As people in jackets and dresses, holding glasses of wine, milled around the lobby of New York University's Skirball Center Monday night, I approached a group of four to ask why the hell they'd bought tickets to watch men scream at each other about whether to ban college football.
Turns out they hadn't, not really. They were Tim Green's editor and publicists.
Green was one of the two stiffs Intelligence Squared, a debate series run by the Rosenkranz Foundation, had recruited to debate against the motion of Banning College Football. The other was Jason Whitlock, a noted Internet hack and sportswriter parody who may at one time have been a respectable journalist, but is now more like a walking Twitter account that could be called TheWire_ebooks.
Their opponents were Friday Night Lights author and noted journalist Buzz Bissinger and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. Despite Gladwell and Bissinger's definite shortcomings as thinkers — Buzz tends to bully an issue more often than he should; Gladwell intellectualizes to the point of abstraction — both men border on brilliant. Watching the four of them stand awkwardly amid the white-collar audience that had come to watch them do battle, you began to get a sense that everyone just sort of wanted to get this whole thing over with.
Here is Intelligence Squared's pitch for the debate:
"Corruption and a growing concern for head injury have put college football in the spotlight. Are football programs' millions in profits exploitation? Or are they still a celebration of amateur sport? Does football's inherent danger and violence have any place in institutions of higher learning? Or does it provide young men with educational opportunities they would not otherwise have?"
Arguing for the ban were short (Buzz) and waifish (Gladwell) journalists; arguing against were two former college football players. Despite the majority of college attendees nowadays being women, all of the participants were men. The moderator, John Donvan, works as a correspondent for ABC News and would, over the course of the debate, misremember Tim Green's name once and frequently express his confusion at the points being made.
In other words, the debate had been doomed from the start. Hundreds of people had paid to watch an hour and a half's worth of public masturbation, which is certainly nothing out of the ordinary in New York City. We just figured it would be entertaining.
After everyone had filed into the auditorium and taken their seats — the place was clearly sold out, with audience members packed so close together that, later on, I would hear two 60-year-olds tell each other to go fuck themselves — the audience voted on whether or not they thought college football should be banned. I voted yes; it's a ridiculous and unrealistic question, but, intellectually, it's hard to explain why academic institutions should be funneling money into a pastime that destroys the minds of their students. Of course, this was the problem to begin with: the question at hand was more or less absurd; prohibiting college football in 2012 would be like criminalizing CBS sitcoms.
The debate began with individual opening remarks. I've tried to give the general gist of each guy's arguments below, using as close to their original language as possible.
Malcolm Gladwell: Schools should not be in the business of encouraging young men to hit each other in the head. All of the thousands of tiny hits are the problem; changing rules enough to prevent chronic traumatic encephalopathy (post-concussion syndrome) is a fantasy. Adults can make their own decisions to play, but colleges are supported by taxpayers.
Subtext: My opponents, having played football for much of their lives, are brain-damaged.
Buzz Bissinger: NYU doesn't have a football team, and it seems to be doing pretty well for itself. Coaches are paid an insulting amount, and they truly run the school, just like how Joe Paterno ran Penn State. College presidents are scared of their coaches. Colleges constantly try and outdo each other in a facilities arms race. D1 coaches make, on average, $1.47 million a year, an insane figure. 7% of players have criminal records.
Subtext: Football has been corrupted beyond repair, and it's destroying the educational value of universities, and I will shout and wave my fist until you agree with me.
Tim Green: Before this debate, I asked for permission from my wife to participate; when I told her it would be against Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger, she said, "You have had too many concussions." And I have. Players should be paid. Football is unifying. Players don't repeatedly hit their heads like Gladwell said, because when you sustain a concussion in modern-day football, they take you out. Many other college sports have a higher mortality rate than football, as do everyday activities like bicycling. College-football players are grown men, and so have this choice to make. After all, we send 18+ year-olds to Afghanistan, so why can't they choose to play coollege football? The graduation rate for football players is higher than for non-players, and football creates 23,000 scholarships.
Subtext: Football is harmless, and to the extent that it isn't, you and your wife can just joke about concussions.
Jason Whitlock: Americans value freedom. You can't have the free without the dumb. Football is like porn and cigarettes, in that it is bad but people like it, so you have to let them have it. Ronald McDonald has done more damage to America than football. Kim Kardashian and Charlie Sheen are overpaid, but that's America. Buzz Bissinger and Malcolm Gladwell didn't play football and only dabble in sports. Football is a melting pot. Something about Jews and Gentiles. Something about the Statue of Liberty. My college football experience is the only thing keeping my faith in America.
Subtext: Whitlock's argument had no subtext. It was incomprehensible.
The rest of the debate saw each participant attempting to hammer home the points they'd described in their opening remarks. As an actual exchange of ideas, it was a failure, because Green and Whitlock were so astoundingly inferior to their opponents as debaters. Green, whatever his merits as an author — admittedly, I've never read any of his books — came off as a pseudo-intellectual, citing statistics he couldn't back up and dismissing the idea that football might be dangerous for young brains.
(And just straight up, Whitlock could not be understood. He kept talking about America and freedom; he resembled nothing more than a larger, goofier version of Michele Bachmann.)
Herein lied the severe failure of the whole evening. As Gladwell pointed out in his closing statement, the name Junior Seau was only mentioned twice throughout the entire conversation. Buzz and Gladwell both attempted, once, to make Seau, Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and Owen Thomas — the five men believed to have killed themselves due to brain damage sustained through football — a subject of discussion, but each time, Whitlock and Green dismissed them, and Gladwell/Buzz let it go.
The night should have revolved around these men. Considering the timing of the event, coming only five days after Seau shot himself in the chest, nothing mattered more, and Green and Whitlock's brazen disregard for the idea that football could be harming its participants reminded me of climate-change deniers. Instead, most of the evening was spent violently dancing around inane questions of whether football "makes men men" and whether coaches are paid too much. Of course coaches are paid too much, a fact that all four agreed with. Of course football builds character and unify communities; all team pursuits build character and unify communities.
Weighing the value of football as a college institution, there are only two things that matter, one on each side. On the negative side, it's that football harms its participants' brains, and so clearly contradicts the mission of an educational institution. On the positive side, it's that people love college football, both players and viewers. Not as pornography or cigarettes or any of the other idiotic metaphors Whitlock fooled around with, but as a pursuit on par with religion.
College football is a religion in a number of ways, and that's how it should be considered if you truly want to discuss it. Like religion, it places faith in a higher power; like Judeo-Christian religion, it involves a communal gathering once a week to worship that higher power; like religion, it provokes every human emotion, causing anger, sadness, joy, hate, admiration, and so on. And like religion, devotion to football can cause harm, but this sacrifice is good and done in service of something greater. Even though, like religion, maybe it isn't.
At the end of the night, we voted again. I voted to ban, considering that Buzz and Gladwell won the debate by an enormous margin. Before the argument, 16% of the audience was for a ban, 53% were against, and 31% were undecided. Afterward, 53% were for a ban, 39% were against, and 8% were undecided. And yet, college football isn't going anywhere.