Violence in sports cannot be ignored. Our collective knowledge of the damage done to athletes in certain sports over time has grown to a tipping point. I have even heard some people advocate that such sports as football or boxing are actually immoral and that those who participate, either as competitors or fans, are sinning. Whether or not you feel that strongly, though, we must still ask the question of just how much violence in an athletic contest is OK and how should we respond to it.
First, it is important to make a clear distinction between violence as a byproduct of aggressive competition and violence that is malicious. Players in almost every sport are injured in collisions with one another or in awkward landings that are by no means intentional. These are the inherent risks of physical activity, risks athletes are well aware of. That is why intent matters: Is the goal of the game to cause injury, or do injuries merely happen as a result of the game?
Take football, for example. The goal of football is not to injure the opponent (no matter what certain coaches may scream). Instead, it is to score and to stop the other team from scoring, and it is done with technique and physical aggression. Sometimes this aggression hurts people. Is that immoral or is it simply a risk that participants choose to take? I believe it is the latter. It becomes immoral, for both those playing and cheering them on, when malicious harm (ill will with the aim of hurting someone) becomes the objective, especially when the motive is anger, as in the case of bitter rivalries.
Sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, as combat sports, present a more complicated case. The goal is to physically harm the opponent, to knock him out or get him to submit. Is this goal motivated by malice or competition? Certainly you will find fighters who use anger to fuel them. But just as often these athletes compete with no ill will toward an opponent but rather seek the simple goal of victory. As fans, our impetus can be even more complicated. Are we rooting out of bloodlust and a desire to see someone beaten down, or do we enjoy the intensity of the match, the power, and the high level of skill? Each of us must answer for ourselves while recognizing our propensity for rationalization.
Calling sports immoral because of injuries and aggression is wrong. But it is fair, in certain instances, to call them unwise. The morality of sports as both a fan and participant is a matter of conscience. Each of us must test the motives of our own hearts to determine whether we revel in the violence or in the goodness of competition and skill.