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Wrap-up: Ban College Football? How the Debate Went Down


In an Oxford-style debate held in New York, the audience came around to supporting one side of the argument. Care to guess which side that was?

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL The biggest surprise of last night's Intelligence Squared Debate, "Ban College Football," was just how easily a Canadian convinced an American audience to do it. Malcolm Gladwell, the highly respected staff writer of The New Yorker, first alerted the general public to the serious ramifications of the sport's brutality in his piece "Football, Dog Fighting, and Brain Damage." And last night Gladwell presented his simple but strong argument in person: "[College football] is not appropriate," he said, "because schools should not be in the business of encouraging young men to hit themselves over the head."

The audience agreed. A poll taken before the debate showed that 16% of the audience were in favor of a college ban, 53% were against, and 31% were undecided. When we voted after the debate, 53% favored a college ban (a 37% increase), 39% were against (a 14% decrease), and 8% remained undecided.

What changed our minds? I can only attest to my own experience as one of the undecideds who was swayed to vote for the ban. For me, there were two pinnacle moments. The first was when Gladwell compared the impact an average football player receives to the head to being rammed into a brick wall at 25 mph. That the players can expect to do this 4,000 times over the course of their college careers astonished me. The second moment that changed the game was when columnist Jason Whitlock, arguing against the ban, fumbled the ball.

From the start, Whitlock rebutted Gladwell's argument with an equally concise counterpoint: "We're American," he said, "and if you believe in freedom, you can't have the free without the dumb." According to Whitlock, no matter how dangerous playing football might be, we must be free to choose it. But when a member of the audience asked whether or not the NCAA restrictions on college players were fair, he replied, "I am pro restraint on freedom within reason.... We need a system of checks and balances throughout our society."

At that point, I knew how I would vote. I agreed with Whitlock completely, but by contradicting himself so blatantly, it became clear his argument could not sustain itself, and Gladwell's could.

You can view the debate on and I recommend that you do, even if football isn't your thing. The classically structured debate allowed us to examine more than our nation's favorite pastime -- we also found new insight into our nation's very character. And then there is the entertainment value: The debate started with an invitation from former NFL player Tim Green to touch his knob (the one below his neck where his collarbone broke from his sternum in the midst of game against the 49ers) and ended with Buzz Bissenger, Pulitzer-winning author of Friday Night Lights, standing up and showing the opposing team his butt.

If I have only one regret, it's that despite my stubborn refusal to lower my hand, despite the hissing of the reporter behind me, I was not called upon to ask a question during Q and A. So on the off chance that Jason Whitlock, Tim Green, Buzz Bissinger, and Malcolm Gladwell also enjoy Googling their own names, I've included my questions here in the small hope that they'll be found, and answered.

As always, our readers are invited to consider the following questions, and share thoughts about college football, safety, sponsorship, and the proposed ban.

Question to Malcolm Gladwell: Should public companies such as Nike (NKE), who sponsors almost 100 college football teams and profits from the production and sales of their fan merchandise, feel pressure to look into the safety record connected to football? Given the enormous profit they gain from the labor of unpaid players, what exactly is the ethical responsibility of a corporate sponsor? Is it being met?

Question to Tim Green: You argue that revenue derived from college football supports the university and allows them to invest in other less profitable ventures, such as actual academics. In 2007 Forbes magazine reported that the University of Texas Longhorns (who are also sponsored by numerous corporations such as Coca-Cola (KO), AT&T (T), and Time Warner Cable (TWX)) were at the time worth $92 million and had earned $46.2 million. But only $4.7 million of that revenue went towards academics. Considering the large investment that the university makes in the team by means of scholarships, equipment, and stadiums, can you justify calling the team a support system? And if so, is it appropriate for Coca-Cola to be paying professors' salaries?

Question to Buzz Bissenger: Regardless of whether or not a ban on college football is just, is it practical? Who should implement such a ban? Should it be the university? The state? The federal government? How should this ban be implemented?

Question to Jason Whitlock: You have made the argument that being on a college football team prepares its members to function in a diverse world and that the experience of playing a sport with men of various ethnic backgrounds breaks down social barriers. But how can football be an expression of American diversity when half of the American population is banned from participating based on gender? And how do you address the numerous instances of violence against women on campus committed by college athletes?

(See also: Ban College Football? The Debate Is On.)

Twitter: @wont_tweet_ever
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