College football has been taking some pretty hard hits lately. With disgruntled players considering unionizing and lawsuits over revenue sharing, I can no longer pretend it’s just a game. Ignoring the legal issues to focus on the field doesn’t help. Every bone-crushing tackle makes me cringe and worry about the serious risk of brain injury to the players.
Nevertheless, I confess: I can’t wait for Saturday. I’ll watch a full two hours of pre-game coverage and analysis on ESPN. I’ll proudly wear the Maize and Blue of my alma mater, University of Michigan. At kick-off, I’ll be in position in front of my 60-inch flat screen where I will remain – and there will be silence – until the clock reads 00:00.
But I won’t feel entirely good about it. College football has become a guilty pleasure.
I used to watch games with such joyful and overwhelming enthusiasm – the sport was all about school spirit, athleticism, and sportsmanship – not to mention promising young men earning college degrees while taking the field for the love of the game. What’s not to like?
Plenty, according to recent media coverage.
In April, the National Labor Relations Board voted that Northwestern University football players are employees rather than students, and can vote to unionize.
By late summer, a federal judge ruled that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) couldn’t prevent athletes from selling rights to their names and images, essentially opening the door for them to be paid to play.
Worst of all, new research on brain injuries indicates that even college football players who don’t suffer concussions show changes in brain structure and cognitive performance. I have never jumped for joy when an opposing player limps off the field, but now I can’t even celebrate the big plays in which no one appears to get hurt.
I’m not sure how I will get through Saturday’s festivities. Beer may help.
But I don’t buy that all the news is bad.
I still believe football players are not employees but student athletes – and the “student“ part comes first. The data back me up: Division 1 football players have a 71% Graduation Success Rate (a percentage which outperforms their non-athlete peers and has been increasing).
As for “pay to play,” it’s not necessary. Scholarship athletes often get accepted to universities they could never attend on their credentials alone – a priceless benefit by itself, not to mention free tuition, room, and board. Of course some football teams earn money for their schools, but individual contributions are negligible. If the top 2 players from every Division 1 football program dropped out tomorrow, those schools would not lose a cent of revenue.
So I don’t feel guilty because players aren’t really receiving an education (they are) or because they aren’t properly compensated for their contributions (again, they are). The head injury risk is harder to get over.
All of us who watch football expect to see injuries sometimes – it’s a rough game, but sprained ankles and torn ACL’s will heal. The brain, however, is tricky. Best-case scenario, a player with brain injuries sometimes loses his keys or has moments of forgetfulness. Worst case, he suffers from chronic traumatic encephalopathy and its terrible symptoms like depression, aggression, and dementia.
Can anyone enjoy watching football anymore?
I intend to try on Saturday. My school spirit is still strong and my heart will beat faster when the marching band (of which I was a proud member at Michigan) plays the fight song. I can’t not watch. I will feel a little guilty for liking it.
Advances in helmet technology, brain injury research, and even changes to game rules may alleviate some of the risk (and also my guilt) in the future. I sincerely hope it does, because I love my college football.
But players’ brains are more important.