Malcolm Gladwell, Ted Johnson, and Why Football Isn't Like Dogfighting

Mike GleasonCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2009

Ted Johnson of the New England Patriots speaks with the media during media day at Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida on February 1, 2005  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In his latest article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the toll professional football takes on the brains of former players—how the years of collisions eventually lead to serious mental problems down the line.

At issue is whether the sustained legal hits to the head—as opposed to illegal actions—cause the long-term damage many players suffer from later in life.

Gladwell even draws a parallel to football and dogfighting, suggesting the brutality of the two sports is similar, and pondering whether football as we know it can vanish over the coming years.

This issue is particularly near and dear to Patriots fans, who saw Ted Johnson's career cut short because of numerous concussions. He has said he suffers from post-concussive syndrome and intends to donate his brain to a Boston University study after he dies.

I am normally an unabashed Gladwell fan, but I strongly disagree with the comparison between dogfighting and football. I feel to paint the two with the same brush is unnecessarily sensationalist.

Let me start with the obvious: football has many positive qualities not shared by dogfighting. In an increasingly sedentary world, football encourages physical activity in young adults. Football instills discipline, and reinforces the value of teamwork and effort.

However, I believe the comparison fails because it does not take into account what makes dogfighting so objectionable in the first place: the lack of choice on the part of the participants.

Gladwell says:

"Part of what makes dogfighting so repulsive is the understanding that violence and injury cannot be removed from the sport. It’s a feature of the sport that dogs almost always get hurt."

I would argue that a much larger part of dogfighting's repulsiveness is that the dogs are forcibly compelled to fight. They are simply not given an option.

Indeed, Gladwell later writes:

"In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain. A dog that will not do that is labelled a 'cur,' and abandoned."

However, on the matter of the player's choice, he devotes but one sentence, claiming we cannot accept that the risk of football injury is a risk "freely assumed." I think a serious discussion of this matter is a fairly large omission on the part of the article.

If the article is in fact an argument for banning the game (it seems to be so—he argues that hits to the head are an integral part of the game, and no amount of better equipment or harsher rules would change that), then the matter of choice is paramount. We must ask ourselves if people should be allowed to engage in activities that could harm them?

Personal responsibility has been under attack in our society for quite some time. Smoking bans have moved beyond public buildings and restaurants, and are now threatening to move outdoors. The government is now considering all kinds of legislation to punish fat people for, well, being fat.

Yet there have been quasi-reasonable justifications put forth for both. Smoking, they claim, may harm others as well as oneself. The obese have an disproportionate effect on health care costs (a justification I find specious, but that's beside the point).

Banning or forcibly reforming football, though, would take that question to another level entirely. I believe it would represent an unwarranted infringement on the public's right to self-determination.

Does the NFL need to do more in this area? Of course.

Should players be better informed of the risks of playing? Definitely.

Should we continue to refine protective equipment and the rules of the game? Without a doubt.

But does football, even with all its injury woes, resemble dogfighting? Not in the least.