No ethical “passes”

Just because professional contact sports such as football and boxing are popular doesn’t mean they are entirely ethical.

Question: what’s the difference between selling your kidney and playing professional football? Answer: selling your kidney is illegal.

I posed this question to myself while trying to think through the ethics of professional football (hockey, boxing, etc.), where we pay people to entertain us in a manner that potentially causes serious injury to their brain. I’m not much of a sports fan, so I don’t have the love of the game that seems to justify the risks in the view of most of my friends. Instead, I started by thinking about selling body parts.

In many parts of the Third World, you can pay a donor for a kidney, but we don’t allow this in Canada. It is possible to be a donor for a family member, or even for a stranger for benevolent reasons, but you can’t receive cash in exchange. Why not? Logically, there are good reasons to pay donors. They face some health risks from the surgery and possible ongoing complications, in addition to the pain and inconvenience of the procedure. There are a lot of potential recipients on waiting lists who could find the money to pay large sums for a healthy kidney, especially since they have a 90% to 95% chance of a successful outcome, according to The Kidney Foundation of Canada. More donors would come forward if they were well paid. The donors could use the money for things they could not otherwise afford, such as their kids’ education or a down payment on a house. The transaction would presumably save the healthcare system money compared to continuing to provide dialysis or other treatment to the potential recipient.

But most of us find the concept of paying people for their body parts to be unethical. We feel that people should not be forced or tempted to take this step. It discriminates against poor people (who would be more likely to be donors) and allows rich people to get kidneys that poor people could not afford. So in spite of all of the benefits, it remains illegal.

Now consider professional football (or any other contact sport you wish to substitute). It appears to be medically accepted that the frequent concussions sustained by professional football players (who play longer than people who stop after high school or college) can cause long-term brain damage, resulting in depression, suicide, dementia and other negative and long-lasting outcomes. The frequency of these negative impacts is not certain, but they are not rare. Why isn’t playing football for money illegal?

Football doesn’t save lives — it merely entertains its fans. So there is less of a humanitarian reason to allow it than to allow paid organ donation. You could argue that the people who play professional sports do so willingly, knowing the risks. But the same would be true of organ donors. And certainly boxing, and probably football, disproportionately entices poor kids who have hopes of making a fortune. A few of them do get rich, but most of the benefits go to wealthy team owners.

Perhaps the difference is that football entertains many millions of fans, whereas a kidney donation only saves one person. But I think a more likely difference is that our ethics are shaped by what seems normal. We have a long entertainment tradition of watching men trying to hurt or kill each other, dating back to gladiators and beyond. So the concept of people risking injury to win a game doesn’t have the ethical “yuck factor” that selling a body part has. Add the profit motive for players and team owners and it’s no wonder that professional football has no trouble recruiting players and fans.

My point is not that we should eliminate all contact sports, but rather that we need to remember that popularity and tradition don’t entitle an activity to an ethical “pass.” That’s as true in religion, business and politics as it is in sports.