The New Yorker Turns Against Football

As the NFL and college football seasons open in earnest this week, The New Yorker has ratcheted up its criticisms of the sport, blaming football for the death of author Jack Kerouac and the problems of American education.

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The day after the opening game of the NFL season, The New Yorker published two separate articles lamenting the problems caused by football. This, of course, comes from the magazine that employs Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author who once compared football to dogfighting and has been a vocal opponent of football's violence. In other words, it feels like The New Yorker is exercising some unnecessary roughness.

The NFL and college football seasons open in earnest this week, in time for which occasion The New Yorker ratcheted up its criticisms of the sport today, essentially blaming football for the death of author Jack Kerouac and the problems of American education.

In the former story, for the Sporting Scene blog, Ian Scheffler details the potential impacts of football on author Jack Kerouac's angry alcoholism and early death at age 47. Kerouac himself blamed those mental issues on other events, including a drunken street fight during which his head was slammed into the curb. "I just noticed today it all began last April right after that bum pounded my brain ... Maybe I got brain damage," Kerouac wrote in a letter. "[M]aybe once I was kind drunk, but now am brain-clogged drunk with the kindness valve clogged by injury." In addition, Kerouac noted in his journal the problems could have been caused by a violent car accident that sent him to the hospital. For Kerouac, the case was one of those two.

Conspicuously not mentioned in Kerouac's explanation was his football-playing childhood during a time before sideline doctors, before knowledge that repeated hits could cause chronic tramautic encephalopathy (CTE), even before helmets were used.

In his autobiography, Kerouac wrote about one play that sounds an awful lot like a football-caused concussion. As Scheffler writes:

About to score, he feels a pull at the back of his neck—one of his opponents grabbing him by the shoulder pads and yanking him to the muddy turf. He loses consciousness. Once he wakes up, his coaches deem him fit to return to the game. Standing in the huddle, he asks himself, “What are we doing on this rainy field that tilts over in the earth, the earth is crooked, where am I? Who am I? What’s all that?”

Was Jack Kerouac's early death caused by football concussions? It's an intriguing question and one that certainly plays into many of the criticisms of football today. It's also entirely conjecture and speculation, though that doesn't stop Scheffler from trying to answer it:

“Kerouac had all of the symptoms of C.T.E.,” Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and co-director of Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, told me. “I don’t think it’s possible, especially since you cannot be certain about the presence of C.T.E. without examining somebody’s brain, to other than speculate about whether he may have had some of his issues as a result of brain trauma. My gut feeling is he did.”

Scheffler talks to other doctors and spokespeople that repeat a similar story — Kerouac's many head injuries could have expedited his alcoholism and led to his death. Football being foremost among those injuries.

But football's biggest problem isn't just concussions, as The New Yorker points out in a highly opinionated post titled, "Have Sports Teams Brought Down America's Schools?" The answer is to be expected. Places with better math and reading programs than America — countries ranging from Poland to South Korea to Singapore — also don't have football (or many sports programs at all, for that matter).

Coincidence? Elizabeth Kolbert says probably not. Citing a recent book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World, Kolbert notes that American parents and students preferred the emphasis on sports in schools and teamwork that the culture emphasizes. “Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football,” Ripley concluded.

The issues football must deal with continue to grow, from concussions to its friction with education. Those are fair points for The New Yorker to bring up. But one could also wonder if — especially given Gladwell's incendiary statements about the sport — some of its writers harbor an unfounded bias against the sort.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.