May 29th, 2014
09:00 AM ET

Gladwell: College football an inhumane spectacle

On Thursday, President Barack Obama is holding a 'concussions summit' to discuss the issue of concussion in youth sports. Last year, Fareed spoke with Malcolm Gladwell, longtime ‘New Yorker’ staff writer and best-selling author of ‘The Tipping Point’ and ‘Outliers’ about American college football. In the first part, Gladwell makes the argument that college football is little different from dog fighting. Watch the video for the full exchange.


You compare football to dog fighting. Why?

Yes, I did a piece for The New Yorker a couple of years ago where I said it. This was at the time when, remember, Michael Vick, was convicted of dog fighting. And to me, that was such a kind of, and the whole world got up in arms about this. How could he use dogs in a violent manner, in a way that compromised their health and integrity?

And I was just struck at the time by the unbelievable hypocrisy of people in football, for goodness sake, getting up in arms about someone who chose to fight dogs, to pit one dog against each other.

In what way is dog fighting any different from football on a certain level, right? I mean you take a young, vulnerable dog who was made vulnerable because of his allegiance to the owner and you ask him to engage in serious sustained physical combat with another dog under the control of another owner, right?

Well, what's football? We take young boys, essentially, and we have them repeatedly, over the course of the season, smash each other in the head, with known neurological consequences.

And why do they do that? Out of an allegiance to their owners and their coaches and a feeling they're participating in some grand American spectacle.

They're the same thing. And the idea that as a culture we would be absolutely quick and sure about coming to the moral boiling point over the notion that you would do this to dogs and yet completely blind to the notion you would do this to young men is, to my mind, astonishing.

I mean there's a certain point where I just said, you know, we have to say enough is enough.

In the second part of the interview, Gladwell discusses whether his call for college football to be dropped by universities is likely to be heeded. Watch the video for the full exchange. For more GPS interviews, visit iTunes to download the full show.

You don't buy the argument that this is important for part of the culture, alumni relations, fundraising?

If an elite, Ivy League school like Penn needs to play a 19th century brutal game of football in order to buttress its culture, then they have the wrong culture, right? It's just an anachronism that no one has had the courage to say, enough. It is inappropriate in this day and age to be doing this, right.  But the pro-game is another matter, but there is just no conceivable argument to continue to practice this inhumane spectacle.

Do you think college presidents, particularly colleges like Harvard, Yale, Penn, should just get out of this?

I see absolutely no reason why any school…any college in this country or any other country that has even a remote desire to have a serious academic mission – they should not be playing sports which have neurological consequences for their students.  I mean, this such an outrageous request, right?

For an educational institution that is meant to be about building your brain, you shouldn't be encouraging people to play sports that destroy the brain?

Yes, that seems to me normal.  That seems to be a reasonable…

You want kids to boycott college football. The speech was a YouTube sensation.


Are you getting any traction?

I'm not done yet. What has to happen for this crusade to work, I mean it's not just me.  There is a whole rising chorus on this subject. But what has to happen is for one prominent school to drop the sport.  And when that happens, I think there will be a domino effect. But that school has got to be Harvard or Penn or the great prize is Stanford. Stanford, you know, which has invested in its football program like no other elite school, Stanford has got to walk away. And if Stanford walked away, I think that it would put a dagger in the heart of college football. And you know, I haven't done this yet, but all those big name donors to Stanford, people who give, you know, the Google guys on down the line who give serious money, have just got to say, look, this is inappropriate. I'm giving money to make this into an elite intellectual institution, it is inappropriate for you to be taking the same student resources that I am investing in and squandering them on the football field, right. That's what has to happen.

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