Is it time to blow the whistle on American football?

Going down hard during the 2006 Pro Bowl. Photo: Cpl. Michelle M. Dickson

Over the last year, I’ve written a couple of times about the deep shame of collegiate sports in America.

From the plantation-style economics of modern NCAA athletics to the broken moral compass of programs like Penn State, there’s something rotten in a culture that was supposed to teach fitness, teamwork and healthy competition.

It’s hard to imagine those stories being eclipsed by behavior even more reprehensible — even more apparently criminal — but the NFL has managed to pull it off.

News broke weeks ago that former New Orlenas Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams allegedly paid his athletes to deliberately injure players on opposing teams.

An audio recording has now emerged of Williams instructing his players to target other players’ heads.  “Kill the head and the body will die,” Gregg instructed, offering cash rewards to any player who carried out the hit-job.

He also instructs his players to destroy another player’s knee.  “He becomes human when we (expletive) take out that outside ACL,” Gregg argued, according to a report in USA Today.

Americans have always liked our sports rough-and-tumble; and my own tastes are hardly cricket-and-croquet.  I was a high school wrestler, I love football, and have been an on-again-off-again fan of mixed martial arts.

But there are moments when even a pass-time as central to our national sensibility as football warrants a good, no-holds-barred fresh look.

In order to clear the air, the sport needs to do three things.

First, the NCAA has to address the inequities in the college game, where (mostly white) coaches, administrators and media executives rake in huge bucks.

Meanwhile (mostly black) players are denied even the most basic professional compensation and protection, while they expose themselves to astonishing physical risk.

Secondly, the NFL needs to turn over all evidence of injury-for-hire schemes, like the one in New Orleans, to criminal investigators.  This is, at long last, a job fo rthe police.

Last time I checked, it was illegal for anyone in the US to pay cash to a hit-man to deliberately injure or cripple someone.

The fact that this conspiracy allegedly occurred on a gridiron should not cause the proper authorities to hesitate in taking over this probe.

Finally, the medical profession needs to independently investigate growing evidence that football — at the high school, collegiate, and professional level — is severely damaging the brains of far too many athletes.

While this investigation is underway, the parents of young children who take up football should be warned far more clearly and explicitly that their kids can expect to suffer hundreds of potentially debilitating head injuries each season.

This from an article last year in Slate magazine:

[R]esearchers aren’t exactly sure what is happening to these players. But they believe that what we call concussions are only one of several kinds of head injury that affect players’ verbal ability, memory, and “vestibular system,” which controls spatial orientation and balance.

Many of the hits that produce “shell-shock” concussions involve blows to the side of the head, as happens with helmet-to-helmet collisions in the open field. The new group of injured players—the ones without visible injury—had suffered damage to the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls high-end “executive functioning.”

In the end, we may find that the overt brutality of alleged bad actors like Gregg Williams is a much smaller piece of the moral quandary that faces football.

The bigger dilemma may be that so many of us are prospering from, and being thrilled by, a spectacle of violence that really is as destructive as it looks.

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35 Responses to “Is it time to blow the whistle on American football?”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Leave the sports alone. Next thing you know golfers will be required to wear helmets to protect them from golf balls.

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  2. Peter Hahn says:

    It seems pretty clear that dementia is a major risk factor with playing American football. Im not sure how we let our kids play this game. Its fun to watch but….

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  3. Conservative columnist George Will did say one thing I agree with him on. He described football as the most archetypically American sport: scenes of unimaginable violence… followed by committee meetings.

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  4. dave says:

    I’m with you on points 1 and 3, but would just assume we leave the law out of it unless something so obviously illegal and outside the realm of the sport takes place that there is no other way of dealing with it.

    You can’t just say “last time I checked it was illegal to do X, Y or Z” and come to the conclusion that we should therefore use the law to deal with it. After all, a large portion of what goes on in contact sports is illegal outside the scope of that sport.

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  5. Pete Klein says:

    Dave, I couldn’t agree more.
    This country has become obsessed with passing laws.
    Before you know it, we’ll all be in jail for something.

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  6. Paul says:

    “Last time I checked, it was illegal for anyone in the US to pay cash to a hit-man to deliberately injure or cripple someone.

    True, but in this game injuries are so common that it seems like it is almost part and parcel to the game. We are kidding ourselves if we think it is something else.

    Look at boxing. The object is to pound on the other guys head till you knock him out (and very likely cripple him years later). What should we do about that game? Those hit-men get paid boat loads.

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  7. Walker says:

    It would be interesting to know what the effect of equipment has had on the rate of brain injury. By padding and absorbing shock, we’ve reduced the visibility of contusions, but increased the sudden forces on the brain that can’t be as easily seen, but take their toll over the years. I doubt that Rugby players suffer as much brain injury as American football players do. What would the game be like if we had football players wear just shorts and a jersey?

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  8. Mervel says:

    I agree with these points. You need to involve the law when something illegal is happening, when you pay people to cause someone permanent injury I am not sure how that would be legal?

    The key I think is working with parents, if the parents decide they don’t want their boys to suffer permanent brain injuries from a young age on; you will have less people interested in the sport, which means the sport will slowly lose popularity.

    How many parents encourage their boys to become boxers today? Thus we see a sport which still exists, but is on the sidelines slowly fading from our memories as anything normal

    I think the biggest problem will be addressing the massive salaries that college coaches, administrators, ESPN talking heads, and so forth all make, this is a HUGE industry. They will not go down without a fight.

    Of course you can’t look at football without looking at hockey in the same context.

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  9. Gary says:

    When it comes to sports it’s time to blow the whistle on Brian! I can’t help but feel if he had his way we would all be sitting around sipping tea and playing canasta!

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  10. Brian Mann says:

    Canasta is way too risky. Repetitive stress.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  11. Paul says:

    Walker you make an excellent point. Pads and helmets make the issue more serious. The point is to slam into each other as hard as you can and hope you don’t get hurt yourself. Rugby has a lower injury rate I think?

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  12. dave says:

    I had to google canasta.

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  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    WWE,
    NASCAR, football violence.
    try haiku instead.

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  14. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    There’s a story on this months HBO show “Real Sports” about a long term study that began last year on pee wee football players and the damage these youngsters sustain over the course of a season. It’s quite interesting to say the least.

    Along the lines of the NCAA and the huge amount of money they make off the backs of their year round “student athletes,” I couldn’t agree more that there needs to be serious reform on the way this supposed non profit entity and the corrupt bowl system it co-conspires with operates. Any other organization which operated like these two do would have been investigated years ago.

    I can’t recall his name, but a former standout defensive player from UCLA recently wrote a book about the uglier side of Division I college football. A few months ago he was the guest on the NPR program “The Story.” The HBO show “Real Sports” also produced and aired a scathing story on the college football bowl system right around the same time. If the evidence they provided in this one episode it to be believed, what a scam the bowl system is with regard to their revenues and VERY limited amount that makes its way to charity (which is required in order to maintain their tax-exempt status). The entire Division I football system stinks to high heaven.

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  15. Pete Klein says:

    I’m sorry but I do love football and hockey. Both are pretty rough but that is their nature.
    NASCAR? Let’s be honest. It has become so safe it is boring. It’s like watching a MerryGoRound.

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  16. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    NASCAR

    One of the grandkids said it best when they asked, “Papa, why do they keep going in circles?”

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  17. Alan Gregory says:

    To me, a chief problem with pro football today (and also other pro sports, especially baseball) is this: The men who do the on-field work are primarily in it for the big money. Period. Gone are the days when players played the game because they loved the game. I think of baseball players like Phil Niekro, Don Drysdale and Chipper Jones. In football, there were guys like Bart Starr, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas.

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  18. Pete Klein says:

    Alan, I have to disagree. Yes the do make gobs of money. I remember as a kid from Detroit when my favorite player for the Tigers, Al Kaline, made about $25,000 a year.
    But I do believe most play because they love the game.

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  19. mervel says:

    The big time football industry today is essentially a slave/gladiator system. We all cheer with the thumbs up or down as young men maim themselves for life and end up with brain injuries. Most pro-football players end up injured, broke and divorced. Most big time college athletes make nothing but essentially work for men who make millions of dollars form the athletes efforts.

    When College coaches and administrators are willing to work for normal salaries of other professors at a college or university than it would be a different story. But at its core this is a system built on exploitation.

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  20. Todd says:

    This college player-payment discussion is so silly. It’s not a “slave” or “plantation” system. No one makes anyone play. In fact, kids go to camp, train, send out tapes, etc to lobby in the hopes of landing a scholarship. If someone doesn’t like the risks, then don’t play – it’s that simple. There’s glory and fun for those that are good enough to play plus a free education. There’s plenty of loans and grants to go to school otherwise if you don’t play and even more available for African-Americans than for the average white kid. And the money doesn’t go to Exxon, it goes back into the school. So please.

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  21. Brian Mann says:

    Todd –

    You should read up a bit on how college sports actually work. Kids entering college go through that process because they are desperate to access the economic benefits of Division I sports. College is the “minor leagues” of basketball, football and (to a less extent) pro baseball. It’s a business arrangement. Because of the NCAA’s rules, those kids are legally required to go through that process without legal representation. They are not allowed to organize, hire agents, hire attorneys, or any of the other guidance that the schools, coaches, scouts, etc., bring to bear on the contractual relationship. It has been widely documented that these young people receive only marginal educational benefits. Most never graduate and many who do receive only cosmetic degrees. Finally, your suggestion that these kids have other options “plenty of loans and grants to go to school otherwise” is just loopy. For many NCAA division one athletes — from rural white kids to urban black kids — they take these extraordinary risks because they have absolutely no choice.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  22. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    To add to your points, Brian, it should also be mentioned that most of these college athletes are not even allowed to work between semesters in order to help make ends meet while at college. They are prohibited from doing so under the conditions of their scholarships as they’re required to devote their time to the sport they play. And example would be a football player who is required to spend his summers training and practicing rather than working to pay the cost of living to attend the college in the first place. And if you think their scholarships provide for such costs of living you need to hear from the athletes themselves about what a fallacy that is. This was mentioned by the player I referenced above who wrote a book about his less than glorious experience at UCLA.

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  23. mervel says:

    Anyone who has looked at the schedule a division 1 football player in the top tier is required to keep; will realize that going to class is not part of that schedule. Its a job and it has real risks.

    Certainly it is voluntary, I just think that if we pay football coaches between 2-10 million per YEAR and administrators all making six figures, the players should get more out of it than a permanent head injury.

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  24. Pete Klein says:

    Brian,
    Everyone has a choice. No one forces anyone to become a cop. No one forces anyone to play any sport. There are risks to both but both attract those who want to play the game.
    The same can be said of any job/career choice.
    Physical injury risks? How about logging, deep sea fishing, farming and construction?

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  25. Brian Mann says:

    Pete -

    eople who decide to become cops are generally adults. They have access to legal representation, and unions.

    Loggers and construction workers are paid for their labor.

    And they work in industries that aren’t controlled by a single monopoly — i.e. the NCAA.

    The generally poor young white and black kids who make up the ranks of division I athletics in America enter in the “work contract” with disadvantages that most of us would consider deeply unfair.

    And the simple truth is that many of them don’t have choices. They play by the NCAA’s rules or they’re sent home with nothing. Period.
    –Brian, NCPR

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  26. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Once again I’ll add to what you’ve mentioned above, Brian. Currently Division I, II, III college athletes sign a letter of intent to play at a particular school upon graduation. This letter of intent, once signed, basically prevents that potential student athlete from accepting scholarships or even to be recruited by other schools. However, this is not a reciprocal relationship. The school to which the student signs does not live under that same limitation. They have every right to retract their offer of a scholarship at any time henceforth. A student who had every expectation of arriving on campus in the summer prior to the season with a scholarship could literally find themselves without one. And the school has no legal requirement to explain why the scholarship has been revoked and the student has no recourse. Does this seem like a fair arrangement? What other organization is allowed to violate a written agreement in such a manner?

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  27. mervel says:

    I think a recognition of the semi-pro nature of Division 1 sports should be made, particularly in Football. You could look at making their actual relationship to the university be more as an affiliated institution rather than a part of the school. For example most public schools cannot by law raise their own private funds, so they create a private foundation that has its own board of directors whose mission is to raise money for the school.

    You could do the same with big time college football, they would become more self-contained, you would allow the athletes to have some collective bargaining power and you could still give the schools some “contributions”. Although most big time college football programs use all of the money that they bring in for their own spending on salaries, equipment, travel, prostitutes etc.

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  28. Philip Wiliams says:

    “College” athletics is a big business but it is built on the backs of a captive audience – the non-playing students. Most colleges still today use mandatory “activity fees” levied on the students to fund a large portion of the athletic facilities and activities. In return the students get to bask in the glory, or perhaps stand in line for discounted tickets, for the teams sponsored by the schools. Many times, the athletes on the field were admitted without regard to their academic ability, unlike the students. The colleges- public and private – regard athletic success as an investment in the school’s reputation. A lot of the money siphoned from the students is done through transactions to purchase or build facilities to accommodate the alums’ amusement at games. I can recall when the students at my college were asked to pay $20 a semester more (35 years back) for a new health clinic to be built. When the new one was built, the old one (presumably not suited as a health clinic!) was turned over to the athletic department – a free building – for “sports medicine”.

    The money wasted on this stuff is amazing. A retired Oregon coach draws $41,000 a MONTH pension. Football coaches who are fired for bad conduct walk off with millions. A careful and knowledgeable analysis of athletic budgets will show that a great portion of that money is not from ticket sales or advertising; it is from students and public taxes.

    College sports success may put the spotlight on some otherwise undistinguished 2nd and 3rd tier schools, but no one ponders Harvard, Oxford, Yale, Berkeley or Chicago’s football success in choosing where to attend.

    College ball is entertainment, amusement, like gladiators. It’s a large distraction from the serious studies which ought to be involved in real higher education.

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  29. Todd says:

    Brian – I think you’re really off-base. Kids do everything they can to be lucky enough to take part in the experience of major college football and seem to really enjoy the opportunity. There’s no “oppression” here. In fact, there’s been a recent study that college athletes outperform non-athletes academically, including African-Americans. No one needs an athletic scholarship to go to school. Sure they would love to be paid, but that’s just human nature. Football, I agree, is a violent sport where every game someone’s limbs are destroyed with torn joints and broken legs but that’s a rusk people take to play. There’s just no “there” there for this perceived offense to mankind. Kids play to be a star in front of 100,000 people, that’s all there is to it.

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  30. Todd says:

    I also wanted to add that major college football players appear to play for the same reason D1, D2 and non-scholarship FCS athletes play, only that they get to do it on a grander scale. I don’t hear anyone calling Bloomsburg or Mt. Union “plantations” yet they endure all the same challenges from the players’ perspective, except it’s probably not as exciting.

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  31. Mervel says:

    The injury rates are less at those schools. The disparity is in the fact that at d2 and d3 schools the athletes are allowed to be students. At d1 schools they cannot effectively be students even if they want to be students. The schedules don’t allow for it.

    In addition it IS a business at the upper levels, I think many of us would have less of a problem with this system if the parasites who make millions of dollars from this system made normal salaries that coaches and administrators make at d2 and d3 schools.

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  32. Philip Wiliams says:

    Just thought I’d bring into the debate the amount of money spent on just football. Here are salaries from the Charleston, SC postandcourier.com of 4-12-2012. Most of these coaches make more in one year than a talented teacher would make in a lifetime. Have we no shame?

    Fact Box

    Head coach salaries

    Name, School Salary Percentage of total staff compensation

    Top Six

    Kirk Ferentz, Iowa $3.785 64.8%

    Bobby Petrino, Ark. $3.638 60.8%

    Bob Stoops, Oklahoma $4.08 60.3%

    Jeff Tedford, California $2.3 59.4%

    Mack Brown, Texas $5.19 59.0%

    Nick Saban, Alabama $4.83 56.8%

    Bottom Six

    Dana Holgorsen, W.Va. $1.49 42.2%

    Derek Dooley, Tenn. $2.33 42.1%

    Paul Rhodes, Iowa State $1.15 39.4%

    Kevin Wilson, Indiana $1.26 39.3%

    Dabo Swinney, Clemson $1.83 38.7%

    Danny Hope, Purdue $0.93 38.2%

    Highest paid assistants (annual salary)

    Chad Morris, Clemson $1.3 million

    Kirby Smart, Alabama $850,000

    Brian VanGorder, Auburn $850,000

    Sal Sunseri, Tennessee $800,000

    Brent Venables, Clemson $800,000

    *Does not include private schools, whose salaries are not public record

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  33. mervel says:

    If the assistants make 800K what do the equipment managers make, I could do that!

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  34. mervel says:

    And no we have no shame, throw in the ESPN talking heads salaries throw in all of the advertising the product marketing and we have this huge huge industry, ALL of it based on largely poor kids who end up with brain injuries, no degree and no pay. Makes sense to me. But it really is a reflection of our society of taking without shame, of being hogs, maybe I WILL join an OCCUPY group!

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  35. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Phillip,

    Thanks for the information you provided. What an eye opener…..

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