Should We Ban Sports?

There’s nothing banning sports would solve that banning humans entirely wouldn’t solve better.

Let me start off by saying I am highly biased toward sports. Not only has their existence underpinned my employment over the years (full disclosure), but I take great pleasure in being a spectator and sometimes even a participant in them. This is not to say that sports aren’t incredibly stupid sometimes, or even a lot of the time. Everyone getting riled up about Tim Tebow on an annual basis? Totally idiotic. Is Louis Van Gaal making Manchester United the most boring team in soccer? Should the Yankees ever have a captain not named Derek Jeter? Who cares! These sorts of questions, many of them finding a welcome home on sports radio and talk shows and your family’s Thanksgiving Day table, are of no real consequence in our day-to-day lives, and are therefore incredibly fun to talk about and get into arguments over. This is literally the billion-dollar business model of ESPN, and it’s why sports are a major cultural touchstone in the United States and around the world.

Sports are all about human achievement; unfortunately, this requires human participation, and all the failings of judgment and morality that that frequently entails. In a functional system, those people should be caught, called out, punished, rehabilitated, or otherwise prevented from being horrible. In this sense, sports and, more specifically, the governing bodies and professional leagues erected around athletic pursuits to organize and profit from them — let’s call them $ports — are dysfunctional. And like every other institution where lots of influence and money are at stake — Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington — $ports leaders have a vested interest in making more money, accruing more power, and generally keeping the gravy train chugging along. It is all too easy for this perverse set of incentives to enable widespread abuses, from a massive doping scandal in Russian race walking to USA Swimming’s Vatican-like handling of predatory coaches, or the N.F.L.’s long denial of the devastation its product wreaks on its employees. Football’s concussion crisis shows that there are certainly some issues in sports intrinsically connected to the act of playing them, but even then, these are exacerbated by more generally human traits, like the kind of corporate greed that would deny scientific proof of harm in order to maintain a status quo worth billions of dollars.

That same greed is currently and blatantly rearing its ugly head this N.F.L. off-season where, after a year full of stilted apologies and promises to “do better” in addition to a new player-conduct policy in the wake of the Ray Rice debacle, teams are signing players with histories of abuse, like Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, hoping that they will be talented enough to make the teams money and not beat anyone up enough to make them lose it. And while there is a case to be made for giving players — and anyone else — a chance at rehabilitating and returning to their livelihood, the N.F.L.’s track record of putting the needs and the safety of victims first is not encouraging. But the failure to take seriously an issue like violence against women is not unique to the N.F.L., or to sports; it’s a reflection of a larger culture of violence and indifference. It’s a complex problem to solve in sports because it’s a complex problem, period.

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