Last week, Junior Seau’s death became the latest tragedy to test America’s already-tortured love for football. The NFL star’s apparent suicide revived concerns about a game built, seemingly, on debilitating violence and trauma.
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger knows all about conflicted allegiance to a beautiful, terrible sport. Having grown up watching football, he made his name exposing its underside, with the 1988 best-seller Friday Night Lights. These days he continues to decipher the game’s glories and call out its flaws as a columnist for the Daily Beast.
Bissinger admits to the thrill of watching professional football players collide like trucks in a pile-up, but he hates the sport’s centrality on college campuses. “Football,” he says, “is antithetical to the academic experience.” That, more so even than the risk of brain damage, is why he’ll argue alongside Malcolm Gladwell that college football should be banned at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate in New York City on May 8. Former NFL defensive end Tim Green and Fox Sports writer Jason Whitlock will contest the motion.
If debates were football games, Bissinger would be a formidable draft pick. He can toss off facts and research in effortless verbal spirals, and he burns with white-hot anger. (Ask Bissinger whether student athletes should be paid and get ready for an earful.) But his belief that bone-crushing brutality belongs in pro football—and that the NFL should abandon its efforts to make the sport safer—might weaken his case for banning the college game, forcing him to rely on more tenuous reasons than concussions for why football harms student life.
Bissinger’s fifth book, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, comes out in May.
Slate: What was the intention behind Friday Night Lights?
Bissinger: It’s the opposite of a love letter to the game—a cautionary tale. Friday Night Lights is what happens when a town becomes completely obsessed with football and takes it to a dangerous extreme.
The book’s about high school kids being sacrificed in the name of winning football games in Texas, of trying to win a state championship. No regard was given to their future. The whole attitude of the town was, “This is your future.” And, in effect, the kids’ lives were over at 18. Many did not go on to college. They were discouraged from taking the SATs on a Saturday because it conflicted with watching footage of the previous night’s game. And there was hideous racism directed at a black player who got injured. He became totally dispensable: He was called a “big, dumb old nigger” by one of the assistant coaches.
Slate: What do you make of the TV series? It seems to romanticize football a bit more.
Bissinger: The show was inspired by the book, but it bears virtually no relationship to it. The movie’s closer.
Slate: Could you walk me through the history of your relationship with football? Were you a fan before you started writing Friday Night Lights?
Bissinger: I was a big football fan growing up in New York City. I got season tickets to the New York Giants and the New York Jets. My father went to Dartmouth, back when the Ivy League played really good football. We went to a lot of games. I remember, one weekend, we actually saw three. We went up to Cambridge to see Dartmouth-Harvard, and then came back to LaGuardia. Ate at LaGuardia. Went to the Jets game that night. Then, the next day, we went to the Sunday Giants game.
Slate: What changed your mind? What made you want to tell a “cautionary tale” about football?
Bissinger: The idea for the book emanated from a trip I took out West. In the midst of downtown suburbs that were being obliterated, I saw all these beautiful high school football stadiums. They were painted and well maintained. It was clear to me that these weren’t simply stadiums: They were shrines to hold small-town people’s hopes and dreams on a Friday night. And I found the right town to write about, which was Odessa, in West Texas—about 300 miles from anything and everything. Once I got into the book, I just discovered a very dark side to football. The games themselves were wonderful and exciting, but the pressure and the emphasis was beyond all extremes.
Slate: Your debate partner, Malcolm Gladwell, raised the possibility that it might be unethical to watch NFL games. What do you think?
Bissinger: I don’t think it’s unethical to watch NFL games. I watch them. I think we have to make a decision. Either we accept football for what it is, which is a brutally violent game, or we ban it.
I don’t know how you’re going to put a halt to injuries. You can try all you want to prevent concussions, but you’re not going to be able to do it. We love hits. No one wants to admit this, but we like it when players get knocked out. It’s why we go. It’s bloodlust: The modern Roman Coliseum.
Personally, I like that aspect of the game, the brutal violence, as long as it’s legal. Would I let my kid play? No. Do I think anyone should let their kid play? No. Particularly not at a youth level, where the kids’ brains are unformed and much more susceptible to serious concussions. Plus, I saw what happened in Odessa.
But attempts to reform football will just dilute the game until it’s no longer recognizable. There’s only so much you can do with the equipment. True, we’re not going back to the days of people wearing leather caps, when a lot of players got killed, but these guys are instinctively trained, since the age of 9 or 10, to maim. They want to hurt players. They want to intimidate. That’s part of the game. Yes, the concussion rules in effect are much better than they were. But even if you don’t get concussions, you’re going to have terrible arthritis. A lot of players can’t walk. They can’t move their hands. It’s brutal. Still, every player that has been interviewed says he would not trade it for anything. All this is endemic to the game and it’s what makes the game special. If there is great concern about the medical repercussions, which I understand, then get rid of football.
Slate: You would abolish collegiate football but accept NFL football completely as is?
Bissinger: Yes. That’s because football has absolutely nothing to do with the academic experience. In fact, it’s antithetical to the academic experience. People think that football programs make money, but NCAA studies have shown that maybe 20 schools earn money from football. Two-thirds lose money. And how can you justify keeping around a football program that’s losing money at a time when all sorts of other cuts are being made and programs killed? You can’t!
Plus, football has no social impact, except that, in school, it creates a dangerous athletic culture. Players don’t mingle with the other students. They have a completely different status.
Slate: Jason Whitlock would say that being on the football team teaches players about diversity. He’d claim football instills tolerance, not elitism.
Bissinger: I don’t know how much diversity you see on a football team. Most are minority heavy. And Jason applauds this idea that relaxed academic standards for athletes result in more diversity—well, I don’t support relaxing academic standards. There are no academic standards for a lot of these kids. Schools can improve graduation rates all they want. They can do it like Auburn University, which had a professor offer independent study programs to dozens of football players, for which they were assigned no work and all got As.
And so what if it is great socialization for the football team? That’s 65 players out of a school of thousands. Football should help the student body. And the money schools make from football goes to support nonrevenue sports, not back into the general funds. Some people say athletics spur alumni contributions: Untrue. Studies have shown they make no difference whatsoever. Then, of course, you have benefactors like Phil Knight who decide to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of Oregon for the sake of football. Great—that doesn’t help the average student. Oregon faces the same crunch that many other state schools face and is cutting all sorts of academic programs.
Basically, colleges are building the best teams that money can buy. Players are being used. They should be paid. It is—I don’t want to say slavery, but it is almost a form of slavery. The demands placed on these kids are enormous; they make enormous money for the program, particularly the Cam Newtons and Tim Tebows. They generate millions of dollars in merchandise sales. And they don’t get a cent. The whole goal is to get to the pros, and it’s a very false dream because the odds there are infinitesimal. Even if you do make it, the average shelf life of a football player is roughly three years. And then what do you do? No one cares about you when you’re done. No one’s going to give you a break. You don’t have an education. You’re a nobody.
Slate: These NFL players don’t make enough money to retire in comfort?
Bissinger: Not if they’re only playing for three years. And even if you retire with a million dollars, you don’t have a job and you don’t know anything. Some NFL alums don’t even know you have to pay taxes. Look at basketball: Studies have shown that 50 percent of all former NBA players have gone bankrupt.
If we’re going to have these sports, let’s be honest about what’s in store for the players. Let’s offer them courses in what to do with their money. All the basics: How to invest, how to find a financial advisor, what makes a good agent. What the tax system is. These guys don’t know.
Another thing: There is no other Western society that offers sports scholarships to the extent to which they’re offered in the United States. South Africa recruits in rugby. We recruit in everything. And you have cheating. You have violations. It’s rampant. You have football coaches who are making five or six million dollars a year—how could a football coach be making twice as much as the president of a school? And if you’re a faculty member, what do you say to yourself? You say, well, they don’t really care about me.
Slate: Do you support separating the sports programs from the schools?
Bissinger: That’s a tricky plan, subject to all sorts of problems—especially Title IX and gender equality, which is obviously important. But yes, some people have suggested that you get these teams out of the academic setting. They’d basically become minor league teams. The colleges would negotiate a set fee that the teams would pay them and then, they’re out of it. I definitely advocate that.
Slate: But if players aren’t university students—just mercenaries hired by the colleges—wouldn’t that affect school spirit and alumni support? Or are there ways around that?
Bissinger: The team would still have the name of USC or Penn or Harvard. In terms of school spirit, I think it’s fine for kids to go paint their faces on a Sunday. Of course, there are other ways to have school spirit—and that’s not why you’re going to college, anyway. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we pay far too much attention to whether Johnny and Judy are having fun, and not enough to whether they’re being pushed academically. The world’s more competitive than ever. There is no time to waste.
As for alumni, they can root for something else. They can root for a pro team.
Slate: You’ve written that “the overemphasis on sports is a leading cause of America losing its competitive edge.” Is the problem that serious?
Bissinger: Absolutely. Football creates what William G. Bowen, the former president of Princeton, called a dangerous “athletic culture.” There have even been studies showing that, when the football team is good, the average student GPA goes down, because there’s more partying. And I think football is one of the biggest reasons for our decline because it’s become such a massive part of our education system. So much time and money is spent on it. People still want to think that sports are a toy department and not injurious—that’s completely wrong.
The University of Maryland, in order to support a football program that is losing money, just cut eight nonrevenue sports. And I know from other research that these are sports that actually produce good students. Kids in track and swimming are quite disciplined. They do well, and their programs get slashed.
Slate: If football and basketball were to disappear on college campuses, would another sport come in to fill the void?
Bissinger: Probably not. Whether they liked it or not, schools would likely go back to the core emphasis of what, presumably, they’re there for, which is to teach. Football and basketball lovers could watch the pros. I really do think we would live without it.
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