Watching this year’s U.S. Open tennis tourney has a certain morbid fascination, somewhat reminiscent of the last U.S. Open golf tourney. In both cases, the weather has been so extreme that any sensible person who had a choice would simply decline to play. This brings attention to the disconnect between two main constituencies for games: the players themselves, and those who like to watch. When a marketable spectator event has been scheduled, it matters little that the play itself has more to do with the players ability to withstand suffering than their ordinary game skills. The game must go on.
This seems to me to pose some clear ethical questions. When do spectator sports become so dangerous to the well being of the athlete that it’s no longer justifiable to present them as entertainment?
Most of the world’s games, of course, are played for the benefit of the players. But many of the games most in the public’s eye are professional sports, which are played principally for the benefit of spectators. Perhaps the extreme example for this inversion is the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome. It now strikes us as barbaric to imagine watching games played by slaves in peril of their lives. But, really, how different are things now?
The brutal heat this week in Flushing Meadow and the fierce winds at Shinnicock Hills are unforeseen misfortunes, perhaps. Neither professional tennis nor professional golf is routinely played under such adverse conditions. The fact that the games are not delayed under such circumstances shows that it is the spectators, not the players, whose pleasure is most important. But neither tennis nor golf is so cynical as to contrive such conditions (though one could argue that the course layout at Shinnicock Hills this year was near to doing that). And while both of these U.S. Opens made players suffer for the benefit of the audience, neither clearly inflicted so much adversity on the players as to do permanent damage.
There are some sports where the brutalization of the competitors is obvious. Professional boxing seems a clear example. I don’t know enough about the current crop of new fighting sports to say whether they also have a gladiatorial aspect, and frankly I don’t want to study those “sports” closely enough to make the call.
A taste for watching boxing is now somewhat disreputable – it’s hard, for a growing number of people, to justify taking pleasure in watching a contest that you know may inflict long-term damage on the competitors. It’s possible that the new flock of fighting sports are, on some level, a reaction to this – they may be brutalizing, but they haven’t been around long enough for this to become undeniable.
The sport that’s most clearly at risk, these days, for both itself and for its players, is American football. For many years, it was somehow possible not to notice the game’s tendency to degrade the bodies and minds of football players. As the evidence for this damage becomes undeniable, the game is scrambling to respond.
The rules are being changed in an effort to make the game safer. Certain dangerous actions that used to be encouraged and admired are now penalized, even to the point of ejecting from the game players whose play is too likely to injure others.
But football is inherently risky. Many teams, nowadays, prohibit players from hitting each other in practice the way that they are encouraged to hit their opponents in a real game. This is, I suppose, to be applauded if it means that there are fewer injuries. At the same time, though, the rule is deeply disquieting. It says, in effect, that the risks you take to play the game are only worth taking when there’s an audience there to appreciate them.