In my town the high-school football team began its summer "workouts" last week. The early morning practices, starting at 6 a.m., will continue three times a week for the rest of the summer. The team plays its first game on Sept. 7.
I don't live in a big football town -- nothing like what you find in Texas or Georgia. Most of the players on our high-school team will never play in college. The very best of them will play varsity football at low-level Division III schools like Muhlenberg, Kenyon or Middlebury.
Yet football is ingrained into our culture. The game creates an enormous amount of school spirit. So what are we to make of the anti-football argument made by Malcolm Gladwell?
On Sunday I saw the popular writer of such science books as The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, being interviewed on CNN by Fareed Zakaria. Gladwell is on a campaign to ban college football on the premise that the sport is too violent and too often leads to debilitating brain injuries in its young players. In a controversial New Yorker article from a few years ago he compared football to dog fighting.
Gladwell cites research saying the head injuries football players routinely suffer during practices and games often lead to serious neurological disorders. There have been instances where the repeated head trauma has been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease found in former college and professional football players, as well as former boxers and hockey players.
He cited the case of Owen Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania football player who committed suicide in 2010. His autopsy showed early stages of CTE -- just as autopsies showed CTE in former professional players like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau who also committed suicide.
Gladwell did not address the issue of professional football. Perhaps a professional player, as an adult, can make the decision to take on the risk of CTE as the price that has to be paid for the job. After all, police and firefighters and truck drivers and construction workers also risk injury and even death in order to do their jobs.
What Gladwell questions is why our institutions of higher learning, which are dedicated to developing and improving the minds of our young people, are sponsoring a game that is shown to produce exactly the opposite results. How can a leading university like Penn teach its students advanced science and literature courses in the morning, then send those same kids out to suffer brain injury in the afternoon?
Of course, anyone who plays any sport takes on a risk of injury. But track or tennis, or swimming or soccer or baseball, are not violent contact sports that involve repeated trauma to the head. They may result in a torn ligament or stress injury -- or there can always be a terrible accident -- but they don't require the constant violent contact that predictably brings on a debilitating and perhaps fatal brain disease.
Like I said, I don't know what to make of Gladwell's argument. I don't know if Division III football carries the same risk of injury that goes along with football in the Big Ten or the Pac 12. And as far as the big state schools go, can you imagine Penn State or Notre Dame or Florida or Oklahoma giving up its football program? The alumni would go crazy!
Big-time college football serves as a minor league for professional football. It brings in big money to the big schools. Some would argue that football scholarships give underprivileged kids an educational opportunity they otherwise would never have. But is the college football team really a part of the academic program of a state university, or are these football players essentially hired guns who major in physical education, rarely show up in class, and have nothing to do with the rest of the student body?
I don't pretend to know the answers. I do know that there are a number of top schools that manage without a football team: Boston University, New York University, George Washington University, as well as small colleges like Swarthmore and Haverford.
Anyway, as the college football season soon swings into action, perhaps we should ask ourselves the obvious questions: Should universities really be in the business of producing football players? And are those bulked-up 300-pound kids being given an opportunity, or are they being exploited?