Intelligence Squared

“Hey, It Worked for Me”

Why Jason Whitlock will argue that college football should not be banned at the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate on May 8 in New York City.

Jason Whitlock
Jason Whitlock.

Photograph courtesy

Jason Whitlock’s personal experience lies at the core of his support for college football. An offensive lineman for Ball State University, Whitlock cites his years on the team as crucial practice for his later work in journalism. “When I look at my No. 1 success as a columnist,” he says, “it’s my ability to deal with diversity issues.” Nothing teaches grace at the intersection of racial, religious, and class boundaries like playing football with students “from all walks of life.” To shore up his defense, Whitlock also invokes America’s free principles, which he feels encompass the “right to act dumb” in pursuit of athletic glory or even cash. What he can’t stand is the bad faith of college leagues withholding pay from their risk-taking players. (It’s “embarrassingly hypocritical,” he grumbles.)

Whitlock writes a national column for and contributes to Fox Sports radio. At the next Slate/Intelligence Squared debate on May 8, he will combine powers with former NFL player and author Tim Green to counter the motion that college football should die a swift death. Across the field, Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger will champion the motion. I recently spoke to Whitlock about “shamateurism,” the point of a college education, and the inherent darkness of playing football. Here are excerpts of our conversation.     

Slate: You’ve written a lot on the “amateur idea” and its perversion. What is the amateur idea?

Jason Whitlock: That somehow there’s nobility in playing sports without financial gain or incentive. That there’s some integrity and advantage in playing the game for free.

Slate: Is the idea worthwhile in theory?

Whitlock: No. Not only is there no nobility in playing the game for free, but it also goes against America’s capitalistic values. And when everyone else involved in managing and putting on the game makes tons of money, and you ask the participants not to make any, that’s embarrassingly hypocritical.

Slate: Is that why you say that the NCAA has replaced amateurism with “shamateurism?”

Whitlock: Yeah, but I doubt they did it intentionally. Television exploded in such a way—it became such a driving force in the sports world and injected so much money into sports—that the NCAA became its slave. The NCAA is in the thrall of all the money being generated by sports on TV.

Slate: So what’s the solution?

Whitlock: The NCAA just needs to acknowledge that the rules they came up with when Walter Byers [NCAA president from 1951-1988] concocted his rulebook were from another time. Television wasn’t so influential in the sports world. They need to recognize that TV is the driving force now and to give the game a whole new set of rules.

Slate: What kinds of rules?

Whitlock: For one thing, they need to figure out a way to partner with the professional leagues, particularly in football and basketball, and financially compensate the athletes. Offering them academic opportunity is no longer enough. The NCAA should form a partnership with the NBA and NFL because they are the minor leagues for those sports. They’ve got to find a way to share some of the wealth with the actual participants.

Also, in developing that partnership, the NCAA should make academic achievement in college part of the financial incentive. They could say, “We’re going to share this wealth with you as long as you go to class and make a sincere attempt to educate yourself and work toward a degree while you’re here.”

Slate: Some colleges regularly do things like cancel classes the day of a major football game or postpone athletes’ finals. What kinds of academic sacrifices is it appropriate for schools to make for sports programs?

Whitlock: There is no hard-line answer to that, and I don’t want to be locked into one. A team’s athletic success, particularly in football and basketball, can uplift the spirit of the entire campus. I went to Ball State on a football scholarship. One of my favorite memories is that our basketball team made it all the way to the NCAA Sweet 16. That experience—celebrating with my friends on the basketball team—happened 21 or so years ago and I still remember it vividly.

Look, a big team’s athletic success drives donations to all of the school, not just the sports programs. There’s no reason to ignore that athletic teams are a big part of the college experience in a positive way. Schools should make concessions to the teams that participate in that and provide students with once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

At the same time, I’d assume there’s probably some excess going on. It’s like alcohol. Some people drink it in moderation and some go way too far with it. That doesn’t mean we should prohibit alcohol.

Slate: What’s the goal of a college education? Does being a student athlete help or hinder someone trying to achieve that goal?

Whitlock: The four or five years you’re supposed to spend in college are about your intellectual and social evolution. One of the biggest incentives I would offer for participation in college sports, particularly football, is that it gives many people their first experience of American diversity. Not just ethnic, but financial, religious, and class-based. You have players from all walks of life, and you throw them into a locker room with a shared goal.

You don’t go to college just for the books. I can pick out athletes by the way they conduct themselves socially—they’re more advanced. I’m not talking about their primitive dealings with whomever. But in terms of being able to work with people across different class and religious boundaries, they’re better at that than the rest of society, because they’ve participated in goal-oriented group activities that confront them with diversity. If you join some fraternity where everyone looks just like you and their dad makes just as much money as yours, it’s different.

Slate: But putting Greek life aside for a second, don’t most extracurricular activities expose students to diversity?  

Whitlock: No, not at all. Take the band. Whoever comes to school and plays in the band probably isn’t from some inner city. To be honest with you, they bend the rules academically to let athletes in. I don’t know that they do that to let band members in. I think not: They don’t recruit from around the country for band members. Most extracurricular activities—they’re all similar people for the most part. I’d guess the football team is the most diverse group of people on campus.

Slate: Is that one reason you’ll argue for keeping college football around at the debate?

Whitlock: Without a doubt. It will probably be at the center of my defense. When I look at my No. 1 success as a columnist, it’s my ability to deal with diversity issues, race issues, class issues. I draw on my experiences of college football and all the different people I dealt with and the way I was able to connect with them across racial and financial lines. I was that guy that got along with everybody. Playing college football was a great laboratory for me as a journalist.

Slate: What else did you learn on the football field?

Whitlock: It’s probably more that college football revealed my natural personality. I’ve always been very outspoken and very concerned about fairness, particularly as it relates to race. We had a situation on our football team where two guys got in a fight, one black, one white. We were all at this football party. And the coaches somehow kicked the black guy off the team. I got in a lot of trouble for bitching about it to the coaches: I remember being called into the head coach’s office and getting yelled at. He asked if I was trying to start racial trouble, and I said, “No, no. I’m not. I’m trying to tell you that the way you handled this situation started racial trouble.” Eventually they rescinded the decision and brought the black kid back. But it cost me some political capital—in fact, I was never liked by the coaches, because it was hard to control my opinions.

Look, the coaching staff wasn’t so comfortable with some of our best football players, especially the ones that came from major cities. They tended to think the guys were all thugs.

Slate: Let’s turn to the brain damage issue. Would you play college football again, knowing about the medical risks?

Whitlock: I would, out of machismo and maybe stupidity and this sense of “hey, it worked for me.” We didn’t have a lot of information about concussions back then. Who knows: Maybe I’ll have Alzheimer’s or whatever. For right now, 23 years later, I’m fine. I would still do it, and I think most guys would. But that’s why I think the players should be financially compensated. People argue that the education is enough: It’s not.   

Slate: If research definitively proves that football players experience dementia at a higher rate than non-players, is that legitimate grounds for ending college football?

Whitlock: There’s risk in everything. If we still let guys join the army and go off to war, understanding that there’s risk, then we should let people play college football.

Slate: You’ve written that “barbaric violence is the oxygen” of football—and that the best players tap into emotional pain in order to play better. You say, “In the hours leading up to the game, a good football player will focus his mind on the darkest, most painful things his mind can remember or imagine. If your father beat you, you think of that. If your brother was shot, you imagine your opponent pulling the trigger.” What makes the game worth it? What justifies that necessary “barbaric violence?”

Whitlock: Humans are imperfect. It’s America—we’re based on freedom. Porn is horrible and destructive. Hell, McDonald’s is horrible and destructive, but we haven’t outlawed McDonalds. So as long as Ronald McDonald can inject kids with cancer and diabetes and everything else, why is football any worse than that? We have chosen to live in a capitalistic democracy where people have the right to act dumb, and we need to accept that. We’ve created a sport that is very popular and financially lucrative that requires people to do really stupid shit and tap into their barbaric nature. I guess that’s the price of freedom.

Slate: But for you personally?

Whitlock: Say, as a high school player, I was able to tap into whatever dark emotions I had and it led to me playing well, so I made all-state and got a football scholarship. Now I’m the first person from my family to go off to college. Yeah, I think it was worth it. 

Slate: Studies show that grades drop school-wide when sports teams do well. Avid fandom eats into study time. Also, boosterism and athlete worship can make regular students feel like second-class citizens at their universities. Should the experience of nonathletes be taken into consideration in the debate over banning college football?

Whitlock: No way. Give me a break. 

Slate: How realistic is the end of college football?

Whitlock: This is America. There’s too much money being made. Get in line behind porn and a bunch of other stuff that we allow to go on. No, it’s not even remotely a possibility.

(Laughs) We’re living in a society where we think a handgun makes us safe. People would rather end it all than give up their guns and actually have safety in America. Trust me, they’re just as stupid about football.