During this lecture, Gladwell discussed the risks associated with playing football. He talked about the link between getting hit in the head repeatedly and the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is the disease that likely caused Junior Seau to commit suicide in 2012. And he told the story of another player, less famous than Seau, who likely suffered from CTE, and committed suicide in 2010. His name was Owen Thomas, and he had been a collegiate player at the same university where Gladwell now gave this lecture three years later. (This was obviously a controversial tactic for Gladwell to use, and you can read the school newspaper's account of it all here.)
To Gladwell, this is a straightforward issue. We know that playing football is bad for a person's brain. We don't necessarily know how bad, or if anything can be done to mitigate the impact, or how pervasive a disease like CTE actually is. But it's pretty clear that football was responsible for the premature deaths of Seau, Thomas, and others. If not for "tradition" (and, of course, money), an institution like the University of Pennsylvania would never sponsor something that was known to potentially cause serious brain injuries. No academic institution would.
As more time passes, we're getting an even better idea of just how bad the problem is. This is from Friday's New York Times:
The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population.One out of every three players. It's one thing for professional players, who are well-compensated, to assume such a risk. It's quite another for a college to subject its own students to those risks, without fairly compensating them, or providing them with any long-term medical care, all while the coaches and the athletic directors and the university presidents bathe in pools of money.
So it would seem that college football is a morally corrupt enterprise.
But what about the NFL? Can the health risks assumed by the players be justified by their salaries? Maybe. I honestly don't have a good answer to that question.
What we've learned over the last couple of weeks, though, is that the NFL has a whole other set of moral failings. They're soft on players who beat up women (and it's not just Ray Rice) and players who beat up their kids. These issues were discussed on television by a former player who just had a statue built in his honor despite his involvement in a double murder 14 years ago. The owner of my favorite team allegedly made some of his money by defrauding his own customers.
All of this has led some to suggest that it's time for reasonable people to boycott football. I must admit that the part of my brain that is able to think about things in a logical manner finds this argument compelling. Whether we're talking about the NCAA or the NFL, supporting these entities that are run by corrupt men who are making millions of dollars off of athletes who are risking their own lives feels morally wrong.
I was at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, along with 104,403 other people, to watch Ohio State destroy Kent State. And it was awesome. On Sunday, I drank beer and sat on my coach with some friends and watched the Browns pull off an improbable win against the Saints. It, too, was awesome.
I love football. I love the camaraderie that comes with sharing a communal experience with thousands of other people. I love thinking about and discussing the extensive strategy that goes into every single play. I love that it gives me something to do on weekends in the fall.
No matter how much the logical part of my brain thinks that I should give up football, I'm not sure that I ever could. And I don't think that this country ever will. Emotion is always a stronger pull than logic. For better or worse, this uniquely American sport is part of who we are, and it's here to stay.
That doesn't mean, though, that we shouldn't think very critically about the issues that surround this game. Ignoring them won't make them go away. And acknowledging those moral questions is not, on its own, a justification that should allow us to be comfortable with giving more of our money to the NCAA or the NFL. But that acknowledgment is at least where we have to start.