A Year Without Kickoffs

For the first time in decades, I have no idea what the University of Michigan’s football team is doing this weekend. None. I suspect that they’re playing Notre Dame (or that they already have, or soon will), since it’s that time of season.

But I don’t know, because I’m trying to quit. Again.

I love football. I grew up on the stuff. My family had (has) season tickets to the Big House in Ann Arbor, and every fall I handed the keys to my emotions to the team’s captains. I told people that I planned to be Leroy Hoard when I grew up, or—later on—Tyrone Wheatley. I had no other substantive career aspirations beyond starting as a tailback for the Maize and Blue, though I generally supposed that I’d have a Hall of Fame career with the Bears. Until I was eight or nine, all of my favorite books were Matt Christopher‘s football stories. No exaggeration—in elementary school, I filled the margins of every single page of schoolwork with enormously complex diagrams of football formations and plays (years later I downloaded a free demo of Playmaker Football and was pretty much enraptured for a month).

In sixth grade, my class read parts of the Canterbury Tales (a kid-ified version). As a capstone project, we were asked to write our own morality tales. Naturally, I wrote a story where a skinny nerd with curly hair singlehandedly engineers a full-field two-minute drill to win the Super Bowl. The moral, as I saw it, was that adversity can be overcome. The teacher, unfortunately, recognized the real moral for what it was: football is awesome, and I loved it. She (justly) gave me a “Below Expectations” (as opposed to “Exceeds” or “Meets”).

Even after it became clear that skinny, curly-haired nerds have no future as starting tailbacks in junior high, let alone at the NCAA level, I fantasized that my vaguely passable punting skills might someday convince Gary Moeller to let me join the team as a walk-on.

I could go on, since self-deprecation comes naturally to Midwesterners discussing their overt passions for, well, anything. But I’ll spare you—suffice it to say that my football roots are deep.

Over the last few years, though, things changed. Dave Duerson killed himself. Junior Seau—one of my favorite players growing up—killed himself. Research started turning up stuff like this:

Take the experience of a young defensive lineman for the University of North Carolina football team, who suffered two concussions during the 2004 season. His case is one of a number studied by Kevin Guskiewicz, who runs the university’s Sports Concussion Research Program. For the past five seasons, Guskiewicz and his team have tracked every one of the football team’s practices and games using a system called HITS, in which six sensors are placed inside the helmet of every player on the field, measuring the force and location of every blow he receives to the head. Using the HITS data, Guskiewicz was able to reconstruct precisely what happened each time the player was injured.

“The first concussion was during preseason. The team was doing two-a-days,” he said, referring to the habit of practicing in both the morning and the evening in the preseason. “It was August 9th, 9:55 A.M. He has an 80-g hit to the front of his head. About ten minutes later, he has a 98-g acceleration to the front of his head.” To put those numbers in perspective, Guskiewicz explained, if you drove your car into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour and you weren’t wearing your seat belt, the force of your head hitting the windshield would be around 100 gs: in effect, the player had two car accidents that morning. He survived both without incident. “In the evening session, he experiences this 64-g hit to the same spot, the front of the head. Still not reporting anything. And then this happens.” On his laptop, Guskiewicz ran the video from the practice session. It was a simple drill: the lineman squaring off against an offensive player who wore the number 76. The other player ran toward the lineman and brushed past him, while delivering a glancing blow to the defender’s helmet. “Seventy-six does a little quick elbow. It’s 63 gs, the lowest of the four, but he sustains a concussion.”

Everyone knows that concussions can have deleterious long-term health consequences. Everyone knows that football can paralyze a player in an instant. That’s why stadiums fall silent after hits like the one that felled Eric LeGrand. That’s why the NFL is cracking down on so-called “headhunting.”

But…

“There’s one last thing,” [Researcher Ann McKee] said. She pulled out a large photographic blowup of a brain-tissue sample. “This is a kid. I’m not allowed to talk about how he died. He was a good student. This is his brain. He’s eighteen years old. He played football. He’d been playing football for a couple of years.” She pointed to a series of dark spots on the image, where the stain had marked the presence of something abnormal. “He’s got all this tau. This is frontal and this is insular. Very close to insular. Those same vulnerable regions.” This was a teen-ager, and already his brain showed the kind of decay that is usually associated with old age. “This is completely inappropriate,” she said. “You don’t see tau like this in an eighteen-year-old. You don’t see tau like this in a fifty-year-old.”

This is what’s most chilling about the new research: what if the quotidian hits are also part of the problem? What if playing football IS approximately analogous to participating in demolition derbies? What if there’s no way to “fix” the violence without abandoning the core of the sport? (Freddie DeBoer is characteristically honest and uncharacteristically hard-hearted about this.)

And then I had a son—a growth-chart busting son, at that. At least twice a week someone tells me that he’s “built like a linebacker.” And everything about violence changed—football-based or otherwise. You need not be an effete, bi-coastal, left-wing elitist to want a full, healthy life for your kid. When I watched last season, I saw teams made up of sons. Where I once saw glittering, glorious dreams, I now saw futures in danger.

The worst part of it, though, was that I was a real Midwestern fan. I was convinced that the noblest football triumphs came on defense (something which I can’t really square with my obsession with playing tailback). I loved huge hits, but I also loved the grinding, willful pressure of Big Ten trench-warfare defense. To hell with “3 yards and a cloud of dust.” I wanted games that were literally fought over inches. That’s why Michigan’s 1997 National Championship was so gratifying—the defense took the lion’s share of the glamour.

That’s also why I had to quit. My favorite parts are precisely those that irreparably damage my heroes’ lives. I didn’t—and don’t—like what that said about me. Maybe that makes me a weak-kneed cosmopolitan. Maybe that reveals my lack of manhood. I don’t know. I hope not.

Some clarifications: No, I’m not asking someone (some thing?) to ban football. I doubt that we have the political will to do so. As a matter of political theory, I’m not even sure that we’d be right to do so. In particular that’s because players choose to play, despite sometimes knowing the attendant risks. It’s as much their prerogative to play the game as it is mine to choose to stop consuming.

Yes, for many, football offers an unrivaled path out of poverty. Of course, that success comes at a cost to their long-term health—and the overwhelming majority of football players will reap the health costs without seeing anything of the material rewards. I’m also loath to accept that the escape from poverty offers a sufficient balance to self-destruction in any serious moral calculus.

Yes, I’ll also acknowledge that many, even most, sports can damage participants for life (e.g. Tony Conigliaro, Taylor Twellman, et al). But very few sports—boxing? MMA?—are as systematically destructive to athletes’ brains as football…and I don’t watch those either.

Finally: I’m not (mostly) an evangelist about this. I don’t begrudge anyone their choice to spend their time and money on the game (my brother, a sports stats analyst, still loves it). But I’m done.

So why announce it at all? Why bother to write it publicly—especially given my documented disdain for writing that serves only to consciously self-display? I’m not saying much here that hasn’t been said by others. I suppose there are two reasons: 1) like many people who are trying to kick a habit, I suspect that I’ll be more accountable to my choice if I know that others know, and 2) thus far, many people have found my choice threatening.

So—as far as the latter goes, I’ll cop to a bit of proselytizing. I submit the foregoing considerations as a list of things that football fans ought to at least consider. If fans get defensive when asked to think about the sport’s consequences, surely that matters. Yes, I know that it’s a fool’s errand to ask for reflection from a sport which speaks in primal Bermanian grunts and honors unthinking toughness. As I see it, though, that’s precisely the point.


Conor P. Williams on TwitterFacebook, and in much greater detail

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67 thoughts on “A Year Without Kickoffs

  1. I’ll look for a link when I have more time, but a research report that came out not long ago looked at death rates among former professional football and baseball players. It looked at players who spent at least five seasons in either the NFL or MLB between 1959 and (IIRC) 1999. The surprising result is that the former MLB players had a slightly higher death rate than their football counterparts. While this may be partly attributable to the fact that there were more MLB than NFL players in the 1960’s (the AFL wasn’t considered) and therefore in the older, higher-risk age groups, the report does tend to undercut the belief that playing in the NFL shortens one’s lifespan.

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    • What Deadspin showed is that there is no meaningful difference in death rates when one controls for age. To the extent that the allegation is that football players have shortened lifespans, the “debunked” report is still significant.
      (Yes, I am aware of the quality-of-life issue, how that can be proven or disproven is another matter.)

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  2. I won’t be skipping the season, but I have no objection to those who do boycott. There is a need for some reform in the area of practice schedules and maybe padding and play time, and enough collective action against football may twist the correct arms.

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  3. Good lord, what’s with all the Wolverine fans around here? Surely we’re above our quota.

    But, Conor, despite being a member of maize nation, your discomfort with football does not mean you’re effete. I have a good friend who loves football passionately. Played high school and juco football and was recruited to play D1, still loves college football passionately and has season tickets to his alma mater’s games. But when his high school age son recently decided to give up football and focus on baseball, he was greatly relieved, very happy that his kid wasn’t taking those risks. You’re not alone. I think we’re just at the very beginning of the public reaction to the growing information about football’s dangers.

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  4. I have less of an issue with the sport itself than I do with the powers-that-be who still seem to be willing to trade safety for entertainment value, with entertainment value really just being a stand in for money. There are a number of steps the various Leagues could take that would do a lot for safety and wouldn’t compromise the quality of play or integrity of the game. But because they’d be viewed as radical and likely unpopular by fan bases that are largely opposed to any change reflexively, they are avoided.

    Adults should be free to engage in the activities they desire. If they can make a living doing so, all the better. And I wouldn’t criticize anyone who patronizes them. But I will criticize folks who claim to care about safety and almost unilaterally positioned to do something about safety not doing anything about safety.

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    • There are a number of steps the various Leagues could take that would do a lot for safety and wouldn’t compromise the quality of play or integrity of the game. But because they’d be viewed as radical and likely unpopular by fan bases that are largely opposed to any change reflexively, they are avoided.

      What do you have in mind?

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      • Possible ideas:
        – Weight/height restrictions
        – Allow more grabbing and holding at the line of scrimmage and down the field; maintain physicality without the high speed hits that the unencumbered movement allows for (H/T: Chuck Klosterman)
        – Modern helmet technology
        – Changing field dimensions
        – Eliminate rules that favor downfield passing and/or implement rules that favor rushing
        – If you want to get real crazy? Take away the helmets and at least some of the pads.
        – Expand rosters and allow for a Disabled List more akin to what other sports leagues use

        Furthermore, let’s stop using big hits to sell the game. Let’s stop trying to expand the season to 18 games. Let’s ensure that all players (not just QBs) are being appropriately evaluated for head trauma. Let’s get replacement officials off the field.

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  5. Y’all probably know I’m not a sports guy. But the OP makes passing reference to boxing, which I have a real problem with. I don’t want to outlaw it or anything, and I understand the skill involved; but a sport in which repeated blows to the head occur not just incidentally, but as part of the sport’s object, is deeply disturbing to me.

    The football thing is slightly different, obviously the head trauma is unintended, but it’s still disturbing. I seem to recall reading something a while back that compared the injury-rates and -types between rugby (with minimal protective equipment) and American-style football (with helmets and pads etc.).

    IIRC, rugby players sustain many more ‘cosmetic’-type injuries (broken noses, missing teeth, scars from cleats etc.) but fewer life- or brain-threatening ones.

    I also seem to recall reading the adding gloves to boxing paradoxically may have increased the incidence of brain-damaging blows (partly by adding weight and mass to the blow). I’ll see if I can dig these up.

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    • MMA actually causes less brain injuries than boxing, as a rule, for two reasons. The smaller gloves actually lead to a lower number of blows to the head (as a KO is more likely with less padded gloves), and there is a lot more to the sport than striking the head. It is still not good for you mentally, though, and absolutely brutal for your body in the long term.

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    • Collegiate women’s lacrosse is struggling with this issue right now. They’re being pressed to require head protection for their players, and they keep pointing to the increase in rough play in men’s lacrosse following the advent of head protection. There’s a classic example of perverse incentives at work there, although I don’t know what the actual data show (if there is/are any).

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      • I question whether adding helmets would make things worse even if play is rougher in some ways. I played hockey in HS and college. We always had to wear helmets. Hockey is a rough sport but i never saw anyone get a concussion. Plenty of checking, a couple of knee injuries and such; thats it. Play might get rougher but your head is protected.

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        • I think it also depends on how you’re measuring it. If two helmetless heads smack together, the result is likely going to be worse than two helmeted heads smacking together. But if you watch a single football play at the collegiate or NFL level, you likely see heads smack together a half-dozen times. In all the years I played pick-up tackle football, I think we might have seen a handful of head-to-head hits, if that.

          And hockey isn’t the best analogy for these sports because of the presence of the boards. The idea behind removing helmets is that you decrease the frequency of heads hitting hard objects. The boards remain a hard object; other sports don’t have stationary hard objects surrounding the field.

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          • Well yeah we got boards in hockey, which just goes to show how wimpy those other sports are.

            Helmets make things safer. Its the nature of the sport that causes problems. Football, as its played now with the freakishly large and fast people, is the cause of the all the injuries.

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            • I think the logic is that the way people play is impacted by their protective gear. People aren’t going to put their heads down, close their eyes, and dive headfirst into someone without a helmet on.

              I remember the first time I donned shit guards to play goalie in street hockey. For a while, I was reluctant to go to my knees, because up until that point, doing so meant blood. Eventually, I did it instinctively to make a play and was amazed at how empowered I felt when instead of pain, I got a good hard slide across the blacktop. It changed how I played. In this particular instance, I don’t think the pads were harmful. But I do think that the fearlessness helmets and other pads give to players results in a more violent style of play, something that often overcompensates for the safety feature itself.

              They’ve done a quasi-similar study with cyclists. Cyclists who do not wear helmets have fewer accidents than those who do, often because the drivers they share the world with are more careful around them subconsciously because of the lack of helmets. When they do have an accident, the result is worse. But there are fewer accidents. Now, this says more about the impact on others, which I do think is real in football as well, but it is also impacted by the changes by the user him/herself.

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    • I seem to recall reading something a while back that compared the injury-rates and -types between rugby (with minimal protective equipment) and American-style football (with helmets and pads etc.).
      IIRC, rugby players sustain many more ‘cosmetic’-type injuries (broken noses, missing teeth, scars from cleats etc.) but fewer life- or brain-threatening ones.

      Rugby involves a great deal of physical contact, but not the sort of full-speed collisions found in football. In addition, the lack of blocking in rugby may help reduce the rate of serious injuries.

      I also seem to recall reading the adding gloves to boxing paradoxically may have increased the incidence of brain-damaging blows (partly by adding weight and mass to the blow).

      Hands break a lot more easily than skulls, so bare-knuckle boxers had to be careful about whaling away at their opponents. It wasn’t uncommon for several minutes to pass during a fight without either boxer throwing a punch. That’s why fights in the bare-knuckle era would sometimes go on for 75 or 100 rounds.

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      • Hands break a lot more easily than skulls, so bare-knuckle boxers had to be careful about whaling away at their opponents.

        This same argument has been made for the much more minimal gloves worn in MMA. The UFC bars competitors who are knocked out from competing or sparring for three months. A couple of acquaintances tell me that the MMA rules allowing holding and kneeing force the fighters to punch from distances that do not allow them to deliver maximum force.

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  6. I think for me it was the combination of the health factors in younger men plus the practices of the NCAA and its colleges (plus the whole ugliness over the Penn State scandal) that turned me off from football.

    I spent quite a few of my formative years in Columbus Ohio, where THE Ohio State Buckeyes were the most important thing on earth. My mother was a grad student at OSU at the time, so we caught a bit of that fever, too. I followed Big Ten football even after I moved away, and then I moved to Austin Texas for grad school where, well frankly UT’s football focused autumn is an event in itself.

    I just can’t justify supporting this business model in any sense. It’s one thing for well paid athletes in the NFL to be given millions of dollars to risk their longterm health (and even then I’m not sure about it) but it’s another damned thing entirely for unpaid teenagers, predominantly of lower or middle class families to be used as a tool to make a university millions of dollars and pay athletic staff 6 to 7 figure salaries.

    And ultimately the entire model doesn’t work (up to the NFL) without this current extremely exploitative system from top to bottom, that starts in peewee football and works all the way up to the NFL. Much as I want to cheer and watch, I just can’t square with my conscience.

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    • I’m not entirely in disagreement with you, but I don’t see free tuition and room and board as being unpaid.

      In grad school, we TAs received a stipend plus tuition. Some of my colleagues didn’t think the tuition counted as pay. But my sister was a grad student elsewhere, and while she received a much higher stipend, she had to pay tuition–her compensation netted out to almost exactly the same as mine.

      So those things do have to be counted. College football players are compensated. And especially at a time when everyone’s complaining about the high cost of a college education, it’s contradictory to not count a free education as compensation.

      Now whether it’s sufficient compensation or not is certainly fair to debate. I think it mostly is, and think the focus should be not on that issue but on how the schools take care of those who have long-term injuries and permanent damage. (That’s not the only issue, of course, so I don’t mean to exclude others.)

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      • 1. As a graduate student (with plenty of experience as being paid the stipend + tuition + other tangibles) I’m perfectly sympathetic to the argument that the room and board and tuition’s not an insignificant thing.

        2. I’m not entirely sure however, if college football players actually get enough out of their education to consider the payments to be adequate.

        3. Outside of room and board and tuition, they don’t get a stipend. I’d actually feel relatively better about this if they were being paid at the same rate as TAs or GRAs. Pay them at however many hours a week they spend in practice and on the field at the same rate as all other student employees that have specialized skills. (Essentially the same as a graduate research assistant or a TA).

        4. The NCAA rules regarding eligibility and all their stupid (and frankly insulting) regulations against compensation and ‘amateurism’ is one of the things that sticks in my craw.

        5. Honestly I think a scholarship should be a guaranteed degree including stipend. If someone gets an athletic scholarship, outside of major infractions (like say drug use, or an actual felony crime) they should keep it until they A. are drafted by a major professional sports league, or B. complete their degree. In fact in cases of A. I would even go so far as to say they should be able to go back to school once their careers are over at their alma matter and get free tuition.

        6. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that college football coaches are paid anywhere from 5 to 10 times as much as the university president. At the very least, this needs to be curtailed. If we’re putting compensation limits on players, then the coaching staff, too, should be under those same restrictions.

        7. Overall, I much more favor an amateur developmental youth league like they have for soccer.

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        • Nob makes a really good point here about the value of tuition, room, and board to the players. Many of those guys are likely uninterested in college and wouldn’t be attending if not for sports. It’s sort of like being paid in Disney Dollars… an employer can proclaim how generous he is if he pays you a million Disney Dollars a year, but would you really consider yourself compensated if you never planned to visit Disney World?

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              • “6. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that college football coaches are paid anywhere from 5 to 10 times as much as the university president. At the very least, this needs to be curtailed. If we’re putting compensation limits on players, then the coaching staff, too, should be under those same restrictions.”

                it can be argued that the coach, as opposed to the president, has far greater influence in bringing students into a college with a strong sports program. consider the riots/”riots” at penn state over paterno’s dismissal. sports teams are, for reasons beyond my understanding, a huge factor in college selection.

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                • It’s probably true that Mack Brown attracts more people to UT than Bill Powers, but Powers has substantially more power in setting policy decisions that actually impact students and quality of education. (Nevermind the board of regents which are even more so.)

                  And then there’s the whole Paterno fiasco at Penn State or Bobby Petrino at Arkansas, or the ridiculous Lane Kiffen fiasco over his Tennesse/Oakland drama, that shows that these people are probably vastly overpaid.

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          • To me, the thing they get is the coaches, training, and built-in fanbase. The primary payment is non-monetary.

            I support a development league for those that would prefer to get paid. The problem is that the development leagues would almost certainly lose tons and tons of money. So do most colleges, of course, which brings up other questions.

            Ultimately, though, more value is conferred to college sports by the institutions than the players. Take the players and put them in a development league, and replace them with the next set of players, and the Alabama Crimson Tide would still be a bigger deal than the Birmingham Bruisers.

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            • I would argue that the current two-tier “amateur” vs. “professional” spectator sport system that exists is made essentially a collusion between the professional leagues and the D1A Universities.

              Coaches, training and the like would be required for any talent pipeline for a viable professional league. At the moment the NCAA and NFL (and the NCAA and NBA) have monetarized this by creating an artificial division between college “amateurs” and paid “professionals” through a combination of things like age restrictions for drafts. Because for the most part these leagues are contained within a single captive market and given anti-trust exemptions (in name, if not in law) they face no threat of players leaving for better pastures afterwards.

              Moreover the quality of the product on the field is important for the viability of top tier universities which get money from boosters in addition to their standard football revenue. It’s important, too for the high schools below them that are feeders. Ask Penn State how they’re going to do in terms of revenue as the losses start piling up over the next few seasons. Or watch how well Texas A&M will do when they become the stomping mat for the entire SEC.

              If there were more than one viable professional league in the US for football or basketball (like the situation with hockey, or even baseball at present here and with soccer world wide) the artificial age restrictions and the compensation requirements would die quite quickly, replaced by attempts to secure talent as early as possible. This in turn is likely to rob everywhere from your 65 million dollar stadium owning high schools to Bama of their top recruits and substantially reduce their ability to dominate their fields in a way that’ll give them the continued market staying power. Ultimately they’ll either be forced to compete for the signatures of players, or die. And that would be great.

              Right now, however, football is a sport where there’s a huge public-private power sharing arrangement where public universities and a professional sports league are collaborating to keep players from monetizing their potential, despite the fact that the sport itself carries substantial risk of long-term, permanent injury.

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              • Player quality matters for individual teams, but it doesn’t matter for the league as a whole. That’s a pretty significant distinction. The individual teams need not be great, only greater than the other teams in their league. Nobody cares if a UFL team is better than the best college team.

                I think that baseball is a pretty good example of something with a big development league. I wouldn’t mind football becoming like that at all. But… college baseball still exists. A lot of players choose it over the minor leagues. I consider the ability to choose to be great, and something that football players should have, but I suspect that in the end the Crimson Tide that doesn’t pay players would be far, far more popular than the Bruisers that does pay players.

                I’d consider a scenario in which the Tide and the Horns are bidding for players to be a disaster. It would kill my interest.

                I’m not denigrating the very real risk of long-term injury, but football isn’t coal mining. The latter is something people do because they are getting paid. The former people enjoy doing whether they are getting paid or not.

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                • College football also isn’t your intermural flag football league. It’s a multibillion dollar business where universities are raking in lots and lots of money. In fact “amateur” football is one of the most tax-payer subsidized activities short of the energy and agricultural sectors. Witness the fact that a freaking HIGH SCHOOL in Texas used local bonds to raise 64 million dollars for an 18,000 seat stadium. (This sort of absurd priorities in a state which is laying off a large number of teachers and recently requested a NCLB waiver is a different and equally rant worthy topic)…

                  And the Tide and the Horns already bid for players. College recruiting and the commitments from all american prospects is big business with season ticket sails being affected by the school’s recruiting class.

                  Given that Mack Brown gets paid $5 million/year, the fact that Kenny Vaccaro or David Ash get tuition and maybe room and board is absurd. Especially when over a hundred thousand people gather on Red River and Manor every saturday to celebrate Longhorns football.

                  Also…anyone tried comparing the College World Series to the BCS Championship? Or hell even the Whatever Bowl random bowl game? It’s not even close, and that’s partly because the money is more in the developmental leagues, which is a good thing. It’s rather strange that in the US, the sport with the only actual anti-trust exemption is running the most comprehensive d-league system and probably paying its young players the best out of the major sports leagues.

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                  • College football also isn’t your intermural flag football league.

                    I’m not talking about intramural flag football leagues. I’m talking about players at every level but the top. Division III doesn’t even have scholarships, but they’ve got football teams. The fact that some programs are making tons and tons of money doesn’t change the fact that most are not.

                    The reason that so many gather to watch UT play is not because they are awesome, it’s because they are the University of Texas. UT can have a losing season, but will still outdraw an undefeated Boise State (and not just because of the stadium size). That kind of loyalty isn’t for players who come in and out every four years or less. It’s for institutions.

                    Leaving aside the rule-breaking he schools bid for players in the sense that they hire the best coaches, get the best facilities, and so on. That’s different than bidding over Cam Newton. I agree that coaches are overpaid and would love to see a salary cap, but one problem need not justify a bigger. Also, there’s an argument to be made that the ability to hire the best coaches is actually good for the players and their development. They’re getting access to coaching they likely wouldn’t in a minor league arrangement. I don’t think this is enough to justify the salary race, but it is notable all the same.

                    I don’t think the CWS is as telling as you do. Such as it is, it’s still a bigger deal than the minor league world series. With more lackluster players, I would wager. The reason that college baseball (and minor league baseball, for that matter) doesn’t garner much attention has a lot to do with the fact that MLB players are taking the field just about every day and so there isn’t room for a #2. Regular season college basketball doesn’t get nearly the attention of regular season college football, either, because if you dig basketball you can get your fill easily enough.

                    I can appreciate the irony of the anti-trust exemption and minor league baseball. And as I said, I would love for there to be a similar system for football. Ultimately, though, there really isn’t the market for it and it doesn’t matter how much better or worse the players are. Crimson Tide fans want to see the Crimson Tide, not the Birmingham Bruisers. Even if the Bruisers were the better team.

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                    • The reason that so many gather to watch UT play is not because they are awesome, it’s because they are the University of Texas. UT can have a losing season, but will still outdraw an undefeated Boise State (and not just because of the stadium size). That kind of loyalty isn’t for players who come in and out every four years or less. It’s for institutions.

                      The thing is, given the amount of player turnover in the salary cap era, I’d argue that this is the same thing in professional franchises, too. And given the average career length in the NFL, 4 years is about the same in any case.

                      I don’t mind the NCAA acting as a developmental league. What I do mind is them getting to do so without having to pay the players (and in fact explicitly PROHIBITING any attempt at doing so) while they’re making loads and loads of money as a cartel in collusion with what should ostensibly be their competition.

                      It’s wrong. It’s particularly wrong when it’s young men who are not from privileged backgrounds going to work for multimillionaire coaches who stake their next paycheck on how much work they can get out of these unpaid “amateur” players.

                      And it gets even worse when we know that the talent pipeline that feeds a multibillion dollar industry is rigged to essentially minimize the monetary opportunities for players who risk long-term debilitating injuries.

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                    • All of the professional clubs operate several subsidiary clubs that serve as reserves and youth clubs.

                      Youth clubs/academies essentially recruit at the little league level age and keep players until they’re old enough either to contribute to a professional side (in which case they’re either promoted to the senior squad, placed in the reserve squad, or loaned out to a lower league tier squad) or they need to move on.

                      Part of the thing with soccer is that there’s so many competing leagues and a need for talent, so that they’re willing to even poach from youth clubs to try to make the point.

                      An example of European club soccer that you’d probably never see happen in an American sport is the story of Leo Messi, who Barcelona saw as a promising talent and decided to pay for his medical treatments…of course that investment paid off, and they now have the greatest footballer in the world who is unflinchingly loyal to the club because they basically were responsible for giving him the opportunity to get past his childhood illness and become a star.

                      But to your basic question: No. European soccer clubs don’t actually have a similar thing going on. They in fact are willing to invest in the talent pipeline that’s required to keep making money. They don’t artificially restrict competition by placing arbitrary age limits to paying players. Hell even the leagues themselves have a lot less taxpayer subsidies or wealth transfers and none of the major leagues have salary caps.

                      In effect, European soccer is substantially more market based, both on the labor and on the club side than any American sport.

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                    • To expand on Nob’s comment, you’ll find about as many talent scouts as tourists (sometimes more) roaming around West Africa, looking for talent. Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, surely you’ve heard of Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s famous striker.

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                    • European soccer is substantially more market based, both on the labor and on the club side than any American sport.

                      Huh. I guess the US needs a more market-based approach then. Would you say that the established players are pretty much doing everything they can to prevent competition from establishing itself?

                      Also: I miss the XFL.

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                    • @Jaybird: it’s not the players, per se, but the owners and their legal monopolies. American Needle Inc. v. NFL established the NFL was a cartel.

                      Thing is, Americans seem to like it this way. Remember, the Super Bowl began as a playoff between NFL and AFL. Now, of course, it’s NFC and AFC, but the rent-seeking goes on and America can’t get enough of it.

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                    • The thing is, given the amount of player turnover in the salary cap era, I’d argue that this is the same thing in professional franchises, too. And given the average career length in the NFL, 4 years is about the same in any case.

                      There is some truth to this, but it’s less true with marquee players than the grunts. Add to that the four or five years in college are limited by marquee players leaving early as well as riding the bench for the first year or two or three, you’re still looking at a long turnover.

                      In any event, my point holds. NFL players have been able to threaten a strike and get increasingly favorable contracts. That’s because the NFL needs its talent. When the NFL tried to use scabs, it didn’t work. If all of the NFL players were to start their own league, it would probably displace the NFL relatively quickly. Take the college players – or just the best of them – and put them in their own league, it would likely fail. The reliance is on the institutions and not the players.

                      I think part of our disagreement is that we shouldn’t be looking at Texas as being representative of pretty much anything. We talk about how much money these programs make, but the vast majority of athletics programs even at the top level are losing money and subsidized by the universities themselves. For every Texas you have, I can point you to three or four North Texas’s that are losing money.

                      The median team in the FBS is in the Big East. And it’s losing money.

                      Not the football program specifically, but having a football program has ramifications all over the place including (among other things) Title IX. Also, opportunities for athletes in the rest of the athletics program.

                      The programs that are making money? They’re the ones that *want* to pay players, for the most part. The loudest voices in favor are coming from the SEC and Big Ten. The characterization of the NCAA as a bunch of profit machines that are skimping their players isn’t really accurate. Most of the pushback on the idea comes from those programs that are struggling to keep their head above water.

                      I am open to various types of reforms. Not to universities paying players, but allowing professional teams to call dibs and pay them during their college years or something like that. The problem with this is the tentative nature of players in the NFL that you refer to. Unfortunately, even if the NCAA allowed it, I’m not sure how much incentive the NFL teams have to invest in a player who is likely to end up with someone else. But I’m willing to give it a shot. I also think we should allow for player endorsements and the like.

                      So I’m not sure we’re in 100% opposition, as I do think there is more that we can do. Where I tend to get oppositional is when we’re supposed to feel sorry for the players because they’re not getting paid. I live in a town in a college where they don’t even get scholarships. Their equipment isn’t as good. There are 1,000 people in the stands instead of 100,000. The players who get to play in front of 100,000 are likely to have earned the right and are likely better players 10-fold.

                      But the notion that they are being robbed by athletics programs the vast majority of which are operating at a loss for the sake of keeping the university’s profile… I am just not terribly sympathetic. I think that they should have a way to play for money (a la baseball), but I think they’re still getting a pretty good deal.

                      The top-division players are more likely than not to have gotten out of college with a degree in hand and those that don’t had most of their college paid for. Given how few will go on to the pros, this is not unimportant. Those that haven’t graduated are, as often as not, going to be not-too-far from graduating if they want to stay in school.

                      There is room for reform here, but the vast majority of top-division college athletes are given an opportunity of a lifetime that a reasonable person can quite likely decide is worth the risk. Most of them have little chance at playing professionally. Those that do might should have more opportunities than they do, but they are the exception in a much, much larger design.

                      The problem, to the extent that there is one, primarily resides with the NFL. Maurice Clarett was right.

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                    • So long as the marquee conferences and the NFL call the shots, the lower division schools (the “cupcakes” that are opponents for half the games for the marquee schools) and the athletes will get screwed. The collusion needs to be broken or at least redressed.

                      If both the pros and the universities want the pipeline, why not make all players 18 and over draft eligible, and then have draft rights continue for 5 years after the player is chosen? The exchange would come from the NFL club being required to pay the tuition, board and say a stipend of about $10,000/year in order to retain the contract rights to a player. They may then go to whatever school offers them the best developmental opportunity OR at this point the club and the university can haggle over stuff like tuition or stipend. For example the university can offer to pay up to 50% of the costs associated with the player.

                      Injuries can be covered by insurance. They already do this for top flight college prospects anyway.

                      And for fringe prospects, universities can perhaps use their scholarships as a better lure. And this way the universities also know that their scholarships are actually going to students who might do something with their educational opportunities rather than more time for sports theory or whatever other junk major the usual suspects would take.

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                    • And this way the universities also know that their scholarships are actually going to students who might do something with their educational opportunities rather than more time for sports theory or whatever other junk major the usual suspects would take.

                      Philosophy and Religious Studies?

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                    • Interesting perspectives. Big East had no business in football, it was a basketball conference which lost sight of that fact. Now, like Mr. Punch, it’s a Comical Tragedy or a Tragical Comedy.

                      Why not just have the coach pay the players out of his own pocket?

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                    • We’re not talking about lower division teams, nor just the cupcakes of the upper (sub)division, when we talk about athletic departments running at a loss. It’s Boise State, Oregon State, South Carolina, Texas Tech. All but a couple dozen at the most. That despite incentives to make the departments look profitable to justify further investment.

                      On the nuts and bolts of it, I would prefer your proposal to the current state of affairs. I’m less enthusiastic about the NFL negotiating tuition and room and board with universities, though I’m not sure why.

                      On a sidenote, a professional athlete can actually be a college athlete in a different sport. It’s not unheard of for minor league baseball players to play football at the college level. The reform may simply be a matter of allowing that sort of arrangement for same-sport.

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                    • Big East had no business in football, it was a basketball conference which lost sight of that fact.

                      The problem is that it became apparent that they had to offer football in order to hang on to the basketball schools that played football. If they dropped football, they’d lose Louisville, Cincinnati, UConn, and so on.

                      That was what happened with the Metro Conference. The non-football schools didn’t want to add football. Eventually the football schools decided to get together and form Conference USA and the basketball schools had to. (Most of the schools in question are, interestingly enough, in the Big East now or headed to it next season.)

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      • I’d consider tuition fairer compensation if it covered the full number of years the players need to graduate, taking into account that during the season, they have what amounts to a full-time job. I’m sure you were a conscientious TA, but there’s no comparison.

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  7. College football began as a brutal sport. Teddy Roosevelt had a hand in reforming the game, somewhat. In 1905, 18 players amateur and college players died.

    We’re faced with a similar problem in almost every contact sport. Even gymnasts are badly damaged in the course of training. Serious runners can get in trouble. Cyclists, swimmers, they’re all prone to getting hurt. There’s no getting past danger in any sport.

    But college football is different. This is a sport grown beyond mere college athletics programs. One of the interesting aspects to the Penn State situation was how little control the university actually had over the Nittany Lions: the team is separately incorporated. Most of the NCAA teams are similarly incorporated as separate P&L entities. So treat them as such.

    If they’re separately incorporated, they shouldn’t get to call themselves a school team. They’re professionals already. Kill the NCAA entirely: it’s completely failed to regulate these corporations. It’s all a sham. Bringing in these oversized dudes, putting them in a uniform, setting them up with tutors so they can get degrees in Sports Theory and Broadcasting — who’s kidding whom, here?

    These aren’t stupid guys out there on the field. They know the risks. They take them anyway. The NCAA tolerates it and worse, makes excuses for it. If these guys take 80G knocks, these programs are nothing but gladiatorial farms anyway. Some hapless soldier survives an 80G knock in an IED blast, him we care about. We worry about his outcome. We have outreach programs for soldiers who’ve survived blast trauma. He’s a hero. But some college sophomore gets a bad hit and a brain bleed, he’s carted off the field into the darkness of the locker room and maybe someone will give him a ticket home. He’s disposable. And it’s going to continue unabated because it’s big money.

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  8. I never cared about football, really. It struck me as “sports” and I was interested in “not sports”. I’d rather read. Or watch cartoons. Or go to a movie. Or go to the mall. Or play a video game. Or… my god. There was stuff that was oh-so-much-more interesting than football.

    Hell, even fantasy football was only interesting because my friends found it interesting. I love a good monologue and really enjoy it when my friends can talk passionately about something I don’t know much about… but as soon as I was done listening to them explain the thing that they enjoyed doing, it went back to “that thing that I know my friends like” rather than “that thing that I like”.

    Something clicked in the last few years, though. I can sit down and watch a game and intuitively see what’s going on, what the dynamics are, and guess what people are hoping will happen. The Superbowl has finally become more interesting than the commercials. And the conversations! I have acquaintances at work who have absolutely no shared interests with me. I can sit down and talk about stuff like religion/history/politics and they have nothing really to say beyond a grunt.

    I mention that I’m doing my first fantasy football this year and they look at me like they’re seeing me for the very first time. “Jay, who is your quarterback?” “Um. Roethlisberger.” They nod. “He’s not bad”, they tell me. They give me a little speech about the difference between this kind of league and that kind and this other kind and how these quarterbacks are good against these defenses and those quarterbacks are good against this other kind and discussions of defenses and all of these things. These guys that I couldn’t get two words out of when it came to the PPACA are giving me detailed speeches about how they swap out their flex player depending on whether there is a good anti-pass defense that week or a good anti-run defense… with little nuances about cornerbacks. “It’s good to have the secondary RB agains that defense, Jay. He’ll get more yards than when Janiskowski is covering the primary.”

    And all I can do is smile and nod and think “it’s nice to have a conversation with this guy like a human being.”

    All that to say: if you progressives make football something that I’m supposed to boycott? Forget it. I just got here.

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    • Why would progressives want to boycott football or urge anyone else to do so? Look, sports are no different than any other wishful projection fantasy, like religion or politics.

      I didn’t grow up with American football. I had to learn it all in the Army. To me, it’s rather like chess combined with infantry tactics. Everyone has a role to play, both offensive and defensive. The reason it’s so hard to learn football from television is because they’ll never show you the All 22 Shot from directly overhead, so you can’t see the play develop. If you really want to learn football, you’ll need to think of it as a chess game: learn the positions and the basic plays, for you’ll never learn the fundamentals from television.

      Just like chess, you’ll have to learn the openings.

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    • You should look at it more like Pro Wrestling.

      As the guy who comes over “sometimes” for wrestling, I sometimes think I’m more struck by the changes that happen in the actual wrestling than someone who watches it regularly. When I do see it, there is, at least once a year, a new safety change. For example, what happened with Chris Benoit leading to the WWE instituting a ban on steel chair headshots. If someone who hadn’t watched pro wrestling for 10-20 years were to flip on the channel and watch today’s wrestling, they would probably say “Wow, this is really tame. What the hell happened to the old-style cages with the steel bars? There are doors now? Lame.” In fact, I would argue that we are hitting a point in pro wrestling where the matches are the weakest part of the program.

      So, what does football do if they do have to go a kinder, gentler route? Can it reinvent itself? Vince McMahon’s attempt at the XFL failed. Ultimate Tazer Ball seems unlikely to catch on. Lingerie Football League seems to have plateaued as an interesting diversion that is unlikely to break Arena Football’s numbers. Does that mean that there is no way to reinvent the game to be sports entertainment?

      If they do change the game into sports entertainment, can it survive? Without the potential for life-threatening injuries as well as the exodus of fans, the excessive salaries that we have today will become a thing of the past. Without these salaries, quite a few of the athletes may decide to drop football which would leave the sport with fewer stars. This has the potential to turn into a downward spiral as lesser-quality players cause even more fans to leave which brings less money which means less pay which means…etc.

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      • Pro wrestling is the thing I understand, though. Prior to this year, my entire understanding of football consisted of “it’s a sublimation of war” and if I’m going to watch war being sublimated, I’d prefer Pro Wrestling with its cleaner (and far less regional) narratives.

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        • It took someone killing his family in a murder suicide to ban people hitting others on the head with a steel chair.

          (It should be pointed out that many, if not most, chairshots to that point were staged to look like full on blows but due to camera angles and other sleight-of-hand, were actually shoulder shots, or forearm shots, or shots that hit a nearby surface.)

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          • I didn’t know how horrible to situation was, and I didn’t mean to make light of it. But “many, if not most” isn’t much good, is it? It’s like allowing defensive backs to carry guns, but they largely use them for warning shots.

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            • Oh, I didn’t think you were making light. I was letting you know that it was even worse than you had probably thought to imagine. The guy in question had an autopsy and the doctors said that he had so many concussions (and dead zones) that they don’t know how he was still ambulatory.

              It’s a stunt show. There are guys out there who spend 300 nights a year having five thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand people scream their names, laugh at their jokes, or boo at their shenanigans. A chair shot to the head that is mostly faked is a small price to pay for these guys. Or jumping from the top rope to the mat. Or taking a bodyslam. The prices, of course, add up… but everybody who remains cogent enough to give a speech when they retire talks about how it was all worth it. (A line I’ve heard more than once is “I wrestle for free. They pay me to travel.”)

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  9. As for student football, BlaiseP says it’s going to continue because it’s big money. That’s half the truth. It’s also going to continue because it’s the road to big money for these college kids. You tell a 20 year-old college kid who still has that youthful sense of invulnerability about all the dangers that the road to riches entails and they’ll say “My body, my choice.” (Did I just work in an abortion reference?)

    Before the movie Limitless (with it’s cop-out ending made for Americans who can’t handle the notion of consequences) came out, I got into a discussion over whether I would take the pill. One of the people in the discussion (Canadian, I think) asked if wealth was all that Americans think of. My counter was how much my life would be enriched if, instead of wasting it in a cubicle, I could spend it pursuing my interests. That, for me, wealth was a ticket to a life where I could follow my hopes and dreams. Even now, if someone offered me a pill which would give me the ability to make 2 million in a week but would cause terrible withdrawal after I stopped in a week that had a 20% chance of killing me and a year-long recovery period if it didn’t, I would hold out my hand and say “Give me a week’s supply”.

    That’s the choice that a lot of the student athletes are making. Sure, you could get a degree and go into the workforce where, if you get a job, you’re going to spend 40 years in a cube. Even if it’s a job they like, that’s still 40 years which is twice their lifespan up to that point. On the other hand, they can go out and bust heads and take a shot at a life of riches. Sure, other people might get hurt but, at 20, they figure that it won’t be them. If I would take a shot at the brass ring with a 20% chance of dying at my age, what is a 20-year old with a sense of invulnerability going to choose?

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    • Right on. Even knowing what I know now, I would gladly suit up for college football and take my chances.

      It’s actually the NFL that I am more wary of. Most of the investigations have included NFL careers, if I’m not mistaken, which is significant because it increases the number of hits and the power of hits pretty substantially from college on down. My understanding is that it’s volume of hits that poses the bigger concussion dangers than The One Big Hit.

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      • And since an NFL career almost always follows college and high schol careers, it starts from a history of repeated brain trauma. My guess is that someone who entered the NFL without playing much football beforehand (Bob Hayes, say), is in significantly les danger.

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        • Almost all NFL careers are going to come after high school and college careers, but the vast majority of high school and college careers are not followed by NFL careers. Thus I consider the NFL to be the biggest variable, unless someone can point me to the ramifications of junior high school through college (which may exist, but I dunno one way or the other).

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    • Exactly this.

      2 million in a week, 20% chance of dying or 80% chance of 1 year of recovery? Give me the pill.

      If i do die, hell, i will die either way someday. I could have a heart attack tomorrow for all i know. Those 2 millions would be enough for me to stop working in a cubicle and actually enjoy the rest of my life. And if i did die, it would be enough money for my wife to live for the rest of her life too.

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  10. I would like to point out that any sport that is practiced so that you are competitive in a grand scale is very unhealthy. They will deform your body, create plenty of lesions, stunt growth, make a mess of your hormones and put you at a very high risk of getting some sort of permanent disability.

    Football and a few others (any sort of full contact sport really) just happen to show the disabilities a lot earlier and a lot more frequently.

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