Are Fans To Blame For Violence In NFL?

Player safety and head injuries were top issues during last year's National Football League lockout. So the news of a bounty system that rewarded players for injuring opponents has people wondering who's to blame for the brutality in football, and whether fans share the responsibility. Host Michel Martin talks with ethicist Jack Marshall.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, how do you get a celebrated, but rather ill-tempered rock drummer to sit down long enough to open up about his music and his wild past? It takes nerve and let's say a creative approach to the truth. We'll talk with the director of a new documentary about Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer of the rock group, Cream. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to look at the ethical challenges facing two of America's favorite brands. NFL officials are still dealing with the bounty system scandal. Defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, reportedly organized a system to funnel payments to his players to injure opposing players, even to knock them out of games.

And then there's the public relations hit that Apple has suffered recently. Despite the big reveal yesterday of a new iPad, there are lingering questions about the factories that create their products.

Regardless of how the league or company bosses respond, we were thinking about - what about us? You and me and everybody who watches pro football or depends upon that iPhone or iPad? We were thinking, what's the fan or customer's role in all this?

To talk about this, we've called upon Jack Marshall. He's been with us before. He's the president and founder of ProEthics. That's an ethics consulting group.

Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

JACK MARSHALL: Great to be here.

MARTIN: You know, you actually have been thinking about this for quite some time. I saw a column that you wrote back in 2009 when the news about the physical toll that football may play on players' brains long after they stop playing the game when that information started coming to light.

And you recently wrote another blog titled "The NFL Battling Its Own Sick Culture," so are you saying that - are you saying that you are at a point where you just don't think it's ethical to watch the game at all?

MARSHALL: I think it's getting to that point, like it did with boxing. People forget that boxing, at one point, was really, arguably, the number one sport in our country until, gradually, the public started realizing that they were directly involved in two men beating each other, often - sometimes, to death. But, you know, we have had to watch a beautiful human being like Muhammad Ali go through the last many years, obviously suffering from the results of this.

MARTIN: But you said that, simply put, it is wrong to pay money to persuade people to permanently damage themselves for our entertainment.

MARSHALL: I think that's true and I think, to a great extent, football fans try not to think about that. You know, when you're watching football on television, it doesn't appear that these people are being crippled. We don't see how hard they hit each other and one of the things that was fascinating was the reaction of other players to this bounty scandal. They all sort of shrugged and said, well, that's the game. It's always been that way. We are trying to cripple each other.

MARTIN: But what about - this is something that sports writer, Dave Zirin said on this program, you know, earlier in the week when we were talking about this. Here's what he said.

DAVE ZIRIN, BYLINE: The repercussions for the post-playing career of an NFL player is just so horrific and I think that this is a way of saying, hey, we're serious about violence when, at the end of the day, it is a violent sport and that's what the league and its fans need to come to terms with.

MARTIN: Well, he wasn't willing to go right there, but other sports writers, like L.A. Times sports writer, T.J. Simers, wrote a column that essentially called out people who said - who were outraged by this. He says, you're just hypocrites. That the violence is what people want to see.

And the other people argue - look, people do this voluntarily. You're not conscripted into football. You know, this is not a draft system where you are forced to do this for the benefit of the state or whatever and, if it's your choice, why should people be unable to watch it if that's - it's also their choice?

MARSHALL: They don't - and it's my choice not to participate in it. I mean, the analogy I always think of is like paying drunks to dance or paying people to hurt themselves. I mean, I think it's both unethical and immoral to pay people to hurt themselves. Everybody will have a price and they may feel - now, when they're crippling themselves - that it's a good buy.

But, later on, when their families have to care for them when they're in their 50s and they're - we're seeing - we don't even know the extent of this, but a lot of these former players are suffering premature dementia and simply can't function.

Is it really - do fans really want to confront the fact that the argument for this is - they're happy for us to pay them to cripple themselves, ergo, we shouldn't care about it. If they want to do that, that's fine. I don't want to be complicit in that and if I'm paying them - if I'm among the people giving them their reinforcement by cheering and by giving them the money to harm themselves, I'm complicit in it.

MARTIN: We're talking about the ethics, the ethical question around this alleged bounty system where NFL players were allegedly paid to injure opponents, even to the point of taking them out of the game. Our guest is ethicist Jack Marshall. He's the president and founder of ProEthics and we consult with him from time to time on these questions.

I want to wheel around in the time we have left to whole this question Apple, one of the also very popular brands. The products are beloved. I mean I don't think that's too much - I don't think that's exaggerating. Apple unveiled the new iPad yesterday. And this comes after reports of very poor working conditions in Chinese factories manufacturing Apple products.

And so the question has now arisen, you know, what do you do as a consumer if – now that you know, you can't say OK, I didn't know about this. But now that you do know, what do you think that customers should do? Because there are others who say, like do you really want to deprive these Chinese workers of the opportunity to improve their standard of living by making these products, and that the work will just go some place else? So what do you think consumers who care about this should do?

MARSHALL: This is something related to the dilemma you were talking to with Mr. Kristof, which is a matter of as a nation that cares about human rights, can we just say that, you know, when in Rome we'll do as the Romans do, and if they happen to not care about human rights as much as we do then we should put our conscience on the shelf when we're working with them.

I think that in the case of Apple, those who are going to purchase their products, if they care about this then they need to be saying to the company you need to raise the standards in the, you know, set the new standards in those countries. Make sure that they meet at least minimal standards of fair treatment and fair labor practices, even if this may be way above the norm in that particular country, therefore we can exercise some beneficial cultural influence.

It may mean that we may have to pay more for our Apple iPads in the future and that Apple may have to take a little less of a profit. But again, all of these things – back to the NFL – we have to sacrifice if we're going to stand up for standards.

MARTIN: Do you have one or two also?

MARSHALL: I don't have – no I have...

MARTIN: You don't have any Apple products?

MARSHALL: I don't have any Apple products.

MARTIN: Why not?

MARSHALL: I haven't bought any yet. But...

MARTIN: But you could have one without buying it. Somebody might give you one.

MARSHALL: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: Is it the issue of the ethics or you just don't care for them?

MARSHALL: No. It's neither. I probably would accept but I'd have focus at after a point of view. I mean I think Apple deserves time to adjust. I think this is a problem as our entire economic system moves into international areas. We have to figure out how much we're willing to sacrifice.

MARTIN: Obviously, a rich discussion. I bet we'll have a lot of comments about your comments today and we'll look forward to those.

Jack Marshall is the president and founder of ProEthics, an ethics consultancy group. And he was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Once again, thank you.

MARSHALL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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