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.”
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.”