Whitlock averred that the experience of playing football prepares athletes for life in a “melting pot” society. Yet he appeared more willing than his debate partner to consider serious reforms to the way the game operates at the college level. While Green compared worries about concussions to “cellphone syndrome,” the fantasy that mobile devices cause brain cancer, Whitlock noted that “the appropriate step to take [with college football] is to walk things back” until scientists unearth more definitive truths. For instance, he suggested, student athletes should play fewer games and participate in fewer full-contact practices.
Because the facts seemed at times hard to pin down, the four panelists skirmished over audience emotions. Gladwell in particular sought to inspire pity for athletes who are bashed repeatedly in the head for others’ entertainment. “You have to look at the collateral damage this game has left in its wake,” he insisted. “You have to ask the question, is it time to say enough?” Meanwhile, Green and Whitlock consistently invoked American patriotism. They used the refrain “This is America” as a kind of magic libertarian formula. Though persuasive at first, the strategy wore thin over the course of the debate, making their answers sound vague even as their opponents’ attacks grew more focused. It’s true that the United States tolerates smoking, porn, and other products and industries that either harm our health or ring moral alarm bells, countered Gladwell at one point. But colleges earn government subsidies because, as educational bodies, they conserve a special trust with students and families. The neurological risks inherent in football fly in the face of that trust.
Bissinger delved deeper into the role of the university. “Why are we the only nation in the world that looks to colleges to provide a primary source of athletic entertainment?” he asked the ceiling in exasperation.
The debate, rawer than most because of each panelist’s personal investment in football, was not without its brilliantly oddball moments. During the question and answer period, Green protested, “This is America! We don’t ban things!”
“Gay marriage. Heard of it?” Gladwell replied.
“That’s certainly banned in most football programs,” added Bissinger.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell, Buzz,” quipped Green, closing the comic loop before the men turned, as one, to the next point.
Curiously, such a spirit of responsiveness and teamwork defined the evening. As Donvan noted, even in the thick of disagreement, the panelists resisted the urge to talk past one another. Whitlock’s characterization of his opponents as football dilettantes (they “dabble” in sports, he said) cast the slightest hint of tension over the room, but even this was meant respectfully. (Nor was it wholly off-base: The Canadian Gladwell seemed genuinely mystified that a culture would decide to worship football as opposed to, say, Monopoly.) And Bissinger’s analytical relationship to the college game allowed him to see its effects on general student culture, whereas Green and Whitlock spoke almost exclusively of the athlete’s experience.
But who knows what happened after the debate ended: “I’m talking to Malcolm now,” growled Green during one especially heated exchange, cutting off Bissinger as he tried to jump in. “I’ll talk to you out back later on.”