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.


Section 1

April 30th, 2012 at 9:49 PM ^

Which is why we love Canadian hockey players.  The very best sorts of Canadians, God bless 'em.  Can you say "God" in Canada?  Sure you can.  "God keep our land, glorious and free.  Oh, Canada we stand on guard for thee.  OH CANADA, WE STAND ON GUARD FOR THEEEEEE."



April 30th, 2012 at 9:27 PM ^

Guys, we're maiming our players in the name of school spirit.

But seriously.  He seems alright with pro football "as long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated."  I somehow doubt that kids coming to a D-1 school to play football are unaware of the risks.  Proper compensation?  $200,000 in tuition.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:27 PM ^

I've never understood this argument. At some point, people should just accept that football is dangerous and move on. If you don't want to get hurt, don't play. I'm sure many people will be willing to take the risk of injury to play the game they love. 


April 30th, 2012 at 9:28 PM ^

but it's common knowledge that football players (and many other sports) accept the risk of injury every game while all colleges offer the ability to get a college degree for free (ok not all; Saban). I can't see any lawsuits going anywhere with this just because no one is forcing anyone to play and the risk of injury is extremely well known nowadays


April 30th, 2012 at 9:38 PM ^

Serious question: should we consider long-term damage to brain function, that, if the research is correct, leaves former players without short-term memory, induces severe depression, and functionally shortens their brain life in the same frames we use to consider the long-term damages to knees and shoulders that players live with?

They seem categorically different to me, but maybe I'm wrong.


April 30th, 2012 at 11:04 PM ^

Serious question: why should we be concerned about it if the players themselves aren't?  I have the right to decide what to do with my body and the risks I want to assume whilst doing it.  Everyone who plays football (especially at a elite, D1 level) understands the risks of potential injury on every play.  They may not fully understand all of the long-term sequelae, but I think the same can be said of smokers, drinkers, or obese gluttons.  You're doing what you want in spite of the serious health consequences down the line.  How's a stroke secondary to years of smoking and coronary artery disease any different in debility than dementia secondary to multiple adolescent concussions?  It's not.  But no one's outlawing booze, cigarettes, or chocolate cake.


April 30th, 2012 at 11:23 PM ^

Fair enough. 

I don't know if the players are informed about CTE. It's a relatively recently discovered phenomenon in football and hockey players, particularly the links between CTE and sub-concussive contact. So I'm not convinced of the "everyone knows" part about this particular long-term effect. I'd love to know what, if anything, potential players or their parents are told about the recent studies.

If they do know, I have no problem with people making decisions that might have long-term poor health outcomes, I just want them to be able to make those decisions in an informed way. 

And I'd like to think fans would care about the prevalence of CTE and what can be done to prevent it, not only because of the future of football as a sport, but because of the future of the people who play it, who we do grow to care about. I find a lot of the commentary in this thread pretty callous in dismissing long-term cognitive trauma that players couldn't reasonably foresee, given that they've only recently been uncovered. I'd much rather that football as a sport undergo some significant rule and technology changes than have people end up like Dave Duerson.



Section 1

May 1st, 2012 at 12:14 AM ^

When you say this, you have blown up most of the plaintiffs' case against the NFL:

I find a lot of the commentary in this thread pretty callous in dismissing long-term cognitive trauma that players couldn't reasonably foresee, given that they've only recently been uncovered. 

If cognitive trauma has "only recently been uncovered," and the players (and owners?) "couldn't reasonably foresee" it, then where is the league's negligence?  What was the wrong, which led to foreseeble injury?  How was the NFL negligent?  Did it fail to prevent against injuries that were heretofore 'unforeseeable?  Mrs. Palsgraf might want to talk about that one.  Or Mr. McPherson. 

Lacking that element, the only surviving theory against the NFL is "strict liability."  And I don't expect that thoery to survive a summary motion, even in California.


May 1st, 2012 at 9:39 AM ^

Fine. I don't care about the lawsuit. And the fact that this research uncovering unknown long-term damages is new likely renders the plaintiffs without civil responsibility, even if it doesn't mean they're innocent.

What I do care about is informing players about the full range of risks that they're taking on in playing as that information becomes known, and not just the apparent knee and shoulder injuries they can see, but the brain trauma that they can't. I find these injuries different in kind, not degree, from the physical injuries that people suffer playing football, including potential paralysis. Eric LeGrand is far more able to function in society than Dave Duerson was. Only when that information is conveyed, in detail, will players be able to make informed choices about playing. 

And I care about developing new observational regimes, new equipment, and potentially new rule changes as the research procedes to tell us which kind of contact is most dangerous, how many players are affected  when damages begin to occur and how they might be mitigated. 


April 30th, 2012 at 9:33 PM ^

We need some MGOLawyers I think here. How can any litigation be brought forth to prove there was not a pre-exisiting condition in say high school. Let's also address minor hockey, there are more head shots than football as I'm watching highlights of a fight on TV. I feel creepy that lawsuits on the horizen that may kill or limit the sport as we know it. I don't want 7 on 7's in the fall. s.o.s.

sports fan

April 30th, 2012 at 9:34 PM ^

I desperately wanted to play football in high school in 1955.  I had had two prior rather serious concussions, one as a result of a bicycle accident where I was unconscious for 9 hours in the hospital; and another diving into the knee of another baseball  player trying to catch a pop fly.  Even back then my General Practitioner doctor wouldn't let my parents let me play.  The seriousness of concussions is not new.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:39 PM ^

Malcolm Gladwell is trash pop-psychology/sociology.  God, I can't believe this motherfucker gets paid to write/talk.  Just looking at a picture of him makes me want to break my screen.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:52 PM ^

I'm not disputing his argument about trauma or concussions: that's basic medical science.  He compares college football to dog fighting and says we should abolish it? Yeah, okay.  I'm even in favor of letting players sign endorsements and getting paid to an extent.  When I bought my #16 Michigan jersey, I didn't buy it because I like #16.  Denard Robinson made me buy that jersey.  This piece is classic Malcolm Gladwell: broad assumptions about a subject he knows fuck all about and uses other people's science to support. 

death by trident

April 30th, 2012 at 9:54 PM ^

People know how bad football is, and they choose to play it anyways.  When my kid asked me if he could play football when he was 10, I sat him down and explained to him the ugly that was going to take place.  When he decided to step on the field knowing that he could be -

  • knocked out
  • cut
  • suffer ligament damage
  • break bones
  • brain damaged

He did so knowing that there was the risk of any one of those things.  I let him play knowing that I would be saddened if those things happened.  My dad gave me the same speech.  Anyone that is around football knows this.  Anyone who acts surprised by this is just trying to play you.  


April 30th, 2012 at 10:08 PM ^

I played for three years in junior high/high school, and I know that I knew I could get hurt. Did anyone talk about brain damage? No way, and I'm pretty sure as a teenager, much less a 10 year old, I wouldn't have been able to comprehend the type of brain damage these new studies are uncovering. 

death by trident

April 30th, 2012 at 10:16 PM ^

The other side of that is that when my son told me he didn't want to play anymore, I told him that was fine with me.  It was his choice in the matter, and I was willing to live with the decision that he and I made together.

This really isn't news to anyone who has played football or is planning on playing football.  This is kind of 1984-ish at best.  I feel like we just discovered that cigarettes are harmful...


April 30th, 2012 at 10:45 PM ^

There's a legal concept called assumption of risk that says that even if a plaintiff can prove negligence he is barred from recovering damages if he knew (or should have known) of the risks and voluntarily participated anyway. Concussions are an open and shut illustration of this principle. It's been well known for over a century that football is a violent sport that's dangerous to the point of being deadly. Long term brain damage isn't going to move the needle when you've already assumed the risk you could die.


April 30th, 2012 at 10:53 PM ^

How does the concept work? If an activity could lead to death and plaintiffs knew/should have known, are defendents indemnified against all harms below death? 

I think an argument could be made that CTE caused by sub-concussive contact (not "normal" concussions) rises to a level of harm below death but above any other known risks, and that players can reasonably argue that they did not, and could not have known, the risks, given that knowledge of CTE has only come out in the wake of the post-mortum brain studies done at BU. But if assumption of risk basically means that if there's a chance of death then damages are unrecoverable, then they don't have a case for monetary reward.


April 30th, 2012 at 11:55 PM ^

You would have to prove that the players did not know about this more subtle level of risk, or that a reasonable person in their position would be unaware of it,and therefore did not reasonably assume it. You would probably also have to prove that universities were aware of it all this time, which is unlikely. You can't hold colleges accountable for damage that was occuring largely unkown to anyone. And when it beceomes well enough known that colleges can presumptively be considered to be aware of it, the players probably know and assume the risk as well.



May 1st, 2012 at 9:21 AM ^

Even if you can convince the court that the distinct risk of CTE was not assumed you still have to prove negligence by the universities. That means you have to prove they had a knowledge of the risks the players did not and that the universities acted unreasonably. It's a massive long shot.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:52 PM ^

Gladwell's nothing but a damned Chicken Little...reminds me of the idiots selling books and dithering on and on about Y2K in the late '90s, only instead of planes falling out of the sky, now it's football disappearing because of lawsuits and the mass of football fans "realizing" that everything they knew about football is wrong.

The dude couldn't get into grad school but now he flits from topic to topic, studying each for a few months and then pontificating as though he's some expert. 

The people listening to and believing him are the equivalent of those who stockpiled ammunition, water, batteries, and canned food for the anarchy that Y2K was going to bring.


April 30th, 2012 at 9:53 PM ^

One of the items I caught over the weekend dealt with a current class action suit started or in large part organized through Lomas Brown and is the first to cite the Saints bounty program as evidence of a lack of protection on the part of the NFL.

One of the points from the panel on that discussion felt the single largest hurdle is going to be uncovering direct evidence of a conspiracy to withhold information and educate the players on the dangers of concussions and intentionally withheld information.  

Pending any additional change in the scope, I am going to venture to guess that the only real changes will be a few additional hold harmless forms for high schools, colleges and professional ranks.  At the end of the day, players want to play the game and should know the risks.  I have had at least 3-4 concussions from high school through college and a few since that during my time in the Army, Krav classes, etc.  That is on top of dislocated shoulders, seperations, broken bones etc. If you play hard, things happen.  


April 30th, 2012 at 9:59 PM ^

We're going to have laws against playing? I'd love to see these enforced on playgrounds across America. Sorry, kids, you'll have to jump off a swingset or play basketball on blacktop or play whatever other dangerous games kids play these days.

If football goes, boxing/MMA and hockey are obviously out the window as well, and obviously rugby won't ever become popular on this side of the pond.

Sounds like a solid plan, really.

Edit: Also goodbye skydiving, bungee jumping, rockclimbing, every sport in the X Games, skiing, snowboarding, NASCAR, and on and on and on.

Picktown GoBlue

May 1st, 2012 at 12:01 AM ^

running up and down your stairs to find a dollar that your mother knows is already right next to her.

Try to find some of these gems around playgrounds anymore:

Final image from a random site that happened to be noting a claim filed a couple years ago seeking $10K for falling on compacted sand from the monkey bars (although comments debated whether the picture above is a "jungle gym" or "monkey bars," they were "monkey bars" where I grew up).

The parents of a 5-year-old girl have filed a claim against the city after the girl fell off the monkey bars, breaking her arm and chipping her tooth.

Oh, but the good ol' days:

And the random walk through the Interwebz comes through again.  The perfect response for M. Gladwell -

Wolverine Devotee

April 30th, 2012 at 10:02 PM ^

This fool can think think all he wants. Never is going to happen. Never. Period, end of story.

If it does happen, than I guess we're living in the second coming of the Soviet Union.



April 30th, 2012 at 10:04 PM ^

"As long as the risks are explicit, the players warned, and those injured properly compensated, then I'm not sure we can stop people from playing. A better question is whether it is ethical to WATCH football. That's a harder question."

I love football, therefore my ethics could be in question, if that's what he's getting at. Nice.

I never played, but I am pretty sure the folks on the field where I am or on the television I am watching understand what they face, and at least intellectually, those of us watching the games, live or on television, understand the risk of serious injury. Considering the voluminous amount of research and constant coverage, this is a hard aspect of playing the game to ignore.  Some choose to play anyway.

I am pretty sure if I were watching 22 players on the field who did not understand that they could be hurt playing a game, then I would perhaps feel bad for enjoying the sport, but as this isn't the case, then to say that there is an ethical question at all doesn't hold water, in my opinion. Further, I don't sit in my seat or on my  couch hoping for someone to get injured - THAT is unethical, in my estimation. They aren't sending drones out there,  but self-aware people capable of assessing the risks. They choose to play. 

To me, it's watching people achieve goals, both individual and communal, and taking pride in these achievements. It involves the risk of injury, but unless that's what you're there  to see, then I see no issues. 


April 30th, 2012 at 10:12 PM ^

We should just outlaw any risky activity.  We could then just sit at home on the floor (sitting on the couch increases the risk of a head injury from a fall) and turn into puddles of goo.

Individual freedom is way overrated anyhow.  It's best if the nanny state dictates how we live our every moment.




April 30th, 2012 at 10:13 PM ^

Listen,  Gladwell is a really good writer. His ideas aren't incredibly original, though, and this one isn't either. I would argue that there is a really good case for football to be seperated from college, but that won't happen because of the percieved benefits of having a football team. Isn't this argument saying that 18 year olds are incapable of planning for the future? Thats true, but it doesn't make them any less accountable for their actions. 


April 30th, 2012 at 10:36 PM ^

would be that this is the kind of argument smaller schools (you know which ones I mean) like to make to explain why a school like Michigan isn't as good as they are, because it likes sports (ewwwww), and they have "better" priorities.

To me, it's ridiculous. In all fairness, many of these athletes might not have another path to college, even for monetary reasons, and use football to get a free education. Also somewhat cynically, they usually become the most monetarily successful alumni, and can donate accordingly. They were students once, as well. Even outside of the context of an academically strong school like Michigan, where football still helps spread our name, increase applications, etc., think of a counterexample. Look at a school like Middle Tennesse State - who has heard of it for anything, academic or athletic? Look at OSU, then. While we might not like them, they have managed to build a big name for themselves based on basically football alone, with some recent basketball success. I guess my point is that if athletes can go to college for free, and schools benefit as well, and everyone knows the risks inherent, what's the problem?


April 30th, 2012 at 11:58 PM ^

Williams and Amherst, the consistent top two liberal arts colleges in the country since dinosaurs walked the earth, both have football teams, for example. My sister went to Williams and gets revved up when they play Amherst. Less so when they play Bowden, or any of the other prestigious schools in their conference. I refer to it as the "Froo-Froo Nancy" conference to aggravate her.


April 30th, 2012 at 10:37 PM ^

I wrote a blog post about this in the aftermath of the Saints bounty scandal. Essentially, I do think there is water to the arguement that football is on the track to become this centuries boxing. Injuries will force parents to shuttle their kids into safer activites. 

Also, wouldn't the schools be open lawsuits based on tricking students into thinking that this is safe, or at least not pressing the need for safety. Yeah people LOVED smoking back when the cigarette companies advertised that they were healthy for you, or at least hid the pertinent healthcare information. 

I dislike Gladwell. I love football. I do think he may be onto something. 


April 30th, 2012 at 11:01 PM ^

He's not on to something.  Your reasoning is almost as flawed as your spelling and grammar.  If injuries are going to force parents' hands, why wouldn't it have happened already?  There have always been and always will be injuries in football. If and when football programs start claiming that football is completely safe and ignore teaching how to play safely, they might be open to lawsuits.  But that's not what's happening.  The only thing Gladwell is on to is how to sell a book by making alarmist prognostications.


April 30th, 2012 at 11:26 PM ^

In the past the injury risk may have been that you could break a bone or injure a knee.  Really serious injury such as death or paralysis was seen as one in a million long shots.  Most parents can live with this risk.  New research seems to indicate a risk that a significant percentage, 15% +, may suffer long term neurological effects.  This is a different risk entirely and could lead many more parents to question the value of having their children play football.

I don’t think football is going away next year or that it should be banned.  There is beginning to be some evidence that decline is on the horizon however.  If we take the long view of twenty plus years, the idea of football fading away is not outlandish.  I would argue that football remaining the dominate sport for the next 20, 40 or 100 years is probably the least likely outcome.



May 1st, 2012 at 11:07 AM ^

I was purely speaking about the long game for this problem as well. 

I apologize to UMgradMSUdad for not keeping my MGoBlog comment grammar up to his standards of online commenting, yet my argument still stands. 

We are still learning the science behind CTEs and their connection to football injuries. As this science becomes more exact the more parents will opt to have their precious children play a sport that has a lower probability of causing them to become vegetables. 

We have already seen games at the college where players, who have been pulled for a possible concussion, are put back INTO the game. I vividly remember one incident of this recently against a Michigan opponent... don't tell me these sort of actions won't cause an increased amount of lawsuits claiming at the least negiligence. 

Additionally, take a look at boxing. This argument is more adapted to the pro level than the college level, but you could apply it to both. Professional boxing held America's fascination and attention for decades. The big fights of the 60s and 70s are still woven into our cultural fabric. Yet, in 2012 no one gives a damn about boxing. Every once in awhile a headline will pop up, but America's youth are not flocking to boxing rings or idolizing the likes of Ali and Fazier like they once did. 

I hope my internet comment board grammar was up to par on this one. I would really hate to get internet scorned for internet grammar again. 


May 1st, 2012 at 8:32 AM ^

And that's just it, mostly.  As our knowlede and understanding of brain injuries increase, we are better able to educate athletes and monitor those who suffer concussions and repeated blows to the head. Unlike years ago, now we have athletes who are advised to stop playing or aren't cleared medically to play after repeated concussions, so in the future, the liklihood of people who play just high school or high school and college football ending up with serious neurological problems later in life will be lessened.  The game is already adapting to this new research, and it will continue to adapt, outrage will lessen, and football will be just fine.