Thrill of Victory

Could concussion liabilities bring down college football?

Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the famous book Friday Night Lights, makes no bones about being a football fan. So last Friday, when Bissinger wrote in the Wall Street Journal about how college football should be banned, it got a lot of people’s attention.

Bissinger’s argument is based on the premise that “college football has no academic purpose.” I’ve also been a frequent critic of the reluctance of NCAA’s member institutions in policing obvious ethical abuses happening under their noses – especially those matters involving academics. Unlike Bissinger, though, I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Using his line of reasoning, we might as well throw out fraternities and sororities, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or any other non-academic club. Doing away with any of those institutions would be a mistake.

A big part of college is learning social skills, setting goals, and assuming responsibility for your actions, and there may be no better place to grow in those regards than to play college sports. Not to mention the fact that college football is loads of fun for us fans, and provides jobs for a lot of people, too. (I do agree with the need for a minor league system, but that was a blog post on another day.)

Anyway, it’s sort of a moot point; agree or disagree with Bissinger, college football is far too popular to go anywhere on its own accord. But Bissinger’s manifesto got me to thinking: is there any way where college football could become obsolete? While it’s unlikely, I’m beginning to see a way, and it has nothing to do with academics. Hold that thought for a moment.

Saints’ story hits at something bigger
In case you’ve been under a rock for the last few weeks, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell threw the book at the New Orleans Saints for their orchestration of a bounty scheme in which coaches paid Saints players to deliberately injure opponents. Goodell has always been strict in handing down punishments as to preserve the league’s reputation, but make no mistake: there were probably some alternative motivations as well.

Specifically, there has been increasing concern about the physical and mental health of NFL players. The growing perception is that the league has not taken care of its players, and right now, over 1,700 former players have leveled health-related suits at the NFL. That cry only gained more traction when a former player alleged that Junior Seau, who committed suicide last week, may have had as many as 1,500 concussions.

The NFL knew it had to act sternly with the Saints, which it rightfully did. But I can’t help but wonder: how much of what the NFL did to the Saints is to cover its own hide? And what’s the chance that the NFL is sitting on explosive information regarding the health of its players that hasn’t gone public?

They’re not football players – they’re student-athletes!
For years, the NCAA has referred to the players which play its sports as “student-athletes.” We’ve all played along willfully, because we all like to entertain some romantic notion that the players we cheer for on Saturdays are hitting the books like there’s no tomorrow the other six days of the week, and twice on Sundays. In many cases, there’s some truth in that view, but the whole truth is that the NCAA coined the term to avoid worker’s compensation liability . That hasn’t deterred former athletes from challenging the NCAA’s responsibility in court, as four former athletes already did last fall in Arrington v. National Collegiate Athletic Association et al, a suit which is still pending trial in U.S. District Court.

This begs the question: what happens if this suit is successful? Since the NCAA had revenues of $845.9 million for the 2010-11 academic year, you can probably guess.

Should NCAA football ever seek to exist, it won’t be because college presidents banded together singing Kumbaya in the name of academic integrity. It’ll be because a judge somewhere looks at the revenues that football brings and cries foul when the NCAA tries to escape liability for the well-being of the “student athletes” who provided it.