Ethics and the No Fun League

When thinking of the NFL, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? Moral excellence, virtuousness, justice, strength of character? Eh, not exactly. Well apparently Roger Goodell is unaware that ethical standards are not quite what the average fan understands to be a necessary attribute of the NFL. Unfortunately, a good 40 time and an unwavering moral compass don't quite blend together as Goodell would like, and they shouldn't have to.

Take, for example, the recent scandal surrounding Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, and his subsequent suspension for 6 games. Big Ben's suspension was in response to assault allegations that were lauded against him in March for some questionable conduct with a 20 year-old woman in Georgia. In a letter to Roethlisberger, Goodell scolds and implores him to "take this time to get your life and your career back on track." (I'm sure that's exactly what Roethlisberger was thinking to himself after the incident - "Wow, Ben, this is really out of control, with all these young women throwing themselves at you in the back of dimly lit clubs. This madness must end!") Goodell and reality clearly aren't close friends. Quarterbacks, and probably even more so Super Bowl champion quarterbacks, are likely to be cocky and insufferable guys that like to hook up with lots of young women. So what? Does Roethlisberger's immoral behavior make him any less of a quarterback? Does it make his play and the Steelers any less entertaining? Most shockingly, Roethlisberger's suspension was handed down despite his never actually being charged with assault. Now regardless of that whole "guilty-before-proven-innocent" thing, it's clear that the NFL is acting in a capacity where it sees the law as deficient. It's not good enough that you don't break the law, you also have to be a "good guy" in order to play.

I don't see how moral judgment is any way related to athletic ability. As long as you're not cheating, as would be the case with steroids or a deliberately late hit, then I could care less what a player does off the field. You want to go to a strip club or hang out with Tila Tequila (that's right, I'm talking to you, Shawn Merriman) then by all means, to each his own. It's not as if I'm let down upon learning that Ray Lewis hasn't memorized Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Shockingly, prudence and benevolence aren't correlated to having a good bench press, but good bench presses are correlated to big wins. So then why does the NFL's code of conduct punish any player who "undermines or puts at risk the integrity and reputation of the NFL?" I could be wrong, but isn't the reputation of the NFL based on world class athletes who can run like cheetahs, jump high, and juke past defenders? I don't expect a game in the NFL to be a physical representation of Kant's categorical imperative, and that doesn't make the NFL any less valuable or entertaining. Why isn't high-quality play enough?

I understand that the NFL is a business like any other, and such rules are meant to deter players from conduct that is potentially damaging to viewership or the purchasing of NFL products. No one wants to buy a Michael Vick jersey now that they know he kills puppies. Even still, I wonder how much these immoral acts really affect the NFL's fan base. Is Roethlisberger's suspension going to stigmatize his name and just prolong the conversation? Clearly Kobe Bryant continues to struggle for viewership in the wake of his prior scandal, with people still refusing to root for the Lakers. As much as the suspensions are meant to deter players from committing bad acts, they end up being a disservice to the franchises. It's rumored that the Steelers are looking for a replacement for their champion quarterback. Even if Roethlisberger is allowed to return after 6 games, it might be too late for the Steelers to recover and make it to the playoffs. Troy Polamalu might want to consider signing on for some more Head & Shoulders commercials, as the Steelers' season seems to be over before it even starts.

The overreaction of Goodell and his enforcement of contrived standards is systemic in the NFL. These rules that are meant to regulate player conduct and promote good sportsmanship just make those in charge look like the lame neighbors who call the cops every time you try to throw a kickback. For example, the athlete formerly known as Chad Johnson petitioned to have his famous nickname, Ochocinco, written on the back of his jersey. To no one's surprise, the league refused, despite the fact that Chad's shenanigans are the number one reason to watch the Bengals. The current "Dancing with the Stars" competitor was not without the last laugh, legally changing his last name to Ochocinco. Furthermore, the rules regarding touchdown celebrations are ridiculous. If I somehow managed to make it past the Ravens' defense then I too would feel entitled to a celebratory dance. And the No Fun League's rules are trickling down into college football, where in two years a new set of laws will go into effect. Soon in the NCAA, excessive celebration will nullify a players touchdown, and eyeblack with messages will be illegal. (Reggie Bush probably feels personally offended by the latter.)

I'm not saying that Ben Roethlisberger's actions are morally permissible. If I ever found myself with Roethlisberger in the depths of a dark bar in Georgia, I would run. Nonetheless, the NFL shouldn't be legislating morality. The league should be less concerned with what the players do on weekends and more concerned about ensuring that there is quality competition. Granted, it would be ideal if sports stars wouldn't find themselves in such morally compromising positions. It would be nice if Tiger didn't cheat, if Plaxico Burress didn't shoot himself in the leg, and if Gilbert Arenas wasn't such an idiot and rethought his decision to bring guns into the locker room. Yet what I'm hoping for more is that the Chargers make it to the Super Bowl in 2011 and that Kobe and LeBron meet in the finals of the NBA championship. I'll look for ethical theory elsewhere.