I love college football. There's nothing like the spectacle of a college stadium on Saturdays -- the band playing, students looking for any excuse to go nuts, and a packed house roaring. My version of heaven is a College Football Saturday, every day.
But when I hear that distinct thud of pads and helmets colliding, I can't help but wince. I know that those players are sacrificing their livelihood down the road, even at the college level, giving up their bodies in exchange for four years of glory.
The debilitating effects of playing football have been well-documented in the NFL, but have been largely overlooked in the college game. It's convenient -- why not blame the big, bad NFL for the issue and forget about college?
Although it has been largely brushed under the table, college football's concussion and CTE crisis has been roughly as bad as the NFL's. According to CBS's Jon Solomon, NCAA football players are "three times more likely than the general population" to suffer from the symptoms of CTE, a debilitating neurological disease that causes aggression, blurred vision, dementia, and sometimes even suicide, among other things. 80% of college players tested had it, according to one study of 55 former players.
This isn't to say the NCAA hasn't been proactively trying to solve the concussion question -- it recently spent $30 million on concussion research, which went essentially solely to trying to change the culture around reporting concussions. It also gave a combined $3.2 million in grants to eight teams of researchers -- again only trying to change the culture. A valiant cause, but only a feeble attempt to fix the symptoms, not the root cause -- the modern game of football itself.
Now, what should the media do about this dilemma? It makes me think: should I try to advance my potential future career and continue to promote the game that destroys lives, or should I stop completely reporting on football altogether?
Would it even make a difference? Even if a top-of-the-line national reporter quit reporting on football, it probably wouldn't have much of an impact, even if they went public about their reasons for quitting. There are hundreds of writers chomping at the bit to fill those jobs -- someone would gladly slip right in. The entire community of college football journalists would have to band together and strike or quit -- an unrealistic, if not impossible scenario. Protesting with no practical agenda to fix the crisis would only ruffle feathers, not enact real change.
With resignation out of the question, we are still left with an enviable platform for influence: the privilege to broadcast information to the public and put pressure on the NCAA. The media makes college football -- without it, there would be no televised games, radio broadcasts, or written coverage of any of the games, and we would revert to even before the first college game was played -- they had newspapers in 1869.
With this power comes great responsibility -- how can we most effectively put pressure on the NCAA to seriously research ways to modify the rules to prevent repeated blows to the head (what causes CTE) and modify equipment to best protect the brain?
First off, we need to create widespread knowledge that there is an issue in the college game. Persistent reporting on the issue and every new development will inform your average college football fan and even NCAA elites -- it's not like they don't read our work. Ultimately, fans have a say in this too. If enough people know that this is a real issue and get stirred up, their masses can force the NCAA to make a move.
As we've seen with the deluge of NFL players retiring early to avoid the risks of CTE, a well-informed public also makes for well-informed players. We haven't seen that from prominent college players yet -- mostly because they don't know there's an issue.
But it doesn't just stop at presenting facts and advocating for change. We have to do some of the investigation ourselves. Since the goal of journalism should be to hold those with influence accountable, we need to keep reporting about new findings in the field. It's our duty to expose these issues, so it's time we took on this responsibility wholeheartedly.
We have to go out and tell the players' side of the story -- the tales of suffering that are happening to actual players right at this very moment. Giving more personal stories than just facts, figures, and news about research will resonate deeply with readers, giving them a window into that anguish. This isn't to say that people haven't done this, but it needs to be more widespread.
Pushing to change the game we all love is gut-wrenching -- I don't want anything to be different on Saturdays. But something has to be done about this impending catastrophe, and it starts with us.