Hard Knocks: College Football’s Wake-Up Call

First off, let’s get one thing straight: college football isn’t going away. Neither is pro football, nor Pop Warner, nor high school. Football is America’s national pastime, baseball having flushed away decades of goodwill with the steroid era. College and pro football are both billion-dollar industries that fascinate us with fast-paced gameplay, dramatic storylines, and of course, those train-wreck hits. But it’s those same hits that have everyone from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to President Obama concerned about the game’s violence. And if it’s too dangerous for the pros, what does that mean for amateur college athletes?

A Bloody History

Those familiar with the history of the game know that violence is nothing new, and that in the early days death was a not-uncommon visitor to the gridiron. In fact, over a century before President Obama voiced his worry over college players facing “concussions and so forth,” President Teddy Roosevelt called a meeting of several university football team representatives to push for safety measures after 19 boys were killed during regulation time in 1905. Four years later, the five-year tally was 113 dead, and finally changes began to take shape.

Out went the freedom to perform a “flying tackle,” a dangerous hit where a player launches himself off the ground into the ballcarrier. Also banned was the popular blocking method whereby players locked arms with each other to form a mobile wall. Nevertheless, helmets would not become mandatory in college football until 1939, and even they haven’t been enough to put an end to death by sport.

From 1931-2006, the number of fatalities directly or indirectly caused by football action at just the college level has averaged about 2.5 per year, with hundreds of severe injuries. For high school, the numbers for that period are far worse: nearly 15 fatalities a year on average, with concussions increasing 8% annually from 1997 to 2008, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

The Rise of Brain Damage

Brain injury has become the elephant in the room for this sport that from the beginning has encouraged a culture where injured players are supposed to rub some dirt on it and get back out there. Only recently have we come to recognize the mortal danger of repeat concussions, or even just single traumatic blows to the head, which can be lethal in either the short- or long-term. In both cases, the results are tragic.

In the short-term, it’s high school- and college-aged kids who suffer spinal injuries or die after sustaining too many hard hits. Those that are fortunate enough to later thrive as college and pro athletes will absorb countless more hits, and almost certainly at least a handful of concussions, before they finally hang up their cleats. Far from being in the clear at that point, however, we now know the damage that has been done to their bodies will return to visit them, to stay with them.

Even worse than the shot knees, the aching backs, the arms that can’t be raised past 45 degrees, are the effects on the brain from all those blows given and taken, even if they aren’t concussive. The doctors call the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. It’s accompanied by memory loss, dementia, aggression, and depression, and by the looks of research beginning to emerge on former NFL players, it’s an epidemic.

Though a couple instances had occurred as far back as the early 2000s, many fans’ first encounter with the term “CTE” came with the news of former NFL journeyman safety Dave Duerson shooting himself in the chest in February 2011, leaving behind a note reading, “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Fourteen months later, CTE sufferer and former Atlanta Falcon Ray Easterling also committed suicide. The next month, an even younger man took his own life. Beloved former San Diego linebacker Junior Seau (age 43) shot himself in the chest so that, like Duerson, his CTE-racked brain might also be preserved for study.

Unfortunately, CTE death is not native to the pros, possibly not even CTE-driven suicide. In 2010, an autopsy revealed University of Pennsylvania lineman Owen Thomas had early signs of CTE before he took his own life, despite never having been diagnosed with a concussion. Doctors cautioned against blaming the ailment as the primary cause of his suicide. The previous year, a 42-year-old former player had become the first former player diagnosed with CTE to die. As has happened in the pros, college players have begun to file lawsuits — in their case against the NCAA — alleging the Association did not do enough to protect them from injury.

Positive Changes

The NCAA is not waiting around to see whether the courts agree with the players that it hasn’t done its due diligence to keep student athletes safe. Before the 2012 season, the NCAA created a rule requiring players who lose their helmet during a play to sit out the following play. It also announced that kickoffs, a notorious source of injuries, would be moved to the 35-yard-line in the hopes of fewer runbacks. But some coaches, like Rutgers’ Greg Schiano and Georgia’s Mark Richt, have supported the idea of throwing out kickoffs altogether.

While these coaches represent the more radical end of the spectrum, colleges are researching to find ways to make the game safer. The Virginia Tech Hokies were the first to experiment with football helmets outfitted with sensors to measure the forces of impact from tackles. These Head Impact Telemetry Systems are now part of helmets used by the University of North Carolina, Brown University, and the University of Oklahoma. Purdue used the helmets to determine 700 was the safe limit for number of hits to a helmet in a season (the average player takes over 1,000). Stanford has installed $100,000 worth of high-speed cameras to study collisions in slow-motion.

Encouraging developments have also come at the conference level. The Big Ten has ramped up penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, dropping suspensions on players that make such tackles. In 2011, the Ivy League announced it would restrict its teams to just two full-contact practices a week, three fewer than the maximum allowed by the NCAA. It was also the first to enforce tough punishments on players for high hits.

High school players have recently received some much-needed protective measures, as well. In the last few years, many states have been addressing the issue of return time after a concussion. Washington State’s 2009 Lystedt Law — named for a junior high school player who was hospitalized for two years after suffering multiple concussions in a single game — requires players to be cleared by a doctor before returning to the field. Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. have since passed similar laws. Some require students to have parent-signed concussion information forms on file before they can don a jersey.

The Smart Athlete’s Survival Guide

Despite these institutional changes, the bottom line is that football as we know it will always be a violent game. It’s always up to luck or fate which athletes make it through unscathed, but the smart college football players can and should take responsibility for their own well-being as much as it is in their power by considering a few key points.

Glory is temporary, pain is forever. Some may notice we’ve reversed a popular cliche, versions of which have ushered forth from such male heroes as Bart Simpson and Lance Armstrong (well, former heroes, anyway). We reverse it because as obvious as it would seem to someone who’s never been there, the urge to sacrifice the body for school, coach, team, and the potential adulation of the country can seem like a no-brainer reason to play through pain, even when the body is screaming no. Many players lie to doctors to ensure they don’t miss playing time. But in so doing, young athletes are putting themselves at serious risk.

Though they’ve gotten much more vigilant about forcing players to sit out after a big, potentially injurious hit, coaches have a job to do, and some of them are not above fielding players who medically should not be playing. At the pro level, this is unquestionably the norm, but college athletes are also given strong painkillers to help them get through gamedays. Only two schools have banned the use of generic versions of Toradol, a post-operative drug that is not monitored by the NCAA and that carries the risk of fatal heart attack and organ failure.

Parents need to hold coaches accountable for prioritizing their sons’ health over wins. For their part, student athletes have to be courageous enough to bench themselves when they’re hurt. At 20 years of age, any glory they stand to get from aggravating an injury is not worth the risk of a lifetime of suffering. It might also help them to keep the following in mind …

Only 1.7% of college football players go pro. Odds are, if you’re a college football player, you know if you have any chance in hell of going pro. You have to be not only the best, most talked-about player on your team, you have to be one of the best 200 or so players in the nation. Going just by the odds, it’s almost certainly not going to happen to you. So is it worth lying to the team doctor about blacking out after that last play just so you can get back in the game? If there’s no million-dollar signing bonus hanging in the balance, the answer is no.

So hit the books. Even if you were to win the lottery and get drafted into the NFL, take a look at the number of pro players — both active and retired — who’ve gone back to school for MBAs and other degrees and ask yourself why millionaires would need to worry about a silly old college degree. It’s because many of them sacrificed their education for practice time, and when they hit the jackpot with their NFL contracts, they didn’t know how to spend the money wisely or how to sustain themselves when the contracts ran out.

If you’re a college football player, the worst bet you can make is that you will move on to the NFL. Take your education seriously so that, at the very least, you’ll have it to fall back on after they’ve inducted you into the Hall of Fame.

What Lies Ahead

We said at the start that college football is not going anywhere. But just to play devil’s advocate, what would a world without college football look like? The NFL recruitment process would change dramatically, without a ready pool of candidates to choose from. ESPN and other broadcasters would miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars, as would the schools with the biggest programs. But a huge chunk of schools would actually save money — according to the NCAA, 43% of them lose money every year.

A slightly less radical idea that is creeping ever closer to the mainstream is paying college athletes for their services. In the context of the health risks they shoulder, the courts may eventually decide — and they’ll have to be the ones to decide — that student athletes should be compensated for assuming those risks. Those who see such a move as the end of college football might turn out to be right, as all schools but those with the biggest programs might opt to just cut their teams rather than pay their players.

In the end, American college football fans will have to ask themselves what they want to see from the game. If they insist that play remains as hard-hitting as it has been, they’ll have to get comfortable with seeing paralyzed players carted off the field and footage of mothers crying in the stands. But if they’d rather every young football player be able to walk across the stage at graduation, they’ll need to keep an open mind about their beloved game. For our money, we hope the future of college football is one where, in the words of the president, we don’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.

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