Austen, Moral Equivocation, and the NFL

Wes Welker

Wes Welker suffered his third concussion in two seasons last week.

Sports Saturday 

The NFL season is about to begin and once again I’m finding myself guilty of what the existentialists call bad faith or inauthenticity as I root for Peyton Manning. Although football is a sport that does terrible things to men’s bodies and brains, I push this awareness under and watch anyway. I deliberately deceive myself that it makes no difference that I watch, even though the game would have to change if enough of us stopped supporting it in its present form.

Actually, my moral equivocations are worse that that. I perform a mental two-step to help me feel better about myself: I tell myself that once Manning hangs up his cleats, I’ll stop supporting the game for good. No more watching a game where players set them up for future dementia or permanent crippling as they hurl their bodies against one another. But I’m not willing to stop watching as long as Manning has a good chance to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Where in literature does one encounter such equivocation? Several characters come to mind—Macbeth, Brutus, Ladislaw in Middlemarch—but as I’m currently preparing my Jane Austen seminar, Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park is at the top of the list. Edmund is an exemplary man, a future rector, but he is of two minds about a private theatrical of a scandalous play that his irresponsible older brother and his two sisters want to put on while their father is out of the country.

At first he takes a principled stand against it. But then their neighbor Mary Crawford, whom he loves, begins to argue for it. Suddenly it is possible for him to imagine playing Anhalt, a priest that she, playing Amelia, would make love to. This in itself doesn’t sway Edmund but it causes him to start finding ways to rationalize his support.

For instance, he allows another argument to sway him: if he doesn’t play Anhalt, his brother will bring in an outsider to do so, thereby exposing the family. In the end, Edmund surrenders and even finds himself titillated by his practice sessions with Mary. He lets the pleasures of the activity outweigh his moral qualms.

His siblings secretly revel in the fact that he has descended from his moral high horse:

It was, indeed, a triumphant day to Mr. Bertram and Maria. Such a victory over Edmund’s discretion had been beyond their hopes, and was most delightful. There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained: he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent.

Edmund should do what the heroine Fanny does, which is oppose the play regardless of the consequences. If he did so, in all probability he would prevent it, but that would simply be an extra bonus. The important point is standing up for what is right. Because people regularly fail to do that in Mansfield Park, scandal results.

Regarding the play, their father returns early, catches them in rehearsal, and is appalled. He’s especially upset with Edmund, who should know better.

And so it is with me and the NFL. I should know better. In fact, right now, having watched future Hall of Fame receiver Wes Welker go down with his third concussion in three years (and he’s probably had many more), I should be demanding that he walk away from the game. At my college, once an athlete has had three concussions, he or she is no longer allowed to play. But since Welker is critical to Denver’s Super Bowl hopes, I keep on coming up with reasons why it’s okay to have him continue playing. I close my eyes to the possibility of dementia at fifty.

It’s hard to do the right thing. But even as I say that, I think of Jane Eyre, who faces a much more serious moral dilemma than I do:

Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be.  If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?

I know this is heavy moralizing for the beginning of a sports season. Then again, the welfare of human beings is at stake.

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  • Carl

    Great post — captures my feelings about the NFL and the power of literature to investigate ethics without (necessarily) being moralistic.

    Hat-tip to my friend and co-teacher, Paul, for this feature about former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. It’s a compelling story, mostly sad, but mostly (to me) it resonated with some abject lessons in how unethical self-serving behavior from big-name win-at-any-cost sports programs can subvert opportunities to address athletes’ issues before it is too late. I doubt you’ll be pulling for Urban Meyer or Bill Belichick anytime soon.

  • Robin

    You must get into these questions with your high school students all the time, Carl.

  • Barbarabweaver

    This is also related to how a motor sports fan can watch when racing is so dangerous. Dale Earnhardt Sr., Dan Weldon, Adam Petty, and, most recently, Kevin Ward, Jr. Dale Earnhardt’s death on the last lap of the Daytona 500 was akin to a Super Bowl quarterback getting killed on the last play. But we watch. Also downhill skiing, luge (I think) and even bicycle racing have had recent fatalities. As my husband reminded me, for some participants this is a family business ( the Manning quarterbacks). After his grandson (Adam) died, Richard Petty was asked about how he and his son, Kyle, could continue to race. He said, roughly, “Farmers farm, Pettys race”. And we watch, and pay them to do it, despite the risks.

  • Robin

    The one good thing is that sports are now getting better at instituting safety measures, even as equipment and conditioning cause human bodies to become more powerful. I think of helmets in hockey, which used to just be for wimps. After Stewart, it sounds like drivers will no longer be able to get out of their cars, even though doing so makes for great visuals. But often these changes aren’t voluntary but forced. By a death, in the Stewart case. Lawsuits finally made the NFL get serious about concussions.

  • Barbarabweaver

    NASCAR instituted many safety rules after Dale Earnhardt died. And his son was one of the last drivers to comply! Now a large portion of every track must have specialt double walled sides lined with huge blocks of styrofoam to absorb the force of a crash, special head restraints and redesigned cars to improve driver safety. But the cost means lower levels of racing don’t have the same features. And open wheel racing (like the sprint car Kevin Ward was driving) are much more dangerous. It’s not unusual for NASCAR drivers to give up open wheel racing when they have children.

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