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Malcolm Gladwell Compares Football Players to Dogs

In typical Malcolm Gladwell fashion, his piece Offensive Play is rich, engrossing and effortless. The story he spins exposes how football ravages the human brain. He is an excellent writer and specifically, an excellent propagandist. Gladwell quotes scientist in place of science and reserves the rebuttal to an almost insignificant two paragraphs on page eight. One might think after reading it, the argument is so overwhelmingly one-sided, football fans should scrub the blood from their hands. Football fans should be ostracized from their community like bug hunters and pedophiles.

Ira Casson, co-chair of an NFL committee on brain damage, sounds detached and aloof. The self-professed "Jewish kid from Long Island" is led to slaughter by Gladwell, no doubt embarrassed by this quote and its placement within Gladwell's piece.

"It's a violent game. I suppose if you want to you could play touch football or flag football. For me, as a Jewish kid from Long Island, I'd be just as happy if we did that. But I don't know if the fans would be happy with that. So what else do you do?"

Seven pages of damaged brains on meat slicers, spousal abuse and suicide, and Casson rebuts by advocating flag football. Any propagandist can identify a good fall guy and Gladwell found an unsuspecting NFL employee to hang himself with his own words. Casson's sentiment rings especially hollow framed as it is: led by Kyle Turley, of all people, relaying a story about a concussed kid nodding out in a cold tub; footed by the crunching bones and cartilage, the splattering blood and urine of a dog fight.

Gladwell's piece is manipulative and insulting and its argument fails because of Gladwell's own indulgence. The NFL needs an intelligent discussion about concussions. Science empowers us to better protect ourselves. Protect ourselves both from the dangers we cannot avoid and the dangers we choose. It empowers us to better understand our decisions and their consequences. It does not stop us from driving cars, but it invents air bags.

Football players are not dogs. The players of the NFL are adults. No one who has ever seen a snap in their life thinks football is safe. I stopped playing shortly after a safety with shortman's facemasked me so bad my neck ached for years. The tenderized meat feeling following a game is agony. I had no real talent to speak of and so I quit. I choose to quit.

Football players are not dogs. A football player assumes great risk and sacrifice to play football, but unlike dogs pitted in a ring, provoked and forced to fight, often to the death, football players are intelligent adults. It is a frustrating and revealing failure in Gladwell's piece that he barely acknowledges this fact.

He indicts the fan:

We are in love with football players, with their courage and grit, and nothing else-neither considerations of science nor those of morality-can compete with the destructive power of that love.

Implying a fan's love for football is like a dog fighter's love for dog fighting. Football players are not dogs. They are not owned. They are not electrocuted if they do not fight. They are not executed when they can no longer fight. They are adults making decisions with their lives that could have terrible consequences.

Those consequences and the best way to prevent or at least abate them could make for an intelligent piece. Instead, Gladwell exploits an easy and popularly recognized angle to manipulate and lower the discussion. He turns men into dogs and fans into blood thirsty owners. Gladwell trades even reporting for judgment and inquiry for propaganda. Malcolm Gladwell attempts to turn the moral outrage targeted at Michael Vick back on the fans of the NFL, but in comparing men to dogs, Gladwell reveals his own contempt for human beings, our ability to choose our lives and our ability to face the consequences of our choices.