Malcolm Gladwell has been a longtime New Yorker staff writer as well as the author of best-sellers The Tipping Point and Outliers about American college football. That means he has made a career out of reporting facts as well as unabashedly sharing his informed opinions, even when they are controversial.
Gladwell took to Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show recently to discuss one of these controversial positions which many are afraid to hear. Gladwell believes we should consider banning college level football, and even for younger ages.
Now, football is arguably the most beloved sport in the United States, and college football is an object of pride for many throughout the country, young and old. However, in Gladwell’s eyes it might as well be dog fighting. This comparison began years ago when Michael Vick was convicted of dog fighting and the entire world seemed to turn their back on the sports star.
Yet, to Gladwell, this response was confusing. Not that he condones the violent animal “sport”, but instead he was perplexed as to what was so different from football and dog fighting.
Describing football, he said, “we take young boys, essentially, and we have them repeatedly, over the course of the season, smash each other in the head, with known neurological consequences.” To many that might be a basic view of a much more complex phenomena, but when compared to his description of dog fighting, it is hard to argue that we are knowingly sending young men towards lives of likely permanent brain damage.
“You take a young, vulnerable dog who was made vulnerable because of his allegiance to the owner and you ask him to engage in serious sustained physical combat with another dog under the control of another owner, right?”
The difference, of course, is that these young men and their families have the ability to give consent, while animals are forced into dog fighting. But, much of the support for football comes out of tradition, and the never ending support we cultivate for teams and leagues. It doesn’t do anything to dispute the fact that more and more evidence is coming out that even the relatively softer hits in football can create brain damage, especially when repeated countless times over a season.
We know that football is a dangerous sport that could lead to all sorts of visible injuries and invisible injuries, but the overwhelming understanding is that these injuries are temporary. Fans even assume these brain injuries they are racking up are nothing more than “mild” concussions, without wondering what that actually means.
The fact is, there is no such thing as a “mild” brain injury. They all have serious repercussions that can be permanent and debilitating. They are simply “mild” in comparison to the injuries that almost instantaneously reduce powerful men to unresponsive vegetables, but in the long-term either can be undeniably dangerous.
A severe traumatic brain injury may leave someone without language, speech, or the ability to move from the time of the injury on, but what do repeated concussions give victims? While each individual injury may “heal” when given the proper time, the damage is never completely undone, and each brain injury only worsens the situation. With time, the accumulated damage can lead to depression, behavioral problems, anxiety, cognitive deficiencies.
We’ve seen the sad results from these types of injuries play out numerous times, as professional football players have committed suicide or brutal acts, only to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) post-mortem. CTE is a neurodegenerative condition stemming from repeated traumatic brain injury, and it has been showing up in astonishing rates in former professional and college level athletes.
At what point do we decide that the sport simply can’t protect the brains of its participants? With life long indoctrination into the sport (most professionals began playing at early ages) it is hard to sway public opinion so strongly in favor of watching the brutal sport, especially as we watch it from a detached distance that dehumanizes the athletes involved.
I’m not entirely sure that banning football across the country is the best step to save our children, friends, and eventual fathers, but it is clear the sport’s concussion issue is more than just a litigation matter to be played out in court. Even if the leagues have been doing everything they can to protect their athletes’ health, that only serves to highlight how unstoppable brain injury is when we pay athletes huge amounts of money and adoration to slam into each other as hard as possible.
The only real option to slow the levels of brain injury within football is either drastic change or stopping the sport. Without either, the sport will continue to churn out brain damaged men with few prospects for their future. Unfortunately, those in favor of the sport seem to be against any changes that will diminish the brutality they tune in to see every week.