The Case For Banning College Football Entirely Never Sounded So Strong

  • Danny Groner

College football can be an emotional game for players, and we discovered on Tuesday night during an Intelligence Squared series debate just how hard it is for some former players to separate their feelings from the facts.

Intelligence Squared is a program that presents “Oxford-style” debates on a “on a wide range of provocative and timely topics.” This debate, at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, centered around head trauma and football. It featured two tag-teams of notable media personalities debating whether or not college football is dangerous enough to be eradicated completely.

You’d be surprised which side made the better argument.

The Case For Keeping College Football

Two ex-players, former NFLer and current NPR personality Tim Green, and former Ball State lineman and current Fox Sports rabble-rouser Jason Whitlock, represented the more traditional side — to keep college football intact while allowing room for tweaks.

Ultimately, though, Green and Whitlock relied too heavily on the “You don’t understand college football until you’ve played it” argument that alienated them in the eyes of the audience. Even if that might be true, you won’t win the hearts of many fans by telling them that they’re not equipped to appreciate what you’re trying to tell them. We were supposed to just trust them on this one, it seemed.

The Case For Banning College Football

The duo was up against Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger and acclaimed author and Grantland contributing editor Malcolm Gladwell, who argued that banning the sport of college football was necessary. Bissinger himself was the first one to admit that this was a “radical” and unpopular statement to make. Yet, thanks to their persuasive points and bundles of research demonstrating why medical concerns and financial worries should come first for institutions of higher learning, the pair was somehow able to convince the audience that college football deserved to be nixed completely. And they won the debate by a lot.

At the top of the evening’s festivities, only 16 percent of people polled said they’d do away with the sport; but by the end that number had ballooned to 53 percent. Bissinger and Gladwell defied the odds and convinced people to rethink the brutality, exploitation, and traditions of the college game. For Green and Whitlock, the audience’s reversal came as a shock. After all, if college football was so heavily reviled then why does it consistently get such strong television ratings and heavy alumni support?

What this debate really came down to was preparedness and conviction. Gladwell and Bissinger gave well-reasoned arguments based around statistics and surveys, while Green and Whitlock relied far too much on reminding us about the freedoms and capitalism that drive American culture and business. The reforms to the game they recommended (shorter seasons, less pay for coaches, fewer practices in full gear) are welcomed changes, but weren’t enough to appease the audience, especially when recent events are taken into account. It was clear over the course of the night, especially during the Q&A portion, that Junior Seau’s death and the New Orleans Saints’ bounty scandal have awakened some fans to the darker side of football. Couple that with Bissinger’s extremely strong case that the role of a university is not to boost athletics, but to promote academics, and Green and Whitlock were left on the defensive.

Nobody questions the benefits that football players, campuses, and communities get from the unifying factors that college sports can deliver. But faced with bigger issues at play, it was hard for the audience at least on this night to stand behind such a violent and relentless game.

Catch the whole debate here.

(Images courtesy of Samuel LaHoz)