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On the Debate to Ban College Football

Buzz Bissinger, Malcolm Gladwell, Tim Green and Jason Whitlock participated in an Intelligence Squared event, debating whether college football should be banned. Sixteen percent of the audience entered believing college football should be banned. Fifty-three percent left convinced it should be banned. The result was interesting, but in no way conclusive.

The format framed the result. Attacking is easier than defending, especially when the object is frivolous entertainment which may have no inherent value beyond that. Convert the topic to “should alcohol be banned.” Proponents would drop statistical bombs about binge drinking, drunk driving, domestic abuse and associated health problems. Opponents would be reduced to vague retorts about freedom, reducing stress and facilitating social interaction. Proponents would win the argument, but does that mean we’re better off without alcohol?

Bissinger and Gladwell were better debaters. Buzz is an intimidating torrent of energy. Gladwell deftly deploys tone and emotive imagery, far more powerful than facts or reason. Tim Green, though bright and eloquent, was a little overmatched. Whitlock, though his points were thoughtful and compelling, often meandered and did not drive them home with the requisite force.

This was not a college football crowd. Football is not lacrosse. It’s a lower class sport. Its strongest roots are in Midwest and the South. Football is suburban. It is more prominent in public schools. There’s a disconnect between that culture and Northeast intellectual culture which, when it dabbles in sport, tends to wax poetic about baseball or basketball. NYU is an elitist, private, non-football playing university. This debate featured a New Yorker author and a Penn and Dalton graduate presenting a message the crowd would already have been primed to appreciate. Ann Arbor and many other places would have been less receptive.

Looking at the arguments themselves…

Bissinger emphasized “the distracted university.” He posed college football as a pernicious influence upon academic culture, siphoning resources and reducing attention spans. He harped on comparative U.S. decline in education. He cited research showing that schools spend an average of 6.8 times as much on student-athletes in FBS and 11.6 times as much in the SEC. He cited studies correlating drinking and poor academic performance with college football success. In my opinion, this argument did not hold weight.

Nineteen of the U.S. News Top 25 public universities in the United States participate in major college football. That list includes Texas, Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and other elite programs. The only public school that participates in FBS football in New England/New York is UConn. At No. 19 it is by far the best rated. The next highest rated, University of Vermont (No. 36), is outstripped by 10 of the 11 public schools in the Big Ten and the past four BCS title winners.

Ivy League schools and schools such as University of Chicago dropped big-time college football and have had academic success. Other private schools such Stanford, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt kept big-time college football and have had academic success. There may be systemic issues across the system, but the presence of major college football seems to be irrelevant.

Green and Whitlock argued football’s case, though it’s hard to find tangible points in its favor beyond being fun and entertaining. Football does instill leadership. It does provide educational opportunities. This may be currency some are not equipped to or unwilling to use but many, such as Green and Whitlock, do take advantage of that. Though, these benefits could easily be provided by other sports. College football is also one of the few areas of university life that fosters legitimate diversity.

A point they should have keyed on more (which neither Bissinger nor Gladwell had a coherent retort to) is that you can’t simply pluck college football out of an athletic department. College football foots the bill for every non-revenue sport. A ban of college football puts a de facto end to competitive college athletics. This denies tens of thousands the opportunity to attend college and wipes out all the advancements in women’s participation through Title IX.

Head injury research is the salient issue. Gladwell stuck to this tack, discussing how college football players receive approximately 1,000 40-100G impacts per season and evidence suggests this leads to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Green cited irrelevant fatality statistics and tried to claim riding a bicycle was more dangerous. Whitlock suggested some NFL retirees might be suing out of envy. Both Whitlock and Green pointed out that the science has proven nothing yet. Both were unconvincing. This research is in the preliminary stages, but that does not mean it’s not valid.

To ban college football it has to be shown conclusively that (A) this is a “playing four years of college football” problem instead of a “playing 10-15 years in the NFL” problem and (B) it is not concussions alone but the succession of lower grade hits that are leading to C.T.E. in football players. Concussions can be reduced, minimized and properly treated (at least in perception) through rule changes and diligence. Sub-concussive impacts are indelible. A conclusive finding that the latter was causing CTE in significant numbers of players would prove not college football but all football inhumane and untenable.

[Photo via Getty]

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