti-Semitism) or Martin Luther King (for his betrayals of his wife). My team is like the religion or nation into which I was born. As a Jewish man, my relation with Judaism is complex, yet I will never convert to another religion. The same is true about Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team I will never abandon, even as I Iong for a world where sports are free of the negative aspects of the societies in which they exist.

Alon makes a telling observation that many fans would agree with: “To change allegiance and abandon this love is not possible.” Does that explain something of the anger of NFL fans over the last few weeks? 

Andrew: I don’t doubt that abandoning the love of a team or a sport feels impossible. Part of the power of sports fandom is the feeling of emotional attachment and connection. I also suspect that feeling does tap a deep moral impulse. In fact, as I read both Alon’s and Amy’s comments, I was struck by the way loyalty pervades the moral calculus. It reminded me of another psychological theory on morality, one that is sometimes called “moral foundations theory” and has been popularized by Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. The idea is that there are at least six distinct “moral foundations”: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. While each of these ethics has some hardwired emotional meaning in all people, different people seem to value them in different ways. Importantly, they are all viable moral codes that people must at least respect, even if they value one more than another. It seems plausible that NFL fans can be repulsed by the actions of players such as Rice and “leaders” such as Roger Goodell because they so dramatically oppose a sense of care and fairness, while simultaneously they feel a profound sense of loyalty to teams and a game that provide important social connections and intense moments of joy.

I also have to admit, however, that I think loyalty can be a tricky foundation for morality when talking about professional sports. Wealthy owners, sponsors, executives, coaches, and players depend upon fan loyalty to accumulate even more wealth. If we, as fans, don’t put conditions on that loyalty, we essentially write them a blank check.

Amy: This morning I logged in, as I still do most days, to read the Boston Globe, despite the fact that I haven’t lived in New England since college. There was a story in the sports section about Tommy Harper, an African American player and coach for the Red Sox who experienced years of discrimination from the club. The historian in me knows the bigger context of Harper’s tale: I’ve written about it, I’ve taught it, and as a fan, I have lived it. But it isn’t my lack of moral compass that keeps me — a civil rights historian — attached to a team with a despicable history of race and rights. I do so in spite of my moral compass, because my identity as a Boston fan is impossible to abandon. It is part of who I am, what I have done, and how I understand not just myself, but the community I grew up in. Taking that away isn’t just impossible — it would be terrible.

Fandom is complicated, and our athletic heroes are complex creatures. Ray Rice did great things at New Rochelle High School. He did great things at Rutgers University. He did great things for the Baltimore Ravens. And he did a terrible thing in an elevator. I agree with his suspension from the league and his dismissal from the team. But I don’t want him erased from the halls of the high school my daughter will some day attend. People of great accomplishment do terrible things, and can be terrible people. Don’t embrace it. Don’t erase it. Give it context and make meaning from it. That’s the moral action.

Following up on Amy’s point, let’s take up the question that always comes up when players get caught doing something wrong off the field: Should they get another chance? For instance, should Ray Rice be allowed to come back to the NFL in the future?

Mike: I tend to hold out for the possibility of moral reformation and redemption. If Rice undergoes counseling, receives close mentoring, allows authorities to check unannounced on the welfare of his wife, and demonstrates remorse and change, to the extent it’s possible, then I would be open to him coming back to the NFL.

As I write these words, though, I also feel something deep within me that says he should suffer for what he’s done by having any future NFL paydays taken away from him. As more and more cases of player violence, including domestic and parental violence, are revealed, there is an understandable desire to “clean house” and ban players for life. However, I think that a community functions best when it offers opportunities for change and redemption while also protecting those who are vulnerable to harm. Human beings often need second chances, even though they might not deserve them.

Amy: I think the critical issue here is that it isn’t up to sporting federations to ensure that society operates as it should. It is for sporting federations to figure out what to do with its people once society has made a judicious decision regarding their actions. So in a sense, we’re asking the wrong question: it isn’t about whether the NFL should let Ray Rice play. It’s about whether society is doing everything that it legally and morally should regarding violence, domestic or otherwise. Then, it’s up to the NFL to figure out how it fits within that framework.

Alon: Inspector Javert with his relentless pursuit of Jean Valjean will disagree with me, but everyone should be given another chance after they paid their “debt to society.” It is possible to learn from one’s mistakes and actions, and live in a way that adds to the goodness in the world. This applies to athletes, too.

Andrew: I agree with Alon and Mike. If a just punishment has been served, and efforts devoted to education and rehabilitation, then people like Ray Rice should have the chance to prove that they have learned and changed. In fact, you could take it further – fans must also realize that athletes are not special people who should be held to different standards of “personal conduct.” As fans, we should appreciate athletes for their particular abilities in sport. But because teams and leagues have an incentive to sell the “halo effect,” we often end up putting athletes on a pedestal for imagined characteristics that are unrealistic and ultimately unfair.

I do have a question for everybody that is of genuine curiosity to me. In the course of this exchange I’ve been surprised to find myself the only one arguing that it might be moral to abandon one’s fandom in the face of reprehensible behavior. Everyone else has made a convincing case that the moral thing may be to actively object to the behavior while also staying true to deep personal allegiances. That has me re-considering my own thoughts. But I’m also wondering how that leaves us thinking about the people who have intentionally left their deep fan allegiances, such as writer Steve Almond, who articulates a variety of reasons for giving up his long-time allegiance to the Oakland Raiders in his new book, or Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who recently wrote about the second anniversary of his “personal boycott” against his lifelong NFL fandom. Their cases prove, in my mind, that this step is at least possible. But is the argument here that these decisions are morally dubious?

Mike: I think there are times when abandoning one’s deep allegiances as a fan is not only possible, but can also be a morally good act. I have considered abandoning my own allegiance to the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs, because of concerns about the gladiator-like existence of players. The physical and psychological toll on a player, in the average case, makes it hard to support the sport as I’ve done for most of my life. If there is not a way to make the sport less destructive on the minds and bodies of its participants, then this pushes me to genuinely consider abandoning the sport as a fan.

To bring our exchange to a close, do you think we’ll see a lasting turn in the way team owners and league administrators make decisions about player discipline? In other words, will these scandals change anything? 

Alon: My crystal ball is foggy, but I choose to be optimistic. Progress did not arrive thanks to the kindness and generosity of leaders and owners but because of public outcry and pressure. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress….Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If fans employ such methods in a consistent and sustained manner and are not duped by promises and lies, then yes, there will be change in the way teams are run.

Amy: The historian in me pushes against any kind of notion of progress. Change does take place, but it isn’t always good. Will teams be run differently in the era of social media and TMZ and YouTube? Perhaps. But does that mean they will be better? I doubt it.

Mike: I believe that in the long run, these scandals do have the potential to bring about change. I guess that it would be slow, and will be dependent upon continued pressure from fans and sponsors. We are seeing this process occur with respect to concussions, though there is more to do on that issue as well.

Andrew: I suspect there will be some changes, if for no other reason than the NFL will not want to go through this kind of media and sponsor scrutiny again. The early returns suggest that TV ratings and attendance at NFL games have been as high as ever. So if there is to be greater transparency and greater responsiveness, it likely will depend mostly on business partners.

That makes me a little nervous, and raises two particular questions. One, will any changes come from a genuine concern for the harm caused by the malignant parts of NFL culture, or will they be made in order to mollify the media and sponsors? So far, the returns have not been promising: press conferences by the commissioner and team owners have been long on business-speak about “responsibility” and “integrity” and short on concern for people and communities. Two, will any changes address the dysfunctional aspects of NFL culture in both the locker room and the boardroom, or will they focus exclusively on “educating” players? In cases like these, the risk is that attention is misdirected to “a few bad apples” rather than the rotten barrel. I should emphasize that there are plenty of non-rotten aspects of the NFL – football can be a great game, and an important hub for community. But football culture, like culture of all types, is dynamic and constantly up for the sorts of storming and norming that recent events provoke. It may not always look like progress, but it always requires thoughtful attention.


Mike Austin teaches philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University. He is editor of the book Football and Philosophy: Going Deep, and writes the “Ethics for Everyone” blog for Psychology Today. Mike is on Twitter at @michaelwaustin.

Amy Bass teaches history at The College of New Rochelle. She is author of Not the Triumph But the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athleteand earned an Emmy Award in 2012 as supervisor of the Research Room for NBC’s Olympics coverage. Amy tweets at @bassab1.

Andrew Guest teaches psychology and sociology at the University of Portland and is the author of numerous articles on sports psychology and youth development in both North America and Africa. He has written for and occasionally writes about sport and the social sciences at Sports & Ideas.  

Alon Raab teaches religious studies at UC Davis. He is editor of the books The Global Game: Writers on Soccer and Soccer in the Middle East, and he has written several articles and essays on soccer, cycling, religion, and politics in the Middle East.