On Tuesday night, four eminences in sports and culture met at NYU’s Skirball Center to debate the question: Should college football be banned? According to the crowd of New Yorkers at the final Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate of the spring season, the answer is definitively: yes.
The motion for the debate—“ban college football”—kicked off a verbal contest that rivaled the Rose Bowl in intensity. Arguing “for” were Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger and Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker columnist and writer of Blink and The Tipping Point. Tim Green, a former NFL defensive end and sports broadcaster, joined Fox sports correspondent Jason Whitlock to contest the motion.
The audience was polled at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that changed the most minds carried the night. After a spirited battle, Bissinger and Gladwell were clear victors, capturing 53 percent of the final vote to Green and Whitlock’s 39 percent. Eight percent left the auditorium undecided. The numbers revealed a remarkable about-face: Before the debate started, only 16 percent of the crowd supported the motion, 53 percent opposed it, and 31 percent weren’t sure.
In his opening remarks, moderator John Donvan plucked a telling line from Tim Green’s writing. “To this day,” Green had written, “I will encourage people to feel the knob below my neck where the collarbone was sprung free from my sternum in the middle of a game against the 49ers.” Donvan explained that he wanted the audience to taste something of football’s “poetry and passion and pain.” They did, on all three counts. The debate held poetry: Both Whitlock and Green, former players, offered up misty testaments to their time on the field. “College football is the Statue of Liberty,” claimed Whitlock early on, yoking the game to ideals of diversity and tolerance. He argued that football unlocks the American dream for disadvantaged youth—and that his own career profited from the sport’s lessons of cooperation. There was passion as well, courtesy of Bissinger, who raged about what he considered the modern college student’s diminished academic experience. And there was pain. Malcolm Gladwell’s descriptions of CTE-positive head scans—“it looks like someone drove a truck across their brain”—hit hard, especially in light of the NCAA’s decision not to compensate college players.
The small sample sizes of studies connecting football and brain trauma gave Green and Whitlock a boost early on. Green reeled off a long list of activities (riding a bike, rowing, downhill skiing) more statistically risky than football. And he vowed that the game grew ever safer as NFL reforms trickled down into the college game.
Gladwell countered that assessing football’s long-term risks is notoriously difficult, given that athletes have to die before researchers can examine their brains for signs of decay. He expressed skepticism about the efficacy of new helmets and watered-down rules of play—although he did draw laughs with a seemingly earnest plug for intramural flag football to replace the NCAA game.
Bissinger, meanwhile, reserved his ire for what he called “the distracted university”: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.
This led Whitlock to call for a broader understanding of what education means. “Mr. Gladwell, Mr. Bissinger, some of our brightest minds, have not participated in football,” the columnist said, to applause. “The argument to ban college football is being argued by well-intentioned people who don’t clearly understand the sport.”