Proof and Institutions — Football and Brain Injury

June 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Malcolm is a great storyteller, and in an episode of Season Three of his podcast Revisionist History (here), he tells the story of Owen Thomas. Thomas was a star football player, in high school (he actually started playing competitively before that, when he was nine) and then at U Penn. In his senior year, he committed suicide. He had always been outgoing and happy  — his teammates selected him as team captain — and a good student, but he became depressed and confused, unable to remember things.

The episode is called “Burden of Proof.” How much proof do you need, Gladwell asks how much proof that multiple blows to the head that football players inevitably suffer causes irreversible brain damage? How much proof do you need that football caused Owen Thomas’s suicide?

Gladwell is particularly outraged at the statement by the Penn administration

While we will never know the cause of Owen Thomas’s depression and subsequent suicide, we are aware of and deeply concerned about the medical issues now being raised about head injuries and will continue to work with the Ivy League and the medical community in addressing these issue. Owen’s untimely death was a terrible tragedy, and we continue to grieve for his loss.

Listen to Gladwell read it and then tear into its hypocrisy.

Gladwell’s tone of moral outrage turns to disappointment, almost despair, as he acknowledges that there’s little hope for change any time soon. 


After the speech, as I walked to the reception, one of the big deans at Penn looked at me and shook his head. He said, “We’re not stopping football.”

Of course not. And it won’t stop. At least not until the thrid suicide or maybe the fourth suicide or the fifth, at which point the students and alumni at Penn will finally say, “That’s an awfully high price to pay for a game.”

As the title of the episode suggests, Gladwell thinks that it’s all about scientific proof and that the problem now is that the evidence is not yet overwhelmingly convincing. But when that proof does emerge —  the fourth or fifth suicide — Penn students and alumni will be persuaded and force Penn to jettison football.

Gladwell slights the more important reason that football continues: It is embedded in an large structure of institutions and interests —  a structure so large that we cannot imagine how it might be disassembled — and embedded in our consciousness. That’s the point I was trying to make when I posted this months ago on Superbowl Sunday. We cannot envision what life would be like without these institutions.  “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for football,” says one Penn student, a football player, in the Q&A following Gladwell’s talk. He could not imagine other pathways for people like him to get to the Ivy League that might arise to replace football.

I doubt that he and the others — the deans and alumni — will change their minds even as science accumulates more proof, just as no amount of proof will convince climate-skeptics. More likely the change will come slowly. It will seem sudden — a decision to cancel the football program — but it will come because more and more of the students who then become alumni will have grown up playing and watching soccer rather than football. When attendance at Penn soccer matches starts to rival that of football, the university administrators may decide to dump football. They’ll probably make some high-minded moral statement, and they’ll explain their long delay in reaching the decision by saying that till now the evidence had been ambiguous. But when that day comes the decision will not be about proof any more than it is now.

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