You’re Not Wrong, Walter: Chuck Klosterman On Watching Football


“Am I wrong?”
“No, you’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole!”
-Joel and Ethan Coen, The Big Lebowski

I’ve recently begun to question my support for the N.F.L. I suspect that the recent discoveries about concussions and the prevalence of early-onset dementia among players are just the tip of the iceberg. Is it unethical to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants? And if so, what should my response be? Don’t go to games? Don’t buy merchandise? Don’t watch on television? Start actively opposing the N.F.L.? Write letters?
Letter to “The Ethicist” by Darren Williams


As you know, here on The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests. Alert reader tomemos recently advised me to read, and then to pulverize, a column written by my hero Chuck Klosterman. Obviously, turning against Klosterman involved a period of intense Freudian crises, during which time I practiced “primal scream therapy” and left paranoid messages on David Fincher’s answering machine. But now I’m back, and my response is below.


Let’s begin with a question: Why is it wrong to zap bugs with magnifying glasses?

….I mean, for a guy like me. We are talking here about cruelty toward ants. This should not be a moral issue for me. I eat red meat. I do not believe in “deep ecology.” I am not a Jainist, and I do not walk around wearing a veil in order to avoid accidentally killing an insect by breathing it in.

Nonetheless, it is wrong, and the reason has nothing to do with the suffering of the ant. I don’t care about the ant. Unfortunately, if I actually pass the time by frying ants for fun, I am training myself to be unnecessarily sadistic and cruel. Idle sadism is joyless, alienating. It’s wrong to zap bugs — not because it is bad for the bugs, but because it is very bad for you.

What does any of this have to do with football? Well, take another look at Darren’s letter.

Darren Williams is having a crisis of conscience. It’s not a life-or-death issue, but it is an awakening nonetheless. In one short paragraph, he accuses the NFL of conspiring to profit from destroying human lives. He considers abandoning what is probably, for him, a major passion and a sustaining hobby. He considers writing letters of protest. This is a man on the verge of positive, ethically-motivated, radical change.

Enter Chuck Klosterman.

Had you asked if the whole concept of professional sports is ultimately an unethical distraction — because of the amount of resources it consumes, the way it shifts cultural priorities and the manner in which it impacts society as a whole — and if every rational argument affirmed that it was, then every person involved would be incrementally complicit, including the fans. If an entire enterprise is corrupt, culpability is shared among participants.

Sorry…what? Does Klosterman even know what the word “incremental” means? If ten people collaborate on a murder, are they each one-fifth as guilty as murderers who work in pairs? No. The very question is absurd. People are responsible for what they intend to do, whether or not others follow suit. Ethically speaking, we are alone upon the stage.

Also, why do I get the uncomfortable feeling that Klosterman — who is smart — is trying to sound smart? His whole first paragraph is pointless, as he himself admits: “But that’s not the dilemma that’s troubling you[, Darren].”

He changes tacks:

Football is a brutal activity. But this is a known, accepted reality.

Accepted by whom? This is literally Chuck Klosterman forcing the passive fucking voice to do the dirty work of accepting reality for him. To paraphrase The Dude, there’s nothing worse than a man who treats direct objects like people.

Professional athletes accept this risk in exchange for the chance at large financial reward and the right to pursue a rarefied livelihood they love and desire. (College and high-school students willingly do the same thing without the benefit of a salary.)

College and high-school students willingly do all kinds of things without the benefit of a salary. Many of these things are ethically unsound. Modern teenagers have no respect for the laws of our country, the laws of physics, or the body’s ability to metabolize things. Anyway that was true when I was in high school, and I hope things haven’t quieted down since.

But how is any of this relevant to Darren? The freedom of athletes, college students, and high schoolers, is not the issue here. The issue is whether Darren’s conscience has the right, the freedom, to interfere with Darren’s need for entertainment. Klosterman says no — all pleasures, no matter how insipid or fleeting, always come first. Really? He wants us to believe that sitting around watching televised sports is anyone’s true highest calling?

I love most of Klosterman’s writing. I am still having trouble believing this crap actually went to print.

Drinking alcohol is more dangerous than not drinking alcohol, but it would seem pretty unsophisticated to believe patronizing a nightclub is immoral, simply because other people who go there might drink themselves to death (and you would be party to that experience).

This is so wrong that it’s hard for me to decide which part of that wrongness I should mention first. How about some history: the temperance movement and Prohibition happened only 80 years ago. Lots of people who lived through Prohibition are still alive. Alcohol is not exactly a settled issue in the American psyche.

As for Klosterman’s analogy, well, a concussion (unlike a cocktail) is not a voluntary act. That goes double for a concussion that a football player doesn’t feel, and that only damages his brain over an extended period of time. While it’s true that impulsive or addictive behavior is somewhat “involuntary,” and that alcohol causes long-term mental and physical damage, we exercise a lot of direct control over our alcohol intake.

In order for Klosterman’s analogy to make sense, people at nightclubs would have to tackle you, then forcibly make you drink (something, Yellow Tail probably). But this only happens in a few places, and then only during SPRING BREAK WOOOOOOOOOOOO

Furthermore, anyone who sees another person drinking themselves to death has a responsibility to intervene. I’ve been there. I’ve been in a hospital emergency room because my friend was having her stomach pumped. There’s no such thing as being just a “party” to an “experience” of alcohol poisoning, unless we’re talking about a very, very spacious nightclub. Just how much of a douche is Klosterman trying to be?

The issue of concussions in football is debated exhaustively, despite the fact that boxing — where the goal is to hit your opponent in the face as hard as possible — still exists.

Great point, Chuck! In a related story, why are we all so freaked out about rape and domestic violence?! I mean, after all, murder, where the goal is to cause somebody’s death, still exists! So worrying about any other violent crime is totally pointless, right? Right? Wait, come back! Where’s everybody going?

Football is the most popular game in the United States and generates the most revenue, so we feel obligated to worry about what it means to love it. Well, here’s what it means: We love something that’s dangerous. And I can live with that.

Oh, my mistake, we worry about football because it’s so lucrative! The concussions are just our excuse for indulging our deeply rooted, typically American fear of profitability!

Look, Klosterman, once upon a time, Darren Williams didn’t know about brain damage among professional football players. He just loved football, and that was fine in every way. It was even ethical. Well, all that’s over now. The cat’s out of the bag, and there’s nothing you or Darren can do about it. If he ignores his misgivings now, he’s not just somebody who doesn’t care about football players. He’s somebody who doesn’t listen to his own better angels. One day — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon — he’ll regret it.

Plus, “liking something dangerous” means that you, personally, are in danger. That’s definitely your right, and it’s a little bit sexy. Football isn’t dangerous to us; we just watch it. It’s dangerous to somebody else. Aw, hell, Klosterman. Everybody knows that watching other people in danger, from the comfort of your living room, is nothing but the most guaranteed way to feel safe.

Until next time, this is Kugelmass saying…

street fighter pic