Update, May 2, 2012: Since we published this interview Monday, Gladwell responded to some follow-up questions. The article has been updates with those questions and answers.
New Yorker columnist and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell was already a household name in 2009 when he penned an article audaciously comparing football to dogfighting. Both sports, he said, exploit the loyalty and “gameness” of the participants, exposing them to danger for the entertainment of spectators. The dog-fighting analogy works best in the context of college football, for which the athletes themselves receive no compensation. “It's a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players,” Gladwell wrote me in an email last week.
Gladwell’s piece explored the link between the rain of subconcussive blows players experience on the field and CTE, a progressive neurological disorder. In this interview, he evaluates the response to the research and illumines corners of student-athlete culture that often go overlooked. Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, as well as a sweep of articles on everything from puzzles to moral hazard in health care. Read on for his thoughts on the NFL and how playing football is different from running track.
Slate: What do you think is the single most compelling reason to abolish college football? Corruption? Head injury? Lost focus on academics?
Malcolm Gladwell: The factor that I think will be decisive is the head-injury issue. 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.
Slate: Your debate opponents argue that college sports enrich university education by teaching teamwork, discipline, and other personal qualities that lead to success off the field. Do you disagree?
Gladwell: They are absolutely right. Sports teach all kinds of virtues. I wonder if there is a way, though, to teach teamwork and discipline without maiming people. I mean if we could prove that coal mining taught discipline and teamwork and built school spirit, would we build coal mines on every major college campus?
Slate: How would you define the culture of college football? Does this culture add to or detract from the sport’s dangers?
Gladwell: College football has become indistinguishable from professional football—which is the problem. The only justification for college sports is that they are structured in a way that enhances the social and academic experience of getting an education. A sports program using semiprofessional athletes, and running on a budget of $50-plus million a year does not fit that description.
Slate: What might a college football league that “is structured in a way that enhances the social and academic experience of getting an education” look like?
Gladwell: Well, a college sport that enhances the academic experience is one that encourages maximum participation and physical fitness. In other words, it doesn't involve spending tens of millions of dollars on 40 people, some of whom are permanently injured as a result. It involves spending thousands of dollars on 4,000 or 40,000 people, in an attempt to make their lives more fulfilling.
Slate: In an article for Grantland, economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier imagine a fairly plausible chain of events leading to the demise of the NFL. Liability suits at the collegiate and post-collegiate level prompt insurance companies to stop covering schools when it comes to football. Coaches and parents shy away from the sport, sapping the NFL feeder system. As links between CTE and concussions grow clearer, a stigma attaches to the league and advertisers withdraw support. Ultimately, football goes the way of rugby, boxing, and horseracing. Cowen and Grier write, “If recent history has shown anything, it is that observers cannot easily imagine the big changes in advance. Very few people were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, or the rise of China as an economic power. Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without the NFL at its center no longer seems absurd.” Do you think it’s realistic to talk about the end of football? What about the end of college football?
Gladwell: Well, boxing and horseracing didn't end. They have persisted, just in vastly less popular forms than before. They have gone into slow and irreversible decline. I suspect that the same will happen with football. It's going to wither as the supply of talent slowly dries up. I heard on ESPN Michael Wilbon—who is one of the most influential sports journalists in the country—say that he will not let his kids play pro football. If Wilbon won't, who will?
Slate: Is unacceptable risk intrinsic to football, or could rule changes and equipment modifications salvage the game?
Gladwell: You can certainly mitigate the risk. But remember the issue isn't concussions. It is "repetitive subconcussive impact." It's not the one big hit. It is the cumulative effect of thousands of little hits that lineman and defensive backs (the most affected positions) endure, play after play. Can you take the "head" out of line play? You can. But then what you are left with would no longer be called tackle football. It would be called touch football.
Slate: Say banning college football isn’t an option. What reforms would you propose to the system?
Gladwell: If you want college athletes to assume an as yet unknown risk of permanent physical and neurological damage, you should pay them. Properly. It's a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players.
Slate: Were you a student athlete?
Gladwell: I was. I ran track. A very different kettle of fish.
Slate: How was it different?
Gladwell: In the course of training, no one bashed me repeated on the head, and called the resulting damage "sport."
Slate: Do you feel that football is too exalted on college campuses, or is it a worthwhile priority that breeds school spirit (and lots of funding)? How would you defend your contention against the other side?
Gladwell: Football breeds school spirit and fundraising. But, I suspect, it breeds school spirit and fundraising largely for the football program. In any case, I find the notion that you can justify exploiting and maiming athletes because that raises money for the school they are attending to be a slightly appalling notion.
Slate: Should the NFL be banned too?
Gladwell: 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.