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The moral case against the Vikings stadium

The everlasting discussion over a new Vikings stadium has delved into politics, financing and geography.  Let me throw morality into the mix too.

There’s a good moral argument for why Minnesota should not toss several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money into a new football stadium, as the NFL and the Vikings’ owners have requested.

While the NFL expertly earns billions of dollars a year, the league and its owners have dropped the ball when it comes to protecting their players from debilitating injuries, particularly brain injuries, and they have failed to take care of those players after they retire.

Until the league and its owners do more to fix this dereliction, Minnesotans are morally justified in blocking their access to our state coffers.

Startling statistics

The facts about football and brain injuries are startling. In 2009, the NFL released a study showing that NFL retirees in their 30s and 40s are 19 times more likely than other men of the same age to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s or other brain-related illnesses.

Behind these stats are personal stories that can hit close to home.

Some of you may remember Fred McNeill, a star linebacker for the Vikings in the 1970s and 1980s. Last year, McNeill was the subject of a feature in GQ magazine. The article reported how McNeill retired from the NFL, went to law school, and began a successful career as an attorney in Minnesota.

Then, in the mid-1990s, his memory started failing. His brain became so addled with dementia that he lost his law-firm job and eventually the family filed for bankruptcy. His marriage fell apart around that time too.

The world of NFL retirees is filled with anecdotes like this one, many of them even more tragic.

Some say that the NFL and its owners have not done anything wrong.  As a legal matter, they are probably right.

Hundreds of former players who feel wronged by the NFL have filed lawsuits arguing that the league knew about the risks of long-term brain injuries years ago, but it concealed this information from players and did nothing to prevent these injuries.

Players seek new rules

The players are asking for new rules that would better protect players’ brains, as well as league-funded medical monitoring to screen and take care of retired players who show signs of brain injuries.

However, the players face a couple of big legal hurdles. They have to first convince a court that their claims belong in court and not before an arbitrator as required for labor disputes under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. They then have to show that the NFL breached its duty of care to the players under state tort law.

A few players could also file suit for their injuries in connection with the recent “bounty” scandal, which revealed that some teams offer bonuses for landing hard hits that knock specific opponents out of games.

However, these targeted players would also face an uphill legal battle.

They would have to prove that any concussions or other injuries resulted from bounty-motivated hits as opposed to routine tackles. They may also have to show that players do not implicitly accept the risk of bounties placed on their heads when they step onto the field — a difficult task given that scores of NFL players have suggested that bounties are rampant, even though the league technically prohibits them.

The bottom line is that the NFL and NFL owners have a very good shot at avoiding legal liability for the injuries caused by the game’s violence.

A responsibility to respond

But legal responsibility and moral responsibility are not the same thing. Surely the NFL and its owners have a moral responsibility to respond to this new evidence of brain injuries and premeditated violence by better protecting its players and improving medical care for its brain-damaged retirees.

Until the NFL and its owners accede to the former players’ reasonable requests for new safety rules and medical monitoring, there is a good argument that Minnesota should not contribute hundreds of millions of our taxpayer dollars to build a stadium that will provide the main stage for tragic brain diseases to take hold for the next generation of NFL players.

If we decide to fund the stadium anyway, then we have to accept some moral responsibility for the future Fred McNeills.

If thinking about this moral responsibility makes us feel too uncomfortable, then we should let our elected officials know that we would rather not pay for that new stadium after all.

Jason Marisam is a visiting assistant professor at Hamline University School of Law.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/25/2012 - 08:57 am.

    This should be one more nail in the coffin of sport welfare.

    In a real democracy this excellent observation would be one of the final nails in the coffin of an entitlement program for billionaires. As it is, I fear like all reason it will fall on the deaf ears of a corrupted political system.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 04/25/2012 - 09:16 am.

    I agree with Professor Marisam

    but the idea of trying to hold people “morally responsibility” does not seem to carry much weight with a lot of people. If we were to apply the principle of “moral responsibility” to e.g. health care cost and finance, we should hold business and industry liable for payment, having polluted our environment with PCB’s, mercury, lead, asbestos, benzene, etc., etc., that cause cancer and other forms of bankrupting illnesses; and the food industry/monopoly for having degraded our diet to clog our arteries, make us fat, or prone to disease.

    Opposing the stadium is a sort of roundabout way of trying to prevent football head injuries. There are better reasons for opposing the stadium which the people voting for it will ignore anyway. Minnesota MUST have a football team and it MUST be the Vikings so we MUST raise taxes to build a stadium. (I’ll be interested to see if any legislators who forced the shutdown last summer rather than raise taxes will vote for this).

    It looks unlikely that injured players will have any legal way of obtaining compensation for getting treatment. But isn’t there any other way of making football safer without outlawing the physical part?

  3. Submitted by mark wallek on 04/25/2012 - 09:26 am.

    Very good point

    Absolutely true. When has the corporate class shown anything but a willingness to use people while shunning all responsibility for abusing. Concussions are going to cost the league billions over the coming years. If they have anything left, they can build a stadium then.

  4. Submitted by David Luptak on 04/25/2012 - 11:39 am.


    I believe you have brought up a good point, but focusing on just the professional side is where you go wrong. I played football all the way through college and I had numerous concussions through the years and nothing was being done at the lower levels as well, so to say it’s the NFL by itself is wrong.

    We could argue over many topics that are wrong and unfair to everyday people as well, but those topics definitely fall on deaf ears. Like how big corporations making billions of dollars and not paying their employees fair market value.

    Football is for entertainment, you don’t have to watch it or even go to a game, but if you want to, it’s nice to know you have that choice. You do have to work and you do have to put up with your companies lack of concern for its employees, cause we all need jobs, well most of us need a job.

    Personally I think Minnesota should find a way to build this stadium, the long term value is great to the state, but everybody wants to focus on the short term and huge dollar amounts instead of breaking it down, to what it would actually cost an individual.

    Another thing the players are a union and they have a voice, and they choose to play that game and they know the risks involved before they step on that field and have known for years, even when they weren’t getting paid. I’m not going to feel sorry for professional athletes that make millions of dollars. Like I said they knew the risks and they made the chose to play knowing full well that it could happen. If someone told me that I was going to get hit by car when I leave my house, I’m probably not going to go out of the house and if I do then it’s on me.

    I believe the NFL is trying to make it safer for the players, having players hurt doesn’t make the NFL any better, over the past few years they have been working non stop to make the game safer and have been changing the rules and fining players for illegal hits, seriously what more can they do, other than turn it into flag football, which no one will watch.

    I believe they should have done more with the players from the past, I do know that they had worked something into their new contract for retired players, which is a move in the right direction, but players need to be held responsible as well and look out for their future when they receive all that money, it’s a two street and I believe it will get better but these things aren’t fixed over night, so we have to be patient and not use something that has been going on for decades as a political soundboard for opposing a new stadium for the Vikings, that is just absurd in my opinion.

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 04/25/2012 - 01:32 pm.

    NFL fans LIKE the violence…

    …and that is why the play-by-play narrators show repeated replays of the “big hits” – to boost their ratings, give the people what they want.

    But thank you for your thoughtful column here. Perhaps it may cause some of those Legislators or City Council members to ponder what they are buying. But I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 04/26/2012 - 01:10 pm.

    Ever heard of Assuming the Risk?

    Heard about the public school suicide/bullying issue? I demand all kids be homeschooled until districts can cure this problem. In fact, all those parents letting their children play sandlot and high school football? Better open up thousands of child protection files, the abuse is rampant.
    Just another weak argument by someone who just doesn’t want a stadium. Pathetic.

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