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.
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.