By Michael Dorf
A New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell is provocatively titled, "Offensive Play: How Different Are Dogfighting and Football?" Gladwell's answer: Not that different. The piece is worth reading in its entirety but for the benefit of those who choose not to, here is a very brief summary of the main points.
1) Medical evidence now shows that a large proportion of professional football players suffer traumatic brain damage that seriously impairs their ability to perform basic life functions, changes their personalities, and may shorten their lives.
2) Although concussive impacts play a role, much or most of the brain damage results from repeat non-concussive blows to the head that are endemic to the game, especially for linemen.
3) Neither better helmets nor any of the sort of rule changes that might be adopted are likely to change these outcomes.
4) Shifting from tackle football to two-hand touch or flag football would change the outcomes, but Gladwell (and I) would consider that tantamount to banning what we know as American football.
5) Like dog-fighting, professional football exploits the "gameness" of the fiercest competitors--i.e., their willingness to keep on going long after the pain and injury should have made them quit.
With respect to the dog-fighting analogy, there is of course an important difference: Human beings consent to become professional football players, whereas dogs trained to fight to the death do not so consent.
But putting aside the comparative question, it is not clear that consent should count for much in the football context anyway. We forbid dueling with pistols, even if the duelists have given fully informed consent. Only the most radical libertarians would suggest that informed consent is a sufficient basis for any voluntarily undertaken activity.
So, should football be banned? As Gladwell notes, correctly, it won't be, so there is not much practical point to answering the question. But practical or not, it is worth asking why football won't be banned. At least part of the answer, I think, is its cultural pervasiveness. People who grew up loving football (as I did and as most American males and many American females did) take the fact that it is simply part of the landscape as a kind of reassurance that it's okay. Sure, there are occasional tragedies. The event that sticks out for me was Jack Tatum's paralyzing 1978 hit on Darryl Stingley. But that was encoded as a reminder that football is a violent game with risks, not as evidence that football is a form of Russian roulette. By comparison, the lethal knockout of Duk Koo Kim in 1982 probably turned more people off to boxing, because injury seems to be the point of boxing in a way that it is only a side effect of football.
Gladwell's point, I think, is that we need to start thinking of brain damage as part of the point of football. If players started exploding on the field, say, then the unthinkable might become thinkable, and we would consider banning football.
Finally, speaking of dog-fighting, I'll be on WHYY (the NPR station) in Philadelphia on Monday at 10 am talking about the Stevens case in the Supreme Court.