Foot Fighting and Dog Balls

October 22, 2009

Here’s an outrageous thesis from New Yorker fluff-daddy Malcolm Gladwell. The upshot?  Football is injurious to the health of a player. Dogfighting is similarly injurious. Lo, some spectators love to watch that stuff.  Ergo, maybe they’re the same?

Check out this winning quote:

At the core of the C.T.E. research is a critical question: is the kind of injury being uncovered by McKee and Omalu incidental to the game of football or inherent in it? 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.

True. But that’s not the core distinction between dogfighting and football. Another core distinction is that dogs don’t volunteer themselves to be stuck in cramped rings to tough it out with their enemies.

I have my affections for Gladwell’s work, but then… yeah, well, read it for yourself.


  1. I accepted your invitation to read this for myself, and came away with a completely different idea of what MG is saying. He is asking whether football is more like dog-fighting (violence inherent) or more like race-car-driving (violence avoidable). The implied assumption is that if it’s more like dog-fighting, then football is morally abhorrent. He provides lots of evidence that it’s more like dog-fighting. Thus, we are to conclude, it’s actually morally abhorrent.

    You seem to think it’s a given that football is just fine, so he must be saying the same thing about dog-fighting, if the similarity he points out is correct, but I see no reason to think that’s Gladwell’s view. The article aims to change our minds about football, not improve the image of dog-fighting.

  2. Smart analysis, Jean. I’ll go back and read it more carefully. There’s a good chance I’m being unfair. Your thesis sounds more plausible to me.

    On the other hand, I don’t _really_ think football is just fine. I think that, maybe more than other sports, it’s a quasi-voluntary war that destroys its players and foments a mentality among spectators that the world of issues, that the world of ideas, can be divided into sides and teams. I don’t think it’s even in the same league with dogfighting, though, since we’re talking about players and not victims. Boxing is perhaps a better comparison; but even that…

  3. Okay. Re-read it. Maybe here’s the point of confusion, first with my post and then with the article:

    A lot of people think that if one undertakes a risky but otherwise _legally_ unconstrained action voluntarily, that that action is therefore “fine.” That’s not my view at all. I can think of many cases in which my willful participation in such actions doesn’t undercut our reasons to suspect that those actions are perhaps morally suspect, which is to say, not good.

    Having said this, I think the issue of violence-inherent or violence-avoidable could’ve been made much more conceptually. If it had been, then perhaps he wouldn’t be in the regrettable situation of comparing football with dogfighting. _If_ that’s the sole point of comparison, it can’t be that that has us so outraged. Lots of people object to dog racing too; and they do, in part, not because it is violence avoidable, but because it involves forcing dogs through their paces and treating them like very fast lumps of meat.

  4. MG can certainly be “fluff daddy” (ha!) and has an excessive love of saying what’s counterintuitive, so I was thinking he surely did say what you said…but it sounds like he wasn’t being so contrarian this time. Well…a little, since I think most people do think football is fine, and think so mainly because it’s voluntary. As to what’s so awful about dog-fighting…that’s an interesting question, and so is the issue about dog racing.

  5. Agreed that the dog fighting part was simply a hook, but it did distract from the information about football players. He could have got there in a clearer and better way. What he ended up with is two articles interspersed with each other. One might speculate that he had some Vick/dogfighting material lying around that he couldn’t sell, so he upped the word count by salting it into his article on football.

    • Maybe Gladwell sees where rabbits are blind? Who’s the real liberal here? The best-selling author or the spam artist? Irony. Gotta love it.

  6. Ben,
    I don’t get you. Gladwell is asking if there are some informative similarities between the two spectator sports. You are insisting he unask the question on the grounds of the irreconcilable dissimilarities. You don’t think there is a discussion-worthy connection – through a cultural love of violence, especially deep-rooted in the South? Gladwell sees something. Why don’t you?

    • I think there’s more to it than that. The analogy strikes me as inapt. Better might have been gang violence or boxing or something.

      • Sure, there are other examples he could have used. But why not draw upon two that happen to intersect just so? Boxing and gang violence don’t have the same media attention of NFL football and the Vick case. And media attention is part of the equation, don’t you think: the commercial-cultural glorification of ritualized violence. I suppose you could bring that element in by talking about the rise of gangsta. Maybe his next book.
        I just wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the guy. He’s observant. These days you can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

      • Gladwell’s method is take seemingly unrelated observations and try to show how they might be related. (He probably never even heard of dog fighting until the Vick story.) Sure, sometimes he tortures the observations and forces them to fit. He may have a slanted view, but at least he makes you think.

  7. Give us something on gun control.

    • Soon. Probably not this week tho.

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