Wednesday, May 02, 2012
In an interview at Slate, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell of
The New Yorker predicts the demise of college and
professional football as we know it.
The factor that I think will be decisive is the head-injury issue. Colleges are going to get sued, and they will have to decide whether they can afford their legal exposure. That said, the issue ought to be how big-time college sports subverts the academic mission of university education.This may be, but what I find more interesting is that Gladwell's observations come out against the backdrop of an argument he plans to make that college football should be banned -- or at least that's what Slate claims he'll argue. But observing that, in today's increasingly risk-averse, paternalistic culture -- and litigious and yet responsibility-free legal environment -- that a sport millions enjoy is in danger isn't really the same thing as saying that it should be banned. Indeed, Gladwell later says the following:
[B]oxing and horseracing didn't end. They have persisted, just in vastly less popular forms than before. They have gone into slow and irreversible decline. I suspect that the same will happen with football. It's going to wither as the supply of talent slowly dries up. I heard on ESPN Michael Wilbon--who is one of the most influential sports journalists in the country--say that he will not let his kids play pro football. If Wilbon won't, who will?
If you want college athletes to assume an as yet unknown risk of permanent physical and neurological damage, you should pay them. Properly. It's a bit much both to maim AND exploit college football players.I don't think Gladwell is exactly a laissez-faire capitalist, but I think he stumbles into something close to what would (and should) happen with college football in a free economy: It would become -- completely, that is -- lower-tier professional football. Whatever Gladwell ends up arguing, I doubt it will be anything like, "Get the government out of the businesses of education and professional sports," but his prediction is worth noting.
I once observed that you could probably scratch many conservatives and draw pro-big government blood when it came to education (and college sports). This would happen once you connected the dots and made it clear that their college football teams (and, probably many of their almae matres) might receive much less funding, if indeed they continued to exist at all, under capitalism. But Gladwell's prediction serves as something of an antidote by highlighting the dark side of government support: government meddling.
A government big enough to grant largesse is also big enough to take it (and more) away. Football may appear to benefit from its improper association with an educational system the government shouldn't be running, but the same excuse, need, that drives the government's involvement in education drives the redistributionism in the legal system and the elevation of risk assessment from a personal affair to an excuse to confiscate money, issue orders, or both.
Ultimately, more freedom might temporarily be painful until professional football (including college football) adjusted to complete self-support, but it would allow the sport to survive.