Like baby birds with yawning beaks, college football fans clamor to be fed. So fasten the chin strap on your helmet — ignore the warning label on it (“No helmet system can protect you from serious brain and/or neck injuries including paralysis or death. To avoid these risks, do not engage in the sport of football.”) — and enjoy the seasonal festival of physical carnage, institutional derangement and moral seaminess.
Louisiana State University offensive lineman Josh Williford will, however, leave his helmet off, the 22-year-old having just retired from the sport rather than risk another concussion. A third concussion triples the risk of clinical depression for those with no prior symptoms, and autopsies performed on 334 deceased NFL players “found that they were three times more likely than the general population to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS,” Lou Gehrig’s disease. These figures are from a Wall Street Journal essay defending football from critics. These critics must admit that big-time college football, although a peculiar appendage of institutions of higher learning, is at least adding to our knowledge of brains by fueling studies of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the cumulative effect of repeated, small “subconcussive” blows to the head.
Football’s doughty defenders note that other recreational activities, such as bicycling, injure more participants. But only in football is long-term injury the result not of accidents but of the game played properly, meaning within the rules. Rules could be changed by, for example, eliminating kickoffs, with their high-velocity collisions, and barring the three-point stance, whereby linemen begin each play with their heads down and helmet-to-helmet collisions are likely. But such changes could be made only over the dead bodies of fans who relish mayhem from safe distances.
The broadcast and cable organizations that pay billions for the rights to televise football have an incentive not to call attention to health problems. Gushers of money are generated by football’s amateurs, who enable other people to get rich while getting fired.
Gregg Easterbrook, an intelligent journalist who nevertheless loves football, has a new book (“The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America”) that is hardly a love letter. “At many big-college sports programs,” he writes, “the athletic department is structured as an independent organization that leases campus space and school logos, then operates a tax-exempt business over which the school’s president and board of trustees have little control.”
Easterbrook notes that when Auburn won the 2010 national championship, its net football income was $37 million, just a bit less than the $43 million of that season’s NFL champion, the Green Bay Packers. Auburn’s head coach, Gene Chizik, was paid $3.5 million that year (in most states, the highest-paid person on the public payroll is a university coach), a sum justified because, said Auburn’s $600,000 athletic director, “Coach Chizik is a great mentor to our student-athletes.”
Two years later, Chizik’s mentoring greatness counted for less than his 3-9 win-loss record. He was fired, the blow cushioned by a $7.5 million buyout, more than the approximately $5 million Auburn had paid to buy out Chizik’s predecessor.
In 2012, the University of Tennessee fired its losing coach with a $5 million severance — and the athletic department (annual revenue, more than $70 million) was given a three-year exemption from its annual $6 million contribution to the university’s academic side. In 2011, Michigan paid $1 million to San Diego State University so Michigan could hire that university’s coach, paying him $3.3 million (plus up to $500,000 in bonuses for victories) to replace the fired coach to whom Michigan had paid a $2.5 million severance. That was the same sum Michigan had paid in a buyout to pry the coach it was firing away from West Virginia. In 2011, Texas Tech gave its head coach a $500,000 raise while freezing faculty salaries.
Payouts can be financed by selling everything, including the naming rights to football positions. The 2007 North Carolina State media guide thanked people for “scholarship endowments,” including the “Ed ‘Scooter’ Mooney Nose Guard Scholarship,” the “Longley Family Punter Scholarship” and 12 others.
Meanwhile, to preserve college football’s purity, the NCAA has approximately 70 pages of stern rules about dealing with recruits: “An institution may provide fruit, nuts and bagels to a student-athlete at any time.” Cookies? See the relevant regulation. In 2008, Easterbrook notes, the Raleigh News & Observer “reported that University of North Carolina football and men’s basketball players were enrolled in email Swahili ‘courses’ that had no instructors and never met and always led to A’s.” There was, however, no evidence of cookie corruption.