That best-selling author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell thinks America should ban college football isn’t a revelation: he’s been arguing it for years. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there he was again on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS a week ago, arguing again that football isn’t all that different from dogfighting and that, because of the dangers it poses to the human brain, the game itself is a public health crisis that America’s academic institutions shouldn’t support.
Gladwell’s argument about the dangers of football isn’t wrong, but his prescription to fix it isn’t a realistic proposal. We’re not going to ban college football, a billion-dollar business that enriches plenty of people and is wildly popular among both live and television viewers. We’re not going to ban a game that feeds the $8 billion professional football business that would wither without the NCAA. A major college like Stanford isn’t going to drop football, as Gladwell wishes, at least not until we find out that football is even more dangerous than we already know it is.
But “banning football” isn’t the root of Gladwell’s point, and suggesting that killing a popular game is the solution obscures the bigger point that needs to be made. We’re learning more about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and the effects of long-term brain trauma that is more prevalent in football players. In recent years, we’ve even learned that the problem might be bigger than concussions, that brain damage can result not just from the concussive, brain-rattling blows that cause us to flinch but from the repetitive hits that are a routine part of football. Gladwell’s argument is that football as it exists now is a public health crisis, one that is subjecting a countless number of young people to long-term brain damage, and that either no one is grasping how big of a crisis it is or that no one cares enough to do anything about it.
He’s right. And there’s a new context to that argument now, because we’ve learned that the NCAA, the organization that was formed in 1906 to regulate college sports and “protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletics practices of the time” has spent years actively, maybe even purposely, failing to protect young people from perhaps the most dangerous athletic practice of our time.
Six former college athletes filed a lawsuit against the NCAA last year alleging that the organization was negligent in how it treated concussions. They are currently petitioning to turn that suit into a class action complaint, one that would allow thousands of other athletes to join, and a release of court documents as part of that claim earlier this month detailed exactly how little the NCAA has done to protect its athletes from brain injuries. The suit doesn’t just cover football, but football is the main culprit: from 2004 to 2009, according to the NCAA’s own data, football players suffered 16,277 concussions, more than half the total suffered in college sports in that span.
And yet the NCAA did nothing. In 2010, its medical director, David Klossner, responded to a question about the toughness of the NCAA’s concussion protocols by saying, “Well since we don’t currently require anything all steps are higher than ours.” Even now, the NCAA leaves its concussion protocols to individual schools, and though it requires them to develop a concussion management plan, it has no oversight of those plans and doesn’t intend to enforce them. While it is now busy instituting rule changes to make its football safer, changing kickoff rules, banning hits to the head, and prohibiting players from using their heads to initiate contact, a recent study about rule changes in the National Hockey League suggests that those rule changes might fail to accomplish their goals.
There shouldn’t be any doubt that the prevalence of concussions in football is a public health issue, but right now, the most imminent question is why the organization charged with protecting college athletes is failing so miserably, and what it can do to make football a safe game. If it turns out that football’s crisis isn’t concussions but is “existential,” that football itself is the public health crisis and that no amount of rule changes will fix that, the question of whether institutions that are supposed to be molding young brains should be in the business of destroying them is one we might have no choice but to consider. That might make Gladwell a visionary one day, but I worry that calling for a ban on football may be making it harder to have the larger public health discussion we need right now.