Malcolm Gladwell: Why College Football Should Be Outlawed

Submitted by Edward Khil on April 30th, 2012 at 8:23 PM

Slate interviews the best-selling author about head injuries, player exploitation and the subversion of the academic mission.

Colleges are going to get sued, and they will have to decide whether they can afford their legal exposure. That said, the issue ought to be how big-time college sports subverts the academic mission of university education.



May 1st, 2012 at 3:22 PM ^

As recently as 2007, the NFL told players that 1 to 2 concussions had no long term health impact - which directly contradicted all available research. Substantive research relating concussions to long term health concerns. Up until 2010, the NFL employed and published the work of Dr. Ira Casson, now reviled, who alleged there was no link between head trauma and long term mental health effects.


May 1st, 2012 at 3:09 PM ^

Putting aside the laughable idea that a warning label is a disclosure, how about this:

You have highlighted a block of text that appears on Schutt's warning label. Here's the rub: the NFL doesn't use Schutt helmets, they use Riddell. Here is Ridell's label:

NO HELMET CAN PREVENT SERIOUS HEAD OR NECK INJURIES A PLAYER MIGHT RECEIVE WHILE PARTICIPATING IN FOOTBALL. Do not use this helmet to butt, ram or spear an opposing player. This is in violation of the football rules and such use can result in severe head or neck injuries, paralysis or death to you and possible injury to your opponent. Contact in football may result in CONCUSSION-BRAIN INJURY which no helmet can prevent. Symptoms include: loss of consciousness or memory, dizziness, headache, nausea or confusion. If you have symptoms, immediately stop playing and report them to your coach, trainer and parents. Do not return to a game or practice until all symptoms are gone and you have received medical clearance. Ignoring this warning may lead to another and more serious or fatal brain injury.

In other words, your highlighted block of text doesn't exist on the helmet used by the NFL or about 1/2 of college football.


Whatever. Maybe you shouldn't crib your talking points from vaguely-racist far-right websites like "" - the source of your picture.

Section 1

May 1st, 2012 at 3:56 PM ^

I wasn't really quoting any particular warning.  I just posted a picture for laffs.  It just happened to be the clearest photo of one of the current warnings.  I didn't know and didn't care where the photo had been posted previously.

This is a message board, not discovery under FRCivP 26.  Your quote of the Riddell warning sounds pretty clear to me; do yo think any player in the future, with a warning label like that is not adequately warned of the relevant risks?  (We'll have to agree to disagree over players from the more distant past.)

Don't get too excited over any particular helmet warning; they are much more dire now, than they ever were before in any event.  Helmet warnings might not even have existed for a few of the plaintiffs in the California litigation, in their college days or early in their careers.  Because nobody much thought about it back then.  Back when the plaintiffs' lawyers say that the NFL was negligent in failing to warn.  (I have to confess to you that just as a personal matter, I don't give a damn whether the NFL wins or loses anything; I'm not a pro football fan.  I only care about my college football interests.)

In any event, I don't really propose to argue the whole case with you, just for your amusement.  I'm writing to a lot of other people on the Board who might be more interested.


Section 1

May 1st, 2012 at 4:47 PM ^

I didn't quote any particular language, and I didn't rely on any particular language.  The warning language has changed in the past and is much more elaborate now.  Players now entering college can't have very many doubts about the risks.  Not if they look at their helmets and read teh warning.  Not to mention the additional training, coaching, and counsel they are routinely given about concussions.

What language there may be on a current warning decal does not, of course, solve any past disputes.  And as I said, I don't propose to litigate 50 or 60 years of professional football experience with you on a message board.  We'll just see how the lawsuit goes in LA County Superior Court.  I won't much care about the outcome, but it will be interesting.

See how patient I can be even with someone as annoying as you?


April 30th, 2012 at 8:56 PM ^

I like Gladwell, but the secomd sentence in that quote is preposterous. Isn't it up to the school to decide what its mission is?

Waters Demos

April 30th, 2012 at 9:04 PM ^

What other mission is there for university?  Wouldn't it be something other than a university if it determined to aim for a different mission?

There may be many smaller objectives, but all are concomitant with education/culture (in the strict, pre-anthropological sense), are they not? 

Waters Demos

April 30th, 2012 at 9:38 PM ^

That's a pretty broad conception of the mission of university.  You could justify almost anything with that rationale. 

I also don't understand your questions.  

I will acknowledge that athletic competition plays an important role in culturing.  But tv contracts, merchandising, and commerce generally have nothing to do with culturing.  This becomes even more perplexing in the context of public institutions. 


April 30th, 2012 at 11:36 PM ^

You could say, then, that all athletics are beyond the realm of universities, as well as research and who knows what else. The bottom line is, universities have broad mandates- they define for themselves what their missions are.

Even if you want to qualify the mission of universities as being purely educational, you could say the university has a reasonable interest in using athletics to raise revenue and foster school spirit to achieve that educational mission.

All of this also overlooks why colleges started organizing and oversseing college athletics- students were playing the sports anyway, often against the school's witnesses. This allowed them to regulate what was already happening, which made the game safer. It's like the temperance movement- you can try to outlaw it, in which you cannot regulate it, or you can attempt to mitigate the harm it causes.


May 1st, 2012 at 7:05 AM ^

The Mission statement for UofM:




The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.


May 1st, 2012 at 9:36 AM ^

Football does develop leaders.  I watched John Gruden's QB Camp of Kirk Cousins and saw Kirk say himself how football helped him develop as a great leader, what a great leader he is and how he is going to be leader at the next level.  Great leaders like Kirk Cousins are most surely a result of football leadership training. 


May 1st, 2012 at 9:41 AM ^

thanks for that!  nowhere in there does it say anything that would lead a reasoanble reader to believe that having a football team undermines the university's mission.  there are many ways to develop leaders and citizens that enrich the future and though academics is the primary means, sports are another.  and not just for the athletes.  they create a feeling of camaraderie among many students.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:10 PM ^

lol if you think any university would admit that football is the number one priority over education, seriously if there was ever one assumption you could make it would be that.  If you wanted to argue that some schools value research more than education fine but they wouldn't admit that either.  The fact of the matter is he is right in a world where people don't put so much into football that having a good football team improves academics by raising admission numbers and donation dollars, but our society is fucked up so having big time football actually benefits the overall academic mission of a university, penn state is example 1 of this.


April 30th, 2012 at 10:21 PM ^

you wrongly assume that one is exclusive of the other.  can't a university have an academic mission that isn't absolute and sometimes bends to the other interests of its students and alumni, such as by having a football team?  and by having lower admission standards to increase the likelihood that its football team wins?  or believing that having a good football team might increase alumni donations to the school that ultimately further the school's academic mission?  surely the school will tell you that academics comes before football, and it does.  but malcom gladwell can't define the school's mission, ojectives or goals.  only the school can.


April 30th, 2012 at 11:36 PM ^

Otherwise non-academmic fraternities, community service organizations that interfere with studies, civic events and all other university sponsored athletics would be off the bill. College is about much more than simply education. It's about rounding the immature into adults.

Embracing a hallowed athletic tradition that helps the school reach out, bring people together and generate press and potentially money for the school does not in any way violate a school's mission, because the mission is not just education.


May 1st, 2012 at 12:51 AM ^

I wasn't arguing that their is more to the college experience than academics, but that doesn't mean education isn't the number one priorirty and if those things were believed tob undercutting it the university would not act.  Just look at how the universities have regulated the greek life at the school.  My point was mainly that a university would never admit that a successful football program was undermining academics and then support that football team over the academics of the school which is what I considered the comment to be implying since schools are in theory setting their own priorities. 


May 1st, 2012 at 9:47 AM ^

you pretty much lost me when you used their instead of there.  in any event, by having a football team the university has admitted that it isn't solely an academic institution.  it's an instituion of higher learning, and in the judgment of the university, higher learning includes sports.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:20 PM ^

In the same division as Bishop McDevitt, Harrisburg, Central Dauphin, Susquehanna Township & Mechanicsburg . Bishop McDevitt has produce Lesean McCoy, Noah Spence, & Jamal poteet (4 star Cincinnati RB). Mechanicsburg who produced Connecticut & Notre Dame product Zach Frazier & a preferred walk on LB to penn state with a few bcs level offers. The Susquehanna Township has a receiver by the name of Marquest (sp) Colston. We play some heavy competition friend.


April 30th, 2012 at 10:55 PM ^

I assume i don't need to explain to you that just because it didn't happen to you doesn't mean it's not a problem. Not everyone who doesn't wear a seatbelt goes flying through a windshield in a car accident, yet seatbelts are still legally mandated. Isolated examples of people who don't get in car accidents are less important than the people that the law helps.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:02 PM ^

It seems like head injuries have been a problem for football for quite some time, yet out of the 4 major American sports, it has gained the most popularity over the past quarter century. As far as the argument that football will wither away due to lack of available athletes, that's just absolutely asinine. So what if Michael Wilbon doesn't want his kids to play football? A million more will take their place. The glory, fame, and money involved is too alluring. No high school football player is thinking about the long-term physiological consequences of having a football career; they're too busy dreaming of playing in the NFL. The demise of boxing and horseracing is in part due to the rising popularity of football, so it's a bit of a stretch to say that football is destined to have the same fate at this point.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:20 PM ^

No high school football player is thinking about the long-term physiological consequences of having a football career; they're too busy dreaming of playing in the NFL.

As the research about football as a causative factor in long-term brain damage becomes accepted, it's going to become attendant on high schools and colleges to inform players and their parents about them, not only as a legal matter, but as a moral one, because teenage athletes cannot be expected to consider those consequences.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:14 PM ^

the data are in showing "repetitive subconcussive impact" can lead to brain injury. Maybe he's just looking at a couple outliers. I really hope football is not at some sort of tipping point. It's hard to fathom it could all just disappear in the blink of an eye.

One Inch Woody…

April 30th, 2012 at 9:18 PM ^

While these things are truly disturbing and a negative part of the game, the only real negatives that football has over other sports is the propensity for *head* injuries and the financial exploitation. 

While this is definitely terrible, college football also provides something which other sports do not. The football teams of each school are like gladiators and they play for the pride and tradition of the school. While this is the case also with other sports, none are as unifying and powerful as football, where the glory of victory radiates throughout the student body.

It's too intertwined with the ideals of the university to just... eliminate! We need it to further tradition and create memories and stories.

The players fully know what they are signing up for when they join their respective teams - a shot at respresenting their university on the field of battle and a shot at playing professional football.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:27 PM ^

The analogy of football players to gladiators in the context of possible long-term mental debilitation is somewhat disturbing, no?

Perhaps the players can stand at mid-field before kickoff, raise their helmets, and shout Morituri te salutant! 


And it's impossible to square the contention that players know fully well what they're signing up for with the early stage research being done on the long-term damage of relatively low impact, repetitive hits. 


April 30th, 2012 at 11:46 PM ^

How is it impossible? Nobody ever thinks about the fact that it will happen to them. That's why boxers keep boxing. That's why players keep playing. I hurt my knees playing basketball even when I was aware of the possibility increasing, because, hey, it wasn't ncessarily going to happen. I assumed the risk.

And importantly, it might not happen. Sure, you could be a lineman, play for years, and mangle your brains. Or you could be a lineman, play for years, retire and lead a happy life, as many do. Or you could play through college and hurt yourself. Or you could play through college and become the president of the United States.

You know how dangerous driving is, but you probably do it. Why do you do it?


May 1st, 2012 at 12:01 AM ^

I'm suggesting that, prior to these recent studies, no one knew the long-term physiological effects on the brain of sub-concussive contact, that football was basically triggering early onset Alzheimers among a significant population of former players. The studies are just beginning to determine percentage risk among players and charting long-term collective biographies of former players. Add in the generational distance between trauma and onset of affect, I'm assuming these potential injuries (and injuries isn't the right term, maybe disabilitiy) are not well recognized among current college players. 

With driving and other things you point to, it's possible to assess risk. It's not, at this point, possible for CTE and other brain injuries, because we don't know what percentage of players it affects and how it begins.

Everyone playing at this point knows the danger to knees and shoulders, not least because they see such injuries happen to those they play with. How do they know (and I mean that literally in the "how is their knowledge formed" sense) about the long-term affects of brain-injury?


May 1st, 2012 at 7:13 AM ^

This thread finally made me get a sig as well as an avatar. Anyone who's ever put on a helmet, football, hockey, motorcycle, or otherwise has seen the sticker on the back. It's a personal choice to put yourself at risk. I'm all for learning as much as we can about the effects and trying to minimize them wherever possible going forward.  The NFL has jumped in with both feet in trying to accomplish this. I'm sure it's because of the threat of a lawsuit but its a big step in the right direction. College will follow suit with specialists and testing done on the sideline I'm sure. At the end of the day life is full of risks that you yourself must choose.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:20 PM ^

A hundred years ago, players were dying on the field and the President of the US himself almost tried to outlaw it. Not an original sentiment, and of course it'll never happen, though some changes will probably be made at some point

death by trident

April 30th, 2012 at 9:25 PM ^

People that ride moto-cross know that at any moment they could die or spend their life drinking from a straw.  They ride in spite of this.

People that play rugby know that their brains could spill out of their head at any given moment from a spike to the head.  They play rugby in spite of this.

People that lift weights competitively destroy their bodies in the process.  They lift weights in spite of this.

People that play football know the risks involved to their bodies.  They play football in spite of this.


You can say what you want about sports, book nerd.  Those that compete for greatness do so in the face of danger which you will never fully understand.  They will continue to flock to sports because people value and appreciate greatness at the risk of their own bodies.  Athletes and competitors accept it every single day and are disheartened by your efforts to make them "safer."  Ask yourself this - Why after 3 neck surgeries would one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time risk his life to step on the field again?  If you can't answer that, then you just don't get it.