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Aside from travails of Bret Bielema's inaugural season at the University of Arkansas, few seasons in recent memory have been as exciting as the 2013 college football season nearing its end. Nonstop fantastic finishes, outstanding individual performances, and genuine drama about the teams that will fight it out for the national championship all have worked to produce a thoroughly satisfying season in college football.
Yet, it's clear that football — at all levels, but particularly at the major college level —is nearing a breaking point as a sport. It is a test not unlike that which it faced just over a century ago but, this time, it's unclear that the sport can emerge from the crisis.
In the first decade of the last century, college football almost died. Abolition of the sport seemed likely in 1905 following a nonstop series of deaths and devastating injuries of players at the college football powers. Brandishing his "bully pulpit" as president and as the father of a Harvard player, Theodore Roosevelt famously "saved" football by personally intervening to advocate major rules changes — especially those that opened up the field of play such as introduction of the forward pass and lengthening the yardage needed for a first down — and an overhaul of the governing structure of the sport with the founding of the NCAA. These changes got the sport through this brutal period to allow the development of a high school system that could feed the colleges a nonstop pool of players and a professional league that could provide the most talented players an increasingly lucrative goal.
Now, the physical wreckage manifested by football is once again front and center with the flurry of stories regarding chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a still mysterious neurological malady tied to the concussions that are an inherent part of the modern football experience. The pool of young persons coming of age playing the sport is shrinking as parents are increasingly dubious about whether the costs of football are matched by benefits and whether the heavily gendered sport makes sense in a post-Title IX world where kids come of age are playing co-ed soccer.
Still, tens of thousands of boys and young men begin playing football each year. Of that small percentage with the talent to go on to play major college football, an increasing number sense that they are being used by those making millions from their talents and images. In return they gain little financially in the short run while still facing all of the risk of the concussion crisis. A recent study carried out by the Drexel University Department of Sport Management found that because of the significant out-of-pocket expenses faced by "full" scholarship athletes, 85 percent of players live below the federal poverty line while in school. Longer term, many of the players are left without a college degree. As civil rights historian Taylor Branch expresses with special credibility, this comes with a problematic racial dimension because of the demographic realities of the sport.
We are past a point when a single person — even a president with special credibility within the sport — can "save" football. That is because a football-industrial complex composed of media outlets, big money athletic conferences, celebrity coaches, and sporting gear companies understandably resists reform. (Indeed, one wonders how much money has been spent this season on constant helmet and uniform designs loved by fans and prospective players that could have been spent instead on good research into the creation of better helmets to stymie concussions.)
The best hope to "save" football now is the rising up of empowered players demanding fundamental change. Fortunately, along with the marvelous moments and performances this year, we have also seen the rise of players willing to stand up for themselves in advocating a different future for college football. As part of an effort by a organization called the National College Players Association (NCPA), the first evidence of that movement came this season with players from a variety of schools writing the letters APU (for All Players United) on their visible gear to provoke conversation about the concussion crisis, the fact injured players often lose scholarships, and the high rates of poverty among players. The group also wants to adopt an Olympic model where high-profile athletes in "amateur" sports may be paid for the endorsement of products.
In late October, the players of Grambling State University took the "talk" of the NCPA even further as they boycotted practice and ultimately refused to play a game in late October. In addition to discord within the history-rich program, these players were protesting awful facility conditions and even the risk of staph infection created by the poor care of uniforms.
This season of college football has been unquestionably exciting, but it would be much more thoroughly satisfying if the sport's obvious demons were exorcised. Some of the paths to reform are obvious and others quite murky, but reform is essential if the sport that I came to love as a kid will still be around when I move into old age.
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