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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soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Tyrone Buckshank

    Eyez got da anzer!!! mayk dog fightin legul!!!

    July 24, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  2. Bama Boy

    Gladwell makes some good points. I guess he could not say it, so I will:

    many college football players are expendable cash cows.

    Major college sports programs exploit their players, use them to make cash (also, big successful football programs attract students and their tuition), and then throw them out after four years or so.

    July 27, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      Not to say you are wrong, because it is well known that this goes on, but if the students there are "thrown out" after 4 years, I should hope it is because they have completed their education and have graduated.

      May 29, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  3. bobcat2u

    Let me guess Malcolm. You were the kid who was always picked last, if at all. You've never been included in any of the reindeer games. Your mama told you it was a game invented by Satan. In other words you couldn't hack it, so you diss it. If it suits you better, go play your marbles or tiddly winks. Or you may want to pull out your plastic tea set and invite your friends (aka dolls) over for a party.
    I can guarantee your opinion is not shared by the majority.

    May 29, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      He does sound butthurt. Wah.

      May 29, 2014 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  4. bobcat2u

    And another thing Malcolm said :
    "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."

    Again a one sided opinion. Has it been taken into consideration that some of us "really" liked playing the game. Not for public accolades, just a love of the game.

    And one more thing !!! Doesn't he remind you of Art Garfunkel ?

    May 29, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Reply
    • banasy©

      I particularly like how he implies that these these guys are "owned" by another.

      May 29, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I agree with @ bobcat2u.
    Men in the USA have already been urged to become softer. After decades of slowly shaken tenderizer, we no longer notice our male pop singers' transition to falsetto for high notes.
    How soft does USA society want its men to be?
    I say, play footbal, if you can.

    May 29, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      I apologize for the crassness of my first comment, but it rankles ones senses when an individual places those who can and do in a category of mindless minions who are led by the noses to their inherent doom. I've never known of a sport in which someone was forced to participate, excluding of course, elementary school all inclusive sports such as kick ball.
      If you can, do. If you can't, don't diss those who can and do.
      Okay, I'm done venting now.

      On a lighter note.
      How are you doing my friend ?

      May 29, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Reply
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        Hi @ bobcat. Everything here is going well, but I'm a little busier than I'd like to be.
        Cheers and keep your jokes coming. I often forget to laugh at stuff.

        May 29, 2014 at 6:26 pm |
      • dazzle

        Comparing football to dogfighting is ridiculous. The only thing they have in common is the disgusting Michael Vick. It sounds like Gladwell has some repressed anger about football. @bobcat, I think you are right about him being the last kid picked for everything. Please keep the jokes coming!

        May 29, 2014 at 9:12 pm |
  6. chri§§y

    I second that @ bobcat...laughter is the one thing in life that keeps me going! Oh and "the pip" says to tell you she likes your jokes also lmao!

    May 29, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  7. banasy©

    This man overlooks a couple of points:
    First of all, the dogs used in dog fighting cannot give consent. He is using an apples to oranges comparison, and doing so for inflammatory purposes. This seems disingenuous to me.
    Also, this gentleman overlooks the fact that college football isn't where many players start, it is usually their last stop.
    Why is he not taking his SJW stance on Pop Warner, Jr. High, and HS football?

    He is barking up the wrong tree.

    May 29, 2014 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  8. bobcat2u

    University of South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier comes into the locker room before practice and says to his star receiver, "You're failing math. If you don't want to become academically ineligible, you'll have to answer these math questions correctly." The star receiver agrees and Spurrier asks him, "What does 4 plus 4 equal?"
    "Eleven," says the athlete.
    The rest of the team pleads, "Give him another chance! Give him another chance!"
    Spurrier then asks, "What does 2 plus 2 equal?"
    The receiver says, "Four."

    May 29, 2014 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • delius1967

      .........not getting the joke.

      June 3, 2014 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  9. bobcat2u

    Alabama football coach Nick Saban asked the freshman walk-on hopeful if he could tackle.
    The kid said, "Yes, sir coach, I can tackle."
    The coach then asked, "Well, can you run?"
    The kid said, "Yes, sir coach, I can run very fast."
    Saban then said, "Can you pass a football?"
    The kid thought for a second and said, "Well, coach, if I can swallow it, I can probably pass it."

    May 29, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  10. chri§§y

    Lol @ bobcat ok the last one was a good one!

    May 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  11. bobcat2u

    A man inherited over one billion dollars from a long-lost uncle who happened to be an oil baron. The man, thrilled at his good fortune, asked his young son what he wanted. He told his child that money was no object. The boy said he wanted a Mickey Mouse outfit. So the man bought him the University of Colorado.

    May 29, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Say when people, cause I have a million of 'em. Ha cha cha cha

      May 29, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Reply
      • banasy©

        Are you channeling Jimmy Durante??

        May 29, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
      • bobcat2u

        Yeah, I think he took over my consciousness for a moment. And like he used to sing :

        Make someone happy,
        Make just one someone happy

        Or my personal childhood favorite :

        Ink a dink a dink, a dink a dink, a dink a doo.

        Geez, now I feel like Mitch Miller is trying to take over.

        May 29, 2014 at 11:04 pm |
      • bobcat2u

        Realizing that I watched this man, along with Mitch Miller, Lawrence Welk, Liberace and others I don't remember, during the golden age of tv in black and white makes me sad.

        May 29, 2014 at 11:17 pm |
  12. chri§§y

    Yes bobcat please do! One can never have enough funny lol.

    May 29, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  13. chri§§y

    Lmao my favorite was Lucille Ball!

    May 29, 2014 at 11:23 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      Two of my all time favorites were her doing the wine stomp, and her and Ethel in the candy factory.

      May 29, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Reply
  14. chri§§y

    Oh and Red Skeleton! Funny stuff by that guy!

    May 29, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Reply
    • bobcat2u

      How could I ever forget him ? Definitely one of my all time favorites. I still do the Gertrude and Heathcliff routine from time to time. And I loved the Freddie the Freeloader character.

      May 29, 2014 at 11:45 pm | Reply
  15. Mel

    To compare football to dog fighting on this basis: "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?" is sad and wrong. Dog fighting does not purport to be sustained physical combat. Dog fighting is two dogs pitted against one another to fight TO THE DEATH. I have never, not once, seen a football game where the players were competing to kill each other, with spectators cheering on every mauling bite, every chunk of flesh bit out, every dog bleeding to death from its injuries. Football does not engage weaker individuals (e.g., bait dogs) for players to practice killing on. To equate football and dog fighting is ridiculous, misinformed, and frankly completely incorrect. Played correctly by able individuals football is a fun game. Dog fighting is killing for sport, plain and simple. Get your facts straight.

    June 3, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  16. Sterling

    You're so cool! I do not believe I have read through a single
    thhing like this before. So greazt too find another person with some original thoughts on this subject matter.
    Really.. thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that's needed on the internet, someone with some originality!

    July 9, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Reply

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