Malcolm Gladwell provides a thought-provoking take on football and dogfighting in this week’s New Yorker. Essentially, he provides a synthesis of the latest brain studies that reveal the cause of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in former football players. The accumulation of blows to the head leads to depression, aggression, memory loss and dementia. Then he draws the link to dogfighting—through Michael Vick—suggesting that how we condoned the treatment of fighting dogs in the 19th century is analogous to our attitude about football today.
Gladwell doesn’t explore the issue of choice (humans have it; dogs don’t; although for some football players, particularly those who are poor and undereducated, free choice is not as free as it sounds). Instead, he’s interested in our attitudes about contests that culminate in suffering and destruction “for the entertainment of an audience and a chance at a payday.” Fans may love their teams but they are complicit in some of the players’ demise. After reading about how the linemen, in particular, suffer in their later years, I feel sick about it.
At the end of the piece, Gladwell visits Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, where 17 of Vick’s Pit Bulls live out their days, cared for in extraordinary ways.
“What happens at Best Friends represents, by any measure, an extravagant gesture,” Gladwell writes. “But the kind of crime embodied by dogfighting is so morally repellent that it demands an extravagant gesture in response.”
Later he quotes from a 1984 study on dogfighting that claims it is the dog’s desire “to please its master” that drives him or her in the ring. “That is why Michael Vick’s dogs weren’t euthanized,” Gladwell writes. “The betrayal of loyalty requires an act of social reparation.”
I haven’t seen it put quite this way but I think he has captured something essential about society's work in helping to rescue fighting dogs. Now, who will rescue the football players?