Football is great! Except for when it isn’t. When it’s bad, football is awful as anything in American pop culture. It would be a disservice to ignore that reality in this preview. So we look straight at the two most prominent awfuls this week: the many evils of the NCAA in its selling out of college football, and the scourge of head trauma suffered by football players.
The NCAA Is An Evil Cartel That Should DIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIE
The timing of this preview is fortuitous. Just last Friday, the NCAA suffered a headline-grabbing legal loss in what is known as the O’Bannon case. In short, Ed O’Bannon was a basketball star for UCLA in the 90’s and discovered that the NCAA was still profiting off his image and likeness through licensed images and video games without his consent or any payments to him. He called shenanigans and rightfully so. (By the way, the publisher of those games, Electronic Arts, settled out of court with the plaintiffs and announced they would not make another highly lucrative game in the series. They were afraid of the size of damages a jury might find against their blatant exploitation of players like the James Ross III, Courtney Avery, and Carlos Hyde. Only the NCAA is trying to fight this because they are the worst.)
As Vox spells out here, the ruling goes against the NCAA stopping schools from giving full cost off attendance scholarships (which they somehow did not until now). It also lets schools put up to $5,000 per year in a trust fund for athletes in football and men’s basketball. The players can access that money when their athletic eligibility expires (i.e. when they leave school). Both those things are awesome leaps forward, but only strike against a few of the awful rules and institutions held in place by the NCAA.
In public, the NCAA is a bureaucracy dedicated to the rule of amateurism in collegiate sports because that keeps the competition pure. Or something. In reality, the NCAA is a predatory cartel that colludes with member schools to fix labor costs at zero for an entertainment industry worth billions in TV revenue, ticket sales, and merchandising. Amateurism is the key idea that the NCAA has based its credibility on. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken has trashed that as a legal position going forward. In her ruling, as in the minds of any person familiar with post-Civil war labor laws in this country, the idea of not paying revenue-generating workers is simply not acceptable. But it’s worth mentioning where the ideal of amateurism comes from.
As Matt Hinton laid out in Deadspin this spring, amateur players were a given when football was first popularized. No professional league but Major League Baseball was reputable or paid well, and most prominent players were almost all patrician “Musuclar Christians” at Ivy League institutions. By the time collegiate sports became massive revenue-generators, the idea of amateur “student athletes” (a phrase coined to deny workman’s comp claims for the widow of a man killed playing college football in 1955) was firmly enmeshed. What bureaucratic cartel has ever funneled new-found millions down the pipe to workers rather than enriching themselves? Oh right. None.
So here we are. It’s 2014 and the NCAA is a teetering giant that still swings its weight around like a modern Kellogg brother. Athletes try to unionize and the NCAA calls it disgustingly commercial and exploitative while engaging in this. More people than ever see the hypocrisy and the NCAA has few powerful supporters. It’s just a matter of time until the institution as it stands now collapses completely. The future can’t come fast enough.
Football Can Actually Make You Die
It’s no secret that football is a violent game. As that Deadspin article mentioned, the sport’s first regulations were put in place under Teddy Roosevelt’s purview because the first few decades regularly saw players dying on the field. Football no longer sees protection-free scrums like this, but grave dangers remain. Last fall, PBS’s Frontline documentary series aired an episode titled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The two-part expose dove into the growing medical consensus that playing football dramatically increases the odds of sustaining serious head trauma.
“Well, duh. Right?” To a point. But the severity of these injuries and the incredibly legal and moral contortions the NFL engages in to suppress that severity was jaw-dropping. Specifically, the NFL has fought for years to discredit the causal relationship between playing professional football and later developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that replaces healthy brain tissue with tau protein. Its effects are similar to dementia, but can only be diagnosed post-mortem. The disease has seen a recent rise in notoriety because several retired NFL players, most notably former superstar linebacker Junior Seau, committed suicide and CTE was found in their brains. The killer line in League of Denial comes when a CTE researcher recalls a NFL doctor telling him “Bennett, do you know the implications of what you’re doing? If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.” That’s a message that should be taken to heart.
I love football. I will watch it for hundreds of hours this fall. But when I have kids they will never be allowed to play tackle football because it’s just too damn dangerous. No one’s brain should be subject to repeated traumatic injuries in the name of entertainment. What League of Denial brought home is that the game needs to be changed to increase player safety. I don’t know what that will look like exactly, though something like the 7-on-7 style seems likely. It has to happen, though, no matter how that affects the play on the field. To not do so would be to condemn many more men to a pre-mature death.