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Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Should college football be banned?

By Ted Miller
ESPN.com

A bunch of New Yorkers got together Tuesday night and decided to ban college football. Sorry about that. You'll just have to find another passion. Perhaps croquet?

College football is too dangerous. College football subtracts from the academic mission of a university. It's hopelessly corrupt. There's too much money involved. And it's a travesty that the players aren't getting a fair share of the loot.

Buzz Bissinger
"Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger led the charge against college football Tuesday.

Those were the winning points put forward by writers Buzz Bissinger -- yes, Mr. "Friday Night Lights" hates college football -- and Malcolm Gladwell in an Intelligence Squared debate at New York University over whether college football should be banned. They bested sports columnist Jason Whitlock and author and former NFL/college player Tim Green.

It was an entertaining and interesting debate. These are smart men. The room was full of smart, engaged people.

Best line of the night? Said Bissinger, "A great country changes."

That is true. Great countries work to solve social ills, particularly issues of inequality. Great countries work to create access to opportunity. Great countries aspire to create an ethical, ambitious, caring and intellectually active populace.

And great countries debate issues. That this debate will have less staying power in our culture than an average tweet from Lady Gaga -- there is zero momentum behind the notion of banning college football -- is not our present issue. Our present issue is whether you, fair college football fan, should feel a twinge of guilt over not caring why some intellectual types might think college football should be banned.

Yes, you should. So step out of the warm glow of your fandom for a moment.

Gladwell focused almost exclusively on head injuries suffered by players who were college students -- officially amateurs -- and not paid professionals. That should concern us all. Head injuries in football are serious business. The good news is that, after media pressure, the NCAA and NFL are taking head injuries seriously. There is reason to be optimistic that football can be made safer.

Bissinger, who at times channeled comedian Lewis Black with his sputtering passion, said football -- and sports in general -- had no place at universities that should be exclusively about higher learning. Of football, he said, "It sucks all the air out of the room." Not unreasonably, he pointed out that in a highly competitive world economy, education will become even more important, and U.S. universities that spend millions on football, football facilities and football coaches while cutting computer science departments are failing in their primary mission.

Everybody in the room lamented that college players are not paid.

Green and Whitlock countered with the positives of football, including providing scholarships to young men who otherwise couldn't afford college, building character, promoting diversity and building a sense of community at a university and even within an entire state. Or, in the case of the SEC, an entire region.

And both, not unreasonably, pointed out that once you start banning things, you step onto a slippery slope. Said Whitlock of living with freedom, "You can't have the free without the dumb."

Perhaps it's a facile point, but we could make American better by banning a lot of popular things: cigarettes, booze, fast food, sugar and reality TV. Without those, we'd be healthier and smarter. We could go further with our Utopian vision and make a law that politicians must go to jail for a week every time they willfully mislead the public with a false statement about themselves or their opponents. We could require all Americans to go to the theater weekly and read all of Jonathan Franzen's novels.

Of course, then we wouldn't be America. Freedom and capitalism and the messiness they sometimes create inexorably spiral through the circulatory system of our nation. It is often for better and sometimes for worse, but it's who we are. "Football has to be tolerated, just like Ronald McDonald," Whitlock opined.

There was some garbling of facts on the ban football side. Talking about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, can scare an audience. Yet it's also critical to note that concussions and anecdotal evidence about debilitated former football players have not been causally connected by scientific research, as Gladwell repeatedly implied. We know a concussion is bad and multiple concussions are worse, but it's irresponsible to point to Junior Seau's suicide and say, "See!" (No one specifically did that Tuesday night, by the way.)

Now I'll make note of a quibble that is also the basis for my position. Neither Bissinger nor Gladwell know much about college football. It's not just that they haven't played, it's that they aren't educated on the subject. That is where most critics of college football come from: the ignorant. I've been around college football much of my life, and professionally since 1997. My take on the sport, and the take of most folks who have been around the sport for a good deal of time, is that the good far outweighs the bad. If the sport is far from pure, it's also far from impure. And I'd be glad to debate that point with anyone. They'd lose.

Finally, let's gently take note of this debate's process. The winning position was declared by what percentage of people in the audience changed their minds. Before the debate, only 16 percent of the folks in the room said they believed college football should be banned. Afterwards, 53 percent thought so.

Now, I'm not going to accuse folks of manipulating the system, but let's just say lots of people in the room knew how the voting process worked. Bissinger and Gladwell scored some nice points, but their rhetoric wasn't worthy of a 37 percent swing. And they certainly wouldn't have gotten one in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Columbus, Ohio, or Austin, Texas, or Eugene, Ore.

College football has been all about change in recent years, and one potential rerouting noted by Bissinger doesn't seem implausible: a minor league with teams aligned with universities merely as licensed affiliates. With Title IX issues making it almost impossible to truly "pay" football players, that might become a defensible course as the revenue in college football continues to grow exponentially.

Heck, just a few years ago, playoff talk was viewed as implausible. Now, it's almost a reality.

Speaking of which, don't you guys think an eight-team playoff would be better? And how good is that LSU defense going to be? Matt Barkley? Well, he's good but …