Tomorrow all the world will tune into a gladiatorial contest. We fancy ourselves more civilized than the ancient Romans, but college and professional football are popular because of the hits. And each year the hits get harder as the linemen and running backs bulk up and get faster and more massive.
We know it, but we put it in the backs of our own heads—this indisputable fact that their heads are getting scrambled and their bones broken and their flesh bruised for our entertainment.
Bob Dylan, in 1963, wrote a song called “Who Killed Davey Moore,” about the death that year of the World Featherweight Boxing Champion of that name, to brain damage suffered in the ring. The chorus of the song asks, “Who killed Davey Moore? Why, and what’s the reason for?” Each verse has a different person completely deny responsibility—everyone from the fight referee, the manager, the fighter who knocked him down, and the rabid crowd and the gamblers calling for blood from the stands.
That’s the millions, perhaps billions who will watch Sunday’s Super Bowl. While people enjoy their chip dip and beer there will be at least a few players carried off the field in stretchers and a couple hundred who will be hailed as heroes just before they return to their families just a little more stressed out with steroids and addicted to pain killers.
But the underlying question is, “How much are we willing to exploit people?”
Perhaps this is the most important question in history. How much are we willing to rationalize to ourselves the exploitation of other people? How ready are we to stuff down the realization that other people are being used and used up and spit out so that we can enjoy our comfort and entertainment?
All over the world women are being stripped of their identity and dignity and harassed and enslaved and pimped out to satisfy the lusts of men. And the so-called enlightened segment of society has rationalized this by insisting that prostitutes be considered willing “sex workers” in the world’s oldest profession.
The dominant stream of political and economic policy in this world has decided that the people who actually build things and clean things up and keep this world going are really just under-achievers at best and lazy leaches at worst. In other words, the “have nots” deserve to have an ever smaller piece of the pie while those who own the capital deserve to gorge themselves on 90% of what the unwashed can provide them. There are huge, well-paid think tank people who are constantly at work to rationalize this and to make us think it is just the way the world is and perhaps God’s will as well.
Every day we are faced with this question on a more mundane level. I can see it even in the happy little world of sheep-dog trialing. If we get to know a top trainer, how much help can we squeeze out of them, and how cheaply? If we have a friend with a farm and sheep, how often can we visit and work for free, and leave them to pay the feed and vet bills? If we have a friend with a great dog, can we convince them they will never bring that dog up to potential—that they should sell, or better yet just sign it over to us so that we can bring it along?
Behind this tendency to rationalize our exploitation of others is our general loosey-goosey attitude about ethics. We have been convinced by a generation or two of hipster professors that any prima-fascia good we can think up can be shown to be relative by some odd or extreme exception we can cook up. Wouldn’t you kill someone who was threatening your family? But Socrates locked horns quite successfully with the relativists, cornering them with the question of whether one can be absolutist about relativism. And the most relativist college students would much rather be roommates with someone who has some rigid rules to live by, such as, “Thou shalt not steal your roommate’s stash.”
A couple of centuries ago a German philosopher named Immanuel Kant wrote about the “Categorical Imperative.” Out of his reasoning came strong ideas like “the ends don’t always justify the means.” Kant’s deontological ethics warns us that when we think of people as ends to our means and not as ends in and of themselves, we are bankrupting ourselves morally.
This past Monday I was lying on a narrow slab in a hospital catheterization lab. I was being prepped for an angiogram, fully aware that a slip-up from the cardiologist would leave me paralyzed or dead. The nurse-anesthetist tried to put me at ease by asking if I would be watching the Super Bowl. I said I didn’t think so, because I’m more and more aware of the concussions and other injuries. I mentioned that I was a retired minister and a pro half-back named Rob Lytle was a former member and had been torn up badly playing in a Super Bowl and other games.
The angiogram went well. The doc had listened when I told him to be careful with me!
The next day I Googled Rob Lytle and found out he had died in 2010, at age 56, and that his son, Kelly, had written a book about his dad’s struggles. Football was his father’s world, but the world of football, as it is today, had robbed his dad of his health and of years from his life.
Because of Rob Lytle, Kelly Lytle, Immanuel Kant, and a God who stands by the absolute demands of righteous character, I won’t be watching the Super Bowl tomorrow.