‘Dabblers’ Gladwell and Bissinger debate college football with Green and Whitlock, unevenly

Malcolm Gladwell, Jason Whitlock. ()
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When Malcolm Gladwell authored a New Yorker article three years ago comparing football to dogfighting, it seemed a bit out there.

The idea is decidedly less so now.

“I have no problem with grown men … choosing to participate in a potentially lethal profession,” he said last night, at a debate forum on college football sponsored by Slate and Intelligence Squared at N.Y.U.’s Skirball Center.

But colleges “are charged with a sacred trust. And nowhere in that social contract does it say that it’s OK to encourage young men and women to hit themselves over and over in the head in the name of entertainment.”

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Gladwell repeated a point that he made in his original article: that the problem isn't the knockout blows the N.F.L. has been attempting to fine out of existence, but rather the “sub-concussive” contact that occurs on countless plays, in games and practices.

The debate pitted Gladwell and author Buzz Bissinger, making the case for banning college football, against talking-head lawyer and former N.F.L. player Tim Green and FoxSports.com columnist and former college player Jason Whitlock.

Bissinger and Gladwell came at their position from different angles.

Gladwell told the story, rehashed from his article, of a University of North Carolina player who sustained a concussion in practice after glancing contact to his head. Based on sensors hooked up to the player’s head by the school’s Sports Concussion Research Program, the force of the hit that gave him the concussion measured a “moderate” 64 g. But it was immediately preceded by two harder but still routine-seeming hits measuring 80 and 98 g, the latter of which is roughly the equivalent of driving a car into a brick wall at 25 m.p.h. and having your head smack against the windshield.

Gladwell’s point: It was just an average practice, but the player had sustained three car accidents’ worth of head trauma.

In the case of Junior Seau, the former star linebacker who committed suicide last week, or Dave Duerson, a safety who committed suicide last year and was found to have advanced brain damage, the number of car-accident-level hits to the head they had sustained, during their entire college careers, was 4,000.

BISSINGER, WHOSE SIGNATURE BOOK, FRIDAY NIGHT Lights, exposed the tragic consequences of an unhealthy overemphasis on athletics in a West Texas town, and who dominated last night’s debate with his characteristically colorful displays of indignation, said the intense focus on football on college campuses was similarly out of proportion and deleterious.

His point was that, similar to the depressed oil town of Odessa, Texas that he chronicled in his book, the country was going down the tubes, and football was nothing but a mass cultural distraction that diverts money and priorities from more important pursuits.

He came to the debate armed with numbers:

At Football Bowl Subdivision schools (the 125 “major” college programs) spending per student averages $13,000; for athletes, that figure is $91,000, or 6.8 times as much.

In the past several decades, while the average salary of a tenured professor has gone up 30 percent and that of a college president has gone up 100 percent, the average salary of a football coach has gone up 500 percent, to an average of $1.47 million per year.

Bissinger, citing a statistic that mitigates the claim that football programs are big moneymakers for their schools, said that only 57 percent of FBS football programs reported being profitable.

“I believe that at the top of what has become the ‘distracted university’ is football," he said. "It sucks all the air out of the room. The amount of money that coaches make is insulting."

All of this has happened during what Bissinger described last night as “the most competitive global economy we’ve ever faced.”

And how are our universities preparing our students for this? Not well, Bissinger said.

He cited a statistic that the average study time for college students has gone from more than 40 hours per week in the 1960s, to 20 in the 1980s, to 13 today. Another study of University of Oregon students found that when the football team was doing well, men’s grades went down by the equivalent of 27 SAT points, and students drank 50 percent more.

“So that’s what football does: It makes you fat and stupid,” he said, to laughs.

TIM GREEN, THE FORMER N.F.L. DEFENSIVE END AND COLLEGE FOOTBALL Hall of Famer, a man who has written 26 books, practices law, coaches high school football, and has found time to serve as an N.F.L. analyst on Fox, has a different take on the matter.

Football enabled Green to get a formal education and provided its own lessons, ones especially applicable to the ruthless global economy Bissinger described.

He allowed that football is a brutal game, but said its brutality provides a lesson in itself.

“It’s how much you can take," he said. "It’s how much you can take and keep going. And that’s one of the great lessons in this game ... It teaches kids that life is tough.”

While Bissinger mocked what he saw as the narcotic jingoism in football, which causes people to “bury our head in the sand and sing the national anthem,” Green was far less cynical. To him, football is a unifier on college campuses unlike anything else.

A football game, said Green, “is the only place where a community comes together and respects the national anthem.”

Just like Gladwell and Bissinger, Green had statistics.

As to Bissinger’s claim that the idea of the student-athlete is a myth, Green said that 70 percent of college football players graduate, compared to 56 percent of the overall student population.

(Bissinger’s rebuttal: “Because it’s a [shell] game. And because the NCAA knows they’re under a lot of scrutiny, so they push them through.” Bissinger also pointed to the racial disparities in athlete graduation rates, like at Florida State, where 93 percent of white football players graduate compared to 44 percent of blacks.)

Taking on Gladwell’s claim about the dangers of football, Green rattled off a list of sports with higher incidence of death. The list included rowing, basketball and baseball.

“So if we’re gonna say that football should be banned, we might as well say that all college sports should be banned,” he said.

This was a point for both Green and Whitlock hammered home persistently: Because there are no scientific studies concluding the link between football and brain damage, such a radical change to the status quo as banning college football outright was inappropriate.

“Where are the studies?” asked Green, who compared what he termed the hysteria over concussions to seemingly unfounded rumors about the dangers of cell phone use, asked. “You gotta look at numbers. You can’t just say ‘100 gs.’ That’s not correct.”

Whitlock said, “I think we’re so caught up in the Dave Duersons and the Junior Seaus, but those are the exception and not the norm. That’s not the case for the overwhelming majority of people who play football.”

To this, Gladwell responded, “Here’s why we don’t know what the long-term consequences of football are: Because you have to shoot yourself and do an autopsy to find out if you have CTE.”

CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has studied 75 deceased athletes’ brains and has found CTE in 50 of them, including 14 of 15 football players.

WHITLOCK, WHO HAS CARVED OUT A NICHE BY MAKING SHOCK-VALUE statements that sometimes amount to speaking truth to power but just as often conform to a more predictable, hackish brand of “outrageousness,” grounded his opposition to banning college football in libertarian principles.

“If you believe in freedom, you can’t have the ‘free’ without the ‘dumb,’" he said. "They go hand-in-hand. Freedom allows us to do dumb things… . You can put football with cigarettes, alcohol, and porn."

Both Whitlock and Green frequently employed this notion of football being representative of America, for better or worse.

Whitlock, quite eloquently and powerfully, talked about how football was a melting pot for people of different backgrounds. He played tackle at Ball State University, next to a guard who he said was a bigot. But the two got along and are still friends.

This was actually philosophically consistent with the sentiment behind Whitlock’s larger point: Things in America aren’t perfect, but they’re what we’ve got. 

Green then said, “This is America. We don’t ban things. People can burn a flag.”

Gladwell responded by saying that American states were voting to proactively “ban” gay marriage.  

To be fair to the position that Green and Whitlock were arguing, it should be noted that they were heavily outmatched as debaters by Gladwell and Bissinger. But in the end, it was a landslide.

Before the debate, only 16 percent of audience members supported the position to ban college football. After the debate, 53 percent did. Before the debate, 53 percent were against the position, compared to 39 percent afterward.

In the course of the debate, Whitlock had repeatedly bestowed on his opponents the backhanded compliment that they were “great minds who dabble in sports.”

Translation: You don’t really understand sports, so stay out of this.

Green, in his closing statement, invoked Gladwell’s book, Blink, about the intuitive wisdom of snap impressions.

“Are we gonna ban college football?" he said. "In a blink, I think you’ll say that we won’t."

He was trying to suggest that the idea he had spent the last two hours arguing against was so radical as to be ridiculous. But it was too late for that.

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