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Safety, exploitation at center of debate on college football ban

New York University's Skirball Center is not exactly located in the heart of college football country, situated as it is some 323 miles from West Virginia University, the nearest campus to have produced a team that finished last season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Still, on Tuesday evening its softly lit, filled-to-capacity auditorium was the site of a public debate, produced by an outfit called Intelligence Squared, about whether or not our most widely loved and controversial amateur sport ought to be banned. Arguing in favor of banning college football were Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Friday Night Lights, and bestselling New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell. In opposition were Tim Green, the former Atlanta Falcons end-slash-lawyer-slash-novelist-slash-broadcaster, and Jason Whitlock, the former Ball State offensive tackle and current FOXSports.com columnist.

Over the course of nearly two hours, Gladwell and Whitlock proved the more reserved members of their teams. Each man punctuated his generally coherent, generally strictly hewn to, generally rehashed arguments with pithy one-liners that drew laughs from the generally respectful crowd. Gladwell, a Canadian, was not up for a shouting match -- "In Canada, a debate isn't a debate, it's simply an alternate method of reaching consensus," he said -- and mainly focused his arguments on the slowly growing body of research into the harmful cumulative effect of repeated hits to the head, even hits of the sub-concussive variety. "Schools should not be in the business of encouraging young men to hit themselves over the head," Gladwell said. "I have no problem whatsoever with grown men choosing to participate in a potentially lethal profession. But college is a different matter."

Whitlock, meanwhile, expressed his view that modern college football, for all of its problematic and exploitative qualities -- and all of the panelists agreed, in some measure, that steps should be taken to improve player safety and transfer profits from millionaire coaches to the players -- is simply the product of a free, capitalist society. "If you believe in freedom, you can't have the 'free' without the 'dumb,'" Whitlock said. "Ronald McDonald has done far more damage to America than any football coach." He also underscored the opportunity college football provides to disadvantaged children, as he once was. "Football is the Statue of Liberty," Whitlock said. "Football was my access to the mainstream, and a better life."

While there is little doubt who would have the upper hand if Green and Bissinger ever met on an open field -- the 6-foot-2 Green towered over Bissinger, even though the latter wore boots with conspicuously high heels -- the two were responsible for imbuing the evening with a passion somewhat like the one felt on a college football Saturday. Green spoke emotionally about the lessons students can learn from playing football -- "Teamwork, hard work, perseverance and tolerance" -- and about the unique way in which the sport can unify not only campuses, but towns, cities and even states.

The usually civil Green, though, became most engaged after the excitable Bissinger emerged as his foil. "I'll talk to you out back, later on," Green said at one point. Bissinger came armed with more ideas, statistics and facts than the other three combined ("I actually did some work on this, instead of riffed," he said to Whitlock), and deployed them in the increasingly piqued, if not always entirely on point, way that has become something of his trademark.

Bissinger suggested that the diminishing effort the average student puts into his university studies -- from 40 hours a week in the 1960s to 13 currently, he said -- is tied to football. "At the top of the distracted university is football," Bissinger said. "Football. It sucks all the air out of the room." He argued that it was not only "insulting" that head coaches often earn far more money than their university presidents, but harmful because it can turn the coach into the school's de facto ruler, such as Joe Paterno at Penn State. "Joe ran that school, and when it was his chance ... he did nothing but harbor a suspected child molester," Bissinger said. He cited studies that contradicted the ideas that successful football programs lead to increased alumni giving and higher quality applicants.

He wasn't done. "I didn't interrupt you, Tim," Bissinger said to Green at one point. "Do not interrupt me."

"Buzz plays rough," said Whitlock.

Bissinger, shuffling through index cards, pointed out that 478 people work in the athletic department at Ohio State, twice as many as in the English department. "I defy you to tell me why Urban Meyer deserves $24 million over six seasons," Bissinger said. He even suggested that college sports helped "kill Wall Street," where banks are heavily populated with former athletes with win-at-all-costs mentalities.

One of Bissinger's points particularly stood out, and it both energized the audience and rendered his opponents all but powerless to rebut it. He argued, essentially, that we put an end to the increasingly tortured efforts to reconcile the larger missions of universities with what it takes for those universities to field successful football teams, by officially recognizing that the two are not reconcilable. He proposed that major college football programs that are already, in practice, run parallel to their universities -- out of their own increasingly grand departments and facilities -- formally split off into their own entities while retaining a tie to, and even the name of, the school from which they originated. "Create a de facto subsidiary," Bissinger proposed. "The university gets a licensing fee."

The players would be paid for participating in what Bissinger said is already "the greatest minor league in the history of the world" -- and would therefore, at least, not be simultaneously "maimed and exploited," as is Gladwell's concern. They would continue to benefit from the life lessons that can be learned from playing the game. Communities could still rally around them, exulting in their wins and mourning their losses. Schools could still financially profit from them, and direct those profits toward other teams and academic departments. And the players would still have the opportunity to parlay their athletic skills into better off-the-field lives, if they were so inclined. Green wondered if players could still attend classes and earn degrees in this scenario.

"Players get the option to go to class, if they want to," Bissinger replied. "I bet most wouldn't."

It seemed, in many ways, a logical evolution, and one that might help address some of the problems that all agreed are now present in college football. "There's no question this is a radical solution, but it's what called for in radical times," said Bissinger. It also seemed to win the debate for Bissinger's side: While just 16 percent of the audience members, voting on keypads attached to their seats, agreed with Bissinger and Gladwell at the debate's beginning, 53 percent voted with them at its end.

The numbers undoubtedly would have been very different had the debate been held at LSU instead of NYU. But coming as it did near the end of a messy and complicated debate, Bissinger's idea suggested the possibility of improving -- if not actually banning -- what has become a messy and complicated system.

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