Star rookie Chris Borland’s retirement is causing reverberations this week, leading many to ask, are football’s risks worth its rewards? In 2012, Intelligence Squared U.S. debated the risks of college football with Malcolm Gladwell, Buzz Bissinger, Tim Green and Jason Whitlock. The debate sold out so quickly and garnered so much pre-debate publicity, even we were taken by surprise. Once again, a growing concern over safety has put football’s future back in the spotlight.
My own experience of college football consisted of attending occasional games at Yale Bowl. When I was lucky enough to have a date, she usually knew more about the game than I did. I was a bright, nerdy kid. And when I got into a position to hire people, I looked to hire people like myself. But with maturity and experience, I came to value a varsity football background very highly indeed. Often that bespoke the discipline to work very hard, the perseverance to suffer defeat and endure pain, the personality to be part of a team and sometimes the charisma to lead one.
A healthy mind and a healthy body. What’s wrong with that ideal? Well, nothing, except it has very little to do with college football as played at the big state colleges, the Texas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and the recently infamous Penn State.
These are big businesses. They generate profits of 40 to $50 million a year, sometimes more. The coaches are paid more than university presidents. And the athletes are offered all manner of tawdry inducements, often making a sham of their amateur status. They can emerge with little real education, but often with some very real brain injuries resulting in elevated risks of dementia at a young age.
Libertarians would argue that all sorts of sports and recreational activities are risky; motor car racing, downhill skiing, climbing mountains and on and on. And a decent respect for human liberty dictates allowing adults to assume the risks they choose. But query if a small — if a poor high school student offered an athletic scholarship to play big-time football is making an informed choice or a mature one. And for the colleges, is big-time football a valuable source of funding for other athletic programs? Is it an object of school pride that drives bigger donations from alumni and more generous funding from state legislatures? Or is it a corruption magnet, corrosive of the meaning and purpose of the university itself?
There remains huge public interest in these issues: “I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told Outside the Lines. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”
Where do you stand? The Intelligence Squared U.S. public opinion poll on the debate “Ban College Football” is still capturing votes. Cast your vote here.