Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell Versus Pro Football

Malcolm Gladwell got a lot of traction in the sports-blog universe last week for his New Yorker story comparing pro football to dog-fighting.

But it was his turn on "PTI" on Friday night that really accelerated the topic to another level. They were talking about the new (and ongoing) connections between playing football and brain injury, and Gladwell said this:

"What self-respecting parent is going to let their kid play high school football knowing that the sport has this kind of impact on the brain?"

Like a lot of Gladwell's insights, it sounds simple in hindsight -- but it is very important.

First of all, on its face, he's absolutely right. There's a long-standing (and mildly self-hating) line that Jewish people use as a throwaway joke: "Jews don't play football."

It's not about the NFL, obviously -- it's about Jewish parents not letting their kids play football at younger levels. And, on the one hand, there's an easy joke about Jewish kids' lack of athleticism and the chance for real physical harm when they meekly get bludgeoned by their Gentile teammates and opponents.

But unpack that idea: What could be more "real physical harm" than destroying your brain? Jewish or not, you ain't going to the NFL -- so why risk very real injury to your future prospects by risking injury to your brain? (Try the school newspaper, they said....)

Anyway, let's get back to the larger point: What self-respecting parent would let their kid play football, knowing how bad it could be for their kids' brains?

(Now compare that to the professionalization of high school football over the past decade -- accelerated even more over the past few years.)

What that means is that there will always be athletes that are so good that they fill the college and pro development pipelines -- there's just too much money in it for them not to do it.

But I agree with Gladwell: The real impact is on the downstream talent pipeline. Increasingly, parents won't let their kids play pee-wee football... then junior high... then high school.

The talent pipeline erodes. Even the best players need a couple dozen kids around them in order to practice and play the games.

And so, to Gladwell's point, football -- the mightiest and most powerful of sports -- will have to change, in order to make itself more safe. Not for the pros, necessarily -- but for the kids who eventually become pros. For the kids who play around the kids who eventually become pros.

In 50 years, will the NFL be a flag-football league? Hardly. Might it be marginalized like boxing? (Try to go back 50 years and tell people that in the year 2010, boxing is a joke.)

More likely, if the sport itself won't change, derivative versions of the sport will emerge -- like MMA for boxing (that's not precisely analogous, but you get my point).

And that change better come from the top -- the NFL.

Meanwhile, even if changes ARE made, can you ever insure that the violence that is so key to the sport can be mitigated to the point that the type of injuries that Gladwell's research highlights no longer exist?

You're still left with the essential question:

Knowing what we know -- and what we WILL know -- what self-respecting parent would let their kid play football?

Look: Like anyone else, I have fantasies of my two kids being a star QB and RB -- maybe just a kicker, if I wanted them to avoid contact as much as possible.

But those fantasies eventually meet reality. It's one thing to pretend to tackle them on the rug in their bedroom or gently throw the ball around.

It's another to willingly expose your kid to present and future injury risk by letting them get on the field -- particularly at the lower levels, where the coaching and medical attention is iffy.

So: Knowing what we know -- or what we will continue to find out over the next 5-10 years and beyond -- would you let your kid play football?

I wouldn't... even if Jewish kids don't play football anyway.

-- D.S.

UPDATE: Great quote from Gladwell in a Q&A he did on Time:
Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.
As someone who contributes at a journalism grad school, I don't agree with this entirely -- but I absolutely think that learning more about statistics and accounting is critical. Why engage it at the grad level? Why not at the undergrad level, at least to give yourself basic literacy? Undergrad journalism programs should make "quantitative literacy" a required two-semester course.


Unknown said...

It really shouldn't be Malcom Gladwell Versues Pro Football... because he's really not attacking Pro Football.

In fact, he's talking about Football in general (and from what i've read and seen, focusing more on High School football than anything).

Sorry, just bored at work and decided to point that out.

Craig Dodge said...

As a Gentile, I completely agree with your point. My little boy is only two, and he might have the size to play football in High School, or take part in a Pee Wee program, but after reading about Dr. Omalu's research in Gladwell's New Yorker piece this week, I have definitely decided that he isn't playing tackle football.

As much as I love the game, the idea of him potentially suffering from symptoms analagous to Alzheimers or severe depression by the time he is 50 is unacceptable.

I love football, but reading that article made me question if the game will survive as it currently exists given the results that are being uncovered. Scary stuff.

Beeg said...

We can start by banning full-speed hits on defenseless players, like the guy trailing the play who gets de-cleated (when all the blocker has to do is get in his way), or the player who is on (or very near) the ground.

The proof in the science will help extend mandatory rest times. In 20 years we will look back and marvel at how little we knew, and how much more we should have done to protect players.

Drugs make you bigger and faster. 4 game suspensions are a joke. The NFL needs to get serious. With so much money on the line, most players will do anything they can for a payday. The league, the owners, and the fans, must show some concern for what happens to them now and after they retire.

sean b said...

Kind of an interesting issue Gladwell brings up, but it sets up a scenario whereby a set of people start talking to themselves... that is, a subset of statistically literate people. Unfortunately, this excludes a large portion of the population.

I teach undergraduate statistics at a large state university, and the level of statistical literacy is lower than I thought it would be, and certainly lower than necessary to process all but the most rudimentary descriptive statistics before they take the course.

If this does become a trend in journalism, then statistical analysis/literacy really should be a requirement of every high school kid.

Special Kay said...

The entire argument hinges on this quote:

"What self-respecting parent is going to let their kid play high school football knowing that the sport has this kind of impact on the brain?"

To whittle it down even further:

"What self-respecting parent..."

The carrots are so intense right now around football that many of self-respecting parents, and many who aren't (clearly the super-majority in the universe) will disregard the dangers. And conversely, self-respecting parents with sons adamant about playing football could be the biggest catalysts for change at those early levels of football because they'll impose guidelines in order for their children to play. They'll examine the safety at the pee-wee and junior high levels before signing off on their kids' participation. And they will enact change that even the NFL could never get trickled down.

And comparing football to boxing is highly flawed. Boxing, like horse racing, may have been part of the sports trifecta pre-World War II. But the difference between boxing, horse racing and a sport like football is two-fold. It's a team game, and it's a regional game. It's not simply designed for gaming purposes. There are fans of franchises, and fans of cities, and football attracts those two in ways boxing and horse racing never could. So the erosion of boxing from our collective sports conscious is much easier to believe because it was never rooted within our communities. It was more like the circus -- something that was intense, maybe came to our town, and tickled our carnal sides. Football is something a son and father can always do, to a degree.

I digress. Gladwell is making a loose correlation that doesn't take into effect the high-stakes business that is this contact sport and he underestimates the influence of self-respecting parents on the games their children play.

The pipeline won't erode because those same self-respecting parents are vested within it, via their favorite team, their city or the fantasy habits. Therefore they'll find ways to not just keep their kinds involved in the process, but probably find safer ways to do so.

As a one-day Jewish parent myself, would I rather my kid be a star engineer, or dare I say, soccer player? Of course. But if football's the path he wants to take, it's on me to be interested, and it's on me to understand the safety concerns within the sport. And with education, at least for us self-respectable types, I'd like to think, come the seeds of change.

Steve Sprague said...

I read the New Yorker article and the conclusions drawn are sketchy. They tested a sample of less than 50 and found strong evidence of brain damage if I am remembering correctly. I also believe that most of those bodies studied belonged to people who had played college football at least, if not pro. This hardly suggests reasonably that all who play high school football will suffer brain injuries.

Over 1 million boys played high school football in 2008 nationwide. Using similar numbers for all years, and assuming equal numbers amongst all four years of HS, that would mean 250,000 graduates per year have played football. The research I read hardly suggested an epidemic of dementia for those players.

I disagree with Malcom Gladwell and I am offended by his point. If my son wishes to play football when he is old enough I will let him. I will make sure he is not risking sever injury by playing too soon after a concussion if he gets one, but I will not worry that he will suffer from dementia as a result.

I played football in high school and it was one of my best experiences. The teamwork, the comraderie, the discipline, everything about it was great.

Changes do need to be made certainly. But for Mr. Gladwell to suggest, and for you to support him in this, that it is bad parenting to let your child play football is stupid. Plain and simple, it is stupid. Perhaps Mr. Gladwell should take his own advice and study some statistics and see how flawed his argument was.

pete said...

I'll admit I haven't read Gladwell's report but in response to how you mention the importance of this statement: "What self-respecting parent is going to let their kid play high school football knowing that the sport has this kind of impact on the brain?" I immediately want to know if the study was simply about what happens to the brains of kids who play football, or does it compare the same brain trauma suffered by kids in other sports.

What happens to the brain of a kid who falls riding his bike, even while wearing a helmet? How many times does a pro bike rider fall in his life and hit his head?

What about hockey? Diving? How does the brain trauma from a variety of sports stack up to that of football? Is football that bad, or is it on par with the damage that can be done in any number of sports. If it's on par, then do you expand the above statement to "what parent will let their kid do anything?" or do you say, "well I guess football isn't that bad."?