Thursday, May 3, 2012

Revisiting Gladwell

I was going to make this a mere bullet point before it ballooned to practically Terry Bowden-esque proportions. In any case, it's an important enough topic to talk about at some length at least one time. 

When I wrote the other day that I was mostly dismissing Gladwell's points about the nature of the game of football, I quickly realized that I was more than a little hasty in doing so, in addition to feeling a certain amount of guilt. One could still make some sort of argument--invoking notions of free will, "assumption of risk," and other behavioral/emotional explanations, i.e. "they like doing it"--against some of Gladwell's points, some being more valid or persuasive than others. For what it's worth, I have not read any of his work, so my vague understanding of his place in the cultural and intellectual marketplace is entirely based on what I've read others say about him on message boards, in the media, etc. In short, I have no biases or prejudices against his style of thought because I don't know what that may or may not entail. In the case of this debate about college football, that's probably a good thing.

Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No matter where your beliefs lie across the spectrum (ranging from "ban the game completely" to "it's fine as is"), it should be fairly clear that this is a discussion that needs to be had, and Gladwell is doing his part in pushing this discussion forward. It's a discussion that should've been seriously had a while ago, to be honest, but given that the science is only somewhat recently starting to catch up to the game with any comprehensiveness or specificity (re: concussion research), perhaps the people of the 70s, 80s and 90s get a pass. In 2012? Not so much.

Here are some things that do not add to the discussion:

  • Dismissing Gladwell because he's any one of the following is pointless: liberal, Ivory Tower academic, one-percenter, snooty, a pansy (and all other related forms of that particular pejorative), etc. You get the idea. This is what they call ad hominem, and, like I said the other day, is basically like Ogre screaming NERRRDDSSSSSS. He may well be any number of those things, for better or worse, but part of being an adult is separating the man from the idea or the sentiment. This is difficult for many people. I've often found that people react in such a way when they're presented with a kernel of truth that is somewhat inconvenient for their respective worldviews. 
  • Citing players' salaries (or college scholarships) as a reason why we shouldn't spend too much time thinking about this: ridiculous, obviously. 
  • Throwing your hands up and saying "well, nothing we can do about it." There is, actually, although what that is in practice can, and will, be debated extensively. 
  • Continuing to hold up some sort of "assumption of risk" as a catch-all magic wand of exoneration for both the NFL and college football. The whole point of all this is that: a) the people in charge of the game and the people that play it don't exactly know what the repercussions of serious head trauma related to playing football may or may not be and b) the NFL's practices, from the employment of team doctors with a significant conflict of interest to the NFL's use of discredited science until relatively recently indicates that the league that is certainly not without blame. Saying that the players "know what they're getting themselves into" is just a bit disingenuous, regardless of how much money they make. Heck, the NFL didn't even admit or acknowledge long-term concussion effects until a couple of years ago. 
  • Saying something along the lines of "I played and I had X many concussions and I'm just fine" is silly because you probably did not play in either college or the pros. Also, you are just some guy on the Internet. Also also, using the aforementioned as a way to discredit the toughness of modern football players is doubly insane. When human beings are accepting death over life, of their own volition, primarily as a result of injuries sustained while playing a game, it's not only extremely petty but incredibly offensive to casually dismiss their pains. 
  • What equates to basically a THEY TOOK OUR JERBS reaction regarding his point that college football should be "banned." Upon closer inspection, I think that that was probably just an attention-grabber and not actually his primary assertion or goal. In fact, he does basically say he would at minimum suffer college football if players were paid. Whether or not this is logistically possible or fundamentally desirable for universities can be debated, but it seems that player safety is his issue, not some crusade against the ruffians that deign to play and watch the low-brow spectacle that is college football. In any case, football will *never be banned as long as more transparently brutal sports like MMA and even boxing, in its lesser unpopularized state, are extant. The question is how can the game go on without continuing to compromise player safety, and if the answer is "it cannot" then the game will either gradually decline in importance or alter its face to the point that it resembles another game entirely (i.e. the football of "back in the day"). 
*Well, probably never. Never say never, as they say. 
I don't claim to have all of the answers or know where the game should go from here at either the amateur or the professional level. However, it is pretty obvious that something needs to change. The last point that Gladwell made was perhaps the most important one, although many will misconstrue it, and that is his reference to the ethics of watching football. As I get older and older, it has become increasingly difficult to enjoy this game that is so inherently flawed. The "student-athlete" doesn't exist, really, and the system of deciding a champion is absurdist nonsense, trading the Bowl Alliance's vaguely anarchist jib for the BCS's transparently hypercapitalist/corporate way of doing things. Despite it all, I still watch because, up to this point, I have firmly believed that college football is the best brand of sport there is (warts and all). 

At the very least, these indignities damage things that aren't tangible, like our sense of feeling okay about all of this or Team X's claim to a title in a given year, like Auburn in 2004, Utah in 2008, and TCU in 2010. This concussion issue is a different thing entirely, and for obvious reasons. It is flesh and blood and life and death. 

Of course, most of the sports-related head trauma discussion has revolved around the professional leagues, namely the NFL and the NHL, what with the latter's fighters and brawlers and grinders and goons. Both leagues have attempted to reform, to draw a line in the sand by saying you can't do this or that on the field of play (or the ice). For the NFL, as ESPN has been telling you non-stop since the story broke--when it's taken a second off from talking about Tim Tebow or the Boston Red Sox clubhouse--the Saints bounty saga has shone additional light on the issue of player safety, a light that will prove beneficial for the ongoing reformation of the game. 

Yes, a lot of this has discussed the theme of head trauma/CTE and its causes/effects for pro athletes, but we should be wary in assuming that this is not something that plagues the college game as well. Steven Threet and Owen Thomas are just two examples of concussions either ending a career, or, in Thomas's case, leading to the early stages of CTE at the age of 21. These are just a couple of examples, of which there are certainly many more. Let's not forget that the accumulated pain and head trauma caused by subconcussive hits don't typically become physiologically apparent until later on in life. It is a harrowing thought, but keep that in mind when a player for a team you like sustains a second, third, or fourth concussion. As a fan of a the Chicago Blackhawks, I've seen a professional medical staff let players (Brent Seabrook, Marcus Kruger) return to the ice far too soon after a concussion, after which it became plainly obvious that the guy still wasn't "all there", or whatever innocuous euphemism people use to describe these sorts of injuries. The Blackhawks aren't the only team that have been either incompetent or imprudent in dealing with concussions; in fact, it seems to be the norm across all sports. After all, while your star is sitting, other teams are racking up wins, points, and jersey sale dollars while yours go on the downswing. Despite the facade of amateurism, even the college game is a thriving business in the end. 

After sustaining the above hit, Kruger not only didn't immediately head to the "quiet room," he missed only a single game before returning, only to shortly thereafter "shockingly" have the dreaded "concussion symptoms" pop up after his next outing. This is just one example from one season in one sport; sadly, there have probably been thousands of instances of this sort of injudiciousness on the part of professional teams, and it stands to reason that the same sort of thing happens with regularity on the amateur level. I mean, just watch college football on any Saturday this fall and you're likely to see (or hear about it afterward) at least one case of a mistreated concussion case. 

While I don't have much use for Gladwell's comparison of college football to dog-fighting, I will say that the issue of concussions draws to mind the same themes regarding tobacco use. Football players taking a lifetime's worth of subconcussive blows as a product of playing the game from Pop Warner all the way through high school (and, for some, college and the pros) is akin to the longtime tobacco user that doesn't think his or her day is coming. Knowing the risks, millions of people still smoke, partially because the immediate specter of disease and death isn't right there before them. What's one more cigarette? Sure, there does not exist a common denominator of addiction in this analogy (although you could argue that some football players are in fact addicted to the concept of the big hit...many in fact have said that, outright), but I think it's a useful comparison in that the responses to both ills have been similar in their tragic slowness. The football world is essentially stuck in its very own "it's the 1960s and we're just discovering how bad cigarettes really are and now we're going to do something about it" period vis-a-vis concussions and dangerous, illegal hits. 

At the risk of running on too much longer, it is clear that the game is going to change; it has to. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the game of football won't experience some sort of decline in popularity in the coming years. While it is easy to make fun of Gladwell for using Wilbon of all people as an example of "even this sports guy won't let his kid play football", many others across the great wide Internets are having the same reaction. I don't have a kid, but if I did, it would getting incredibly difficult to rationalize allowing a child to play a game that has the ability to ruin him before he even gets the chance to fully develop. You could say that it's mostly an issue at the professional level, and you'd be right except there have been cases of CTE at lower levels of football (as linked above with the UPenn case). It becomes a risky game, and if you let a child play, at what point do you decide that it has become too dangerous? Middle school? High School? What if he gets a scholarship to play football in you say no to that? Given the aforementioned game of risk, it's clear that many parents will simply push their kids toward other sports. 

Instead of fighting against the current, fans of the game should accept that this is something that has been ignored or, at best, dealt with insufficiently or on a superficial level. Whether or not this leads to players being paid, new (old?) helmets, and the non-existence of the game as a whole, we know that something needs to change. The game of football has changed countless times before and it will change again. Even our lexicon, the language of the "big hit," is probably in for a paddlin'. 

When a player is hit hard, they say that his "bell was wrung." A brain is not a bell, and the effects of the percussional strike--the big hit--often reverberate ceaselessly and harmfully into the future. Unlike the bell, which is struck and makes noise for a short time, the brain when struck feels it and stores it, only to be felt again later down the line, an unseen ticking time-bomb. 


  1. Good Post. I quit football in High School when I took a hit so hard I got my bell rung. Never lost consciousness or even had nausea. I just didn't like the way I felt and somehow had the sense to quit. Looking back I realize that when rushing the QB my pad level was too high and the RB got under my pads and planted me with my head hitting the ground first. My coaches never corrected my technique. That is part of the problem. Coaches need to teach proper tackling technique and to keep yourself low so you can't get blown up. One interesting tidbit my coaches were former MSU players under Duffy Daugherty.

  2. matter how much you love the game (and I love it a pretty great deal), this stuff is very scary. I played 3 sports in high school (basketball, soccer, and football), and, somewhat amusingly, the sport that I sustained a concussion in was soccer. Still, I don't remember a thing from the entire ordeal, which is pretty terrifying, particularly since mine was of the "mild" variety (as much as a rattling of the brain against one's skull can be considered "mild").

    The thing is, even if you fix the awful technique, you still won't remove the majority of subconcussive blows for your average player. Linemen, for example, aren't involved in highlight reel hits but they do routinely butt heads with a defensive end or tackle on almost every single play. You can fine and suspend and excoriate people for making the idiotic head first tackles that are so prevalent today, and yet there will still be guys having concussion issues because that's just what this game is.

    In short, I think the game is in for a lot of serious changes within the next 10-15 years or so, changes that will lead to a dramatic shift in what sports Americans choose to watch and play.

  3. Nothing in life is without risk.

    You say "I don't have a kid, but if I did, it would getting incredibly difficult to rationalize allowing a child to play a game that has the ability to ruin him before he even gets the chance to fully develop. "

    Virtually any active pursuit has the risk of long term permanent injury. Games like gymnastics, or even tree climbing. Diving. Cycling. My niece suffered permanent brain damage falling off her bicycle at age 13. She lost her sense of smell and taste, and can't form short term memories. Now at age 26, she's graduated college with honors, and is employed and living a full life.

    It's one thing to argue that we need to be able to quantify the long term risks of playing football so that players and parents can make informed choices. It's quite another to state that the game must change in the face of unquantified risks.


  4. I agree with you that many activities in life come with extreme risk. I'm not advocating for a world in which athletics doesn't exist (otherwise I would have a lot of extra time to look to fill with something else) or people exist in figurative (or literal) bubbles.

    I'm happy to hear about how everything has turned out for your niece. However, I have to say that attempting to draw equivalencies between the risks of football and gymnastics, tree climbing, diving, etc. is a little ridiculous, no? The entire issue is that the head injury risks of football are inherent, meaning that they are a part of the normal playing of the game itself. On the other hand, serious head injuries as a result of the things you mentioned, for the most part, occur only when something terribly wrong has happened, something that it is not a normal part of said activity. You can climb a tree and nothing bad will happen while you are climbing unless you fall off and hit your head. In football, each little hit, part of the "normal" playing of the game, contributes to long term head injury risks...these are of course the subconcussive hits which are arguably just as dangerous as the "big hit."

    I mean, the risks of football haven't technically been "quantified" (if by that you mean "it takes X amount of years/hits to finally result in long term neurological problems) I guess, but people know exactly what the risks are. We definitely know more than we did 10 years ago, and infinitely more than we did 20 or 30 years ago. Having this knowledge (while gaining new knowledge about CTE and how it is brought on), shouldn't we strive to make the game safer for the people that play it? If we don't, wouldn't it become nearly impossible to watch with an uncompromised conscience?

    Also, no offense intended, but your last line essentially amounts to the proverbial "sticking your head in the sand", which was exactly what my post was arguing against. I'm not exactly sure what needs to be done, but to say that the game doesn't need to be changed in some way means ignoring some very real problems in the game of football.