Malcolm Gladwell Gets It Wrong: The World Needs College Football

Sparked by an essay written by Malcolm Gladwell comparing college football to dog fighting, Slate and Intelligence Squared teamed up to hold a debate on Tuesday considering whether or not to ban college football. The debate was two on two, with Buzz Bissenger and Gladwell arguing the affirmative while Tim Green and Jason Whitlock argued the negative. Ultimately, Gladwell and Bissenger fail to give enough credit to the worth of collegiate athletics – football in particular.

The actual event was a bit lackluster in terms of serious thought, but that is one of the usual shortcomings of “debates” – too many facts and figures in the way. Certainly, the panel does a fine job talking about various issues that surround the topic in question. We heard about corruption, head injuries, payment for athletes, American freedoms, the “student athlete” title, overpaid coaches, Alzheimer’s, suicide, lax academic standards, and a splay of other talking points. All of these things are perfectly interesting in their own right and may merit our attention, but they tend to dance around the actual subject matter instead of taking it head-on. 

The question, after all, was not “is college football being run correctly;" it was whether or not we should be ready to ban college football. What this means is that we ought to temporarily put aside the questions of efficiency, corruption, or coaches’ salaries; instead, the problem is whether or not a dangerous contact sport like football merits a presence in the academic atmosphere of a university.

So what is the purpose of a university? Why do we have these sorts of things? It seems like an important thing to ask, especially since we spend so much money to receive a good education. If it is simply for employment, then we could probably start striking out the English and Philosophy departments. If we say it is to become a more moral and well-rounded human being, then we might want to check in with the Business or Math departments. If we want to be “competitive in the global marketplace,” then someone will need to call the History and Social Work departments and deliver the bad news. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that at least one of these suggestions doesn’t sound too bad (honestly, “Creative Writing?”), but perhaps there is still a way to bring everyone in.

I would propose this before the panel of debaters: the purpose of a university education is to develop a particular excellence within a human being. That excellence may be “academic” in the traditional sense, or it may not be – do we believe that all “heights” must be academic? Football, after all, is one hell of a sport: it hurts a lot, it requires long hours, and you may suffer “academically.” Indeed, all of the corruption within the system has made it so even the game has become dishonorable in many ways, a fact that Bissenger hits multiple times throughout the debate. Yet none of this takes away from what football – or collegiate academics as a whole – could become if we worked at it. 

And so I think there just might be a height – a “virtue” or “excellence” – to be gained from the sport of football. You are out on a field and ready to make war, exposed to physical danger and hardship while relying on a team of allies to stand up with you. It makes the rather unimpressive task of moving a ball from one end of a field to another into an expression of athleticism, skill, willpower and (sometimes!) intelligence. You can hear these guys talk about the glory of the field – that one “moment” of greatness.  Who wouldn’t sacrifice for that? 

All considered, Bissenger and Gladwell’s message seems to fall flat. They focus a lot on auxiliaries instead of looking at the thing itself. Yes, head injuries are rough, but the physicality is part of the sport’s excellence – the danger, for some, is worth the glory earned. It may sound absurd to some people (Creative Writing majors…), but that is a personal reservation that others clearly do not share.  Corruption is bad, but that hardly means that football is the problem. If anything, we should be teaching these guys more about the philosophy of their sport and what exactly it means to be a student athlete.  Perhaps part of reforming this whole thing is to create a “student athlete” curriculum – who knows?

In all, football is a violent, dangerous, and yet excellent sport. These writer types – those who “dabble” in sports, as Jason Whitlock put it during the debate – have a lot of intelligent things to say, but there are some things that one simply cannot understand from the outside looking in.