Slate: Is that one reason you’ll argue for keeping college football around at the debate?
Whitlock: Without a doubt. It will probably be at the center of my defense. When I look at my No. 1 success as a columnist, it’s my ability to deal with diversity issues, race issues, class issues. I draw on my experiences of college football and all the different people I dealt with and the way I was able to connect with them across racial and financial lines. I was that guy that got along with everybody. Playing college football was a great laboratory for me as a journalist.
Slate: What else did you learn on the football field?
Whitlock: It’s probably more that college football revealed my natural personality. I’ve always been very outspoken and very concerned about fairness, particularly as it relates to race. We had a situation on our football team where two guys got in a fight, one black, one white. We were all at this football party. And the coaches somehow kicked the black guy off the team. I got in a lot of trouble for bitching about it to the coaches: I remember being called into the head coach’s office and getting yelled at. He asked if I was trying to start racial trouble, and I said, “No, no. I’m not. I’m trying to tell you that the way you handled this situation started racial trouble.” Eventually they rescinded the decision and brought the black kid back. But it cost me some political capital—in fact, I was never liked by the coaches, because it was hard to control my opinions.
Look, the coaching staff wasn’t so comfortable with some of our best football players, especially the ones that came from major cities. They tended to think the guys were all thugs.
Slate: Let’s turn to the brain damage issue. Would you play college football again, knowing about the medical risks?
Whitlock: I would, out of machismo and maybe stupidity and this sense of “hey, it worked for me.” We didn’t have a lot of information about concussions back then. Who knows: Maybe I’ll have Alzheimer’s or whatever. For right now, 23 years later, I’m fine. I would still do it, and I think most guys would. But that’s why I think the players should be financially compensated. People argue that the education is enough: It’s not.
Slate: If research definitively proves that football players experience dementia at a higher rate than non-players, is that legitimate grounds for ending college football?
Whitlock: There’s risk in everything. If we still let guys join the army and go off to war, understanding that there’s risk, then we should let people play college football.
Slate: You’ve written that “barbaric violence is the oxygen” of football—and that the best players tap into emotional pain in order to play better. You say, “In the hours leading up to the game, a good football player will focus his mind on the darkest, most painful things his mind can remember or imagine. If your father beat you, you think of that. If your brother was shot, you imagine your opponent pulling the trigger.” What makes the game worth it? What justifies that necessary “barbaric violence?”
Whitlock: Humans are imperfect. It’s America—we’re based on freedom. Porn is horrible and destructive. Hell, McDonald’s is horrible and destructive, but we haven’t outlawed McDonalds. So as long as Ronald McDonald can inject kids with cancer and diabetes and everything else, why is football any worse than that? We have chosen to live in a capitalistic democracy where people have the right to act dumb, and we need to accept that. We’ve created a sport that is very popular and financially lucrative that requires people to do really stupid shit and tap into their barbaric nature. I guess that’s the price of freedom.
Slate: But for you personally?
Whitlock: Say, as a high school player, I was able to tap into whatever dark emotions I had and it led to me playing well, so I made all-state and got a football scholarship. Now I’m the first person from my family to go off to college. Yeah, I think it was worth it.
Slate: Studies show that grades drop school-wide when sports teams do well. Avid fandom eats into study time. Also, boosterism and athlete worship can make regular students feel like second-class citizens at their universities. Should the experience of nonathletes be taken into consideration in the debate over banning college football?
Whitlock: No way. Give me a break.
Slate: How realistic is the end of college football?
Whitlock: This is America. There’s too much money being made. Get in line behind porn and a bunch of other stuff that we allow to go on. No, it’s not even remotely a possibility.
(Laughs) We’re living in a society where we think a handgun makes us safe. People would rather end it all than give up their guns and actually have safety in America. Trust me, they’re just as stupid about football.