Friday, January 15, 2010

NCAA Misses the Point in Caring for Injured Athletes

For four minutes, it looked like Texas was going to stomp Alabama in the BCS championship game.  Then, Bama’s Marcell Dareus tackled Colt McCoy, the Longhorns’ star quarterback, and the contest was over.

McCoy was sidelined by a pinched nerve causing his right arm to go completely numb.  Dareus told reporters after the game that his neck was still sore from tackling McCoy.  The injuries surprised even the announcers because the tackle looked pretty tame.  Watching the replay, it looked like Colt McCoy’s shoulder pad cushioned the blow to both players.

When horrifying moments like this occur during televised football games, the announcers are instructed to wax philosophic during interludes.  You can tell when this happens because the announcers use real verbs, not the ones they have invented to describe play-by-play action. 

The use of real verbs lends gravitas to tone down their manic cheerleading.  For example, the player whom they just made fun of for getting “de-cleated” is, after his season-ending injury, “a good student who enjoys visiting war veterans in the hospital.”  (And there is nary a whisper about the Candystriper he allegedly knocked up on one of those visits.)

During such an interlude in the Texas-Alabama game, the announcers recalled Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford’s season-ending shoulder injury.  Then they mentioned Florida quarterback Tim Tebow’s season-interrupting concussion.  These two young men are former Heisman Trophy winners. 

Colt McCoy was edged out for the 2009 Heisman by Bama’s Mark Ingram.  But for the moment, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit elevated Colt McCoy to the pantheon of wounded Heisman winners.

Not too long after this moment of glib gravitas, a shocking graphic flashed before my eyes.  It was a chart detailing the head coaches’ pay.  Texas coach Mack Brown is paid $5 million per year.  Alabama’s Nick Saban is paid $3.9 million per year.  If Texas had won, Mack Brown would have gotten a $450,000 bonus.  Saban got paid $400,000 for the win.

At the end of the game, one thing could be said for certain.  Neither Mack Brown nor Nick Saban risked injury to earn his preposterous salary.  The injuries were borne by their unpaid players.  And many of those lads will face complications for the rest of their lives for “leaving it on the field.”

A century ago, the United States accepted that workers should have a reasonable expectation of an injury-free workplace.  States adopted worker compensation insurance plans, and the concept of no-fault insurance for workplace injuries took hold.

College football is a big business; it is not a playground sport where the true amateur plays.  You know it’s a big business when West Virginia University can afford to pay its head football coach a million dollars per year in salary and expenses.

The NCAA has rigged the college farm team system to perfection.  By pretending that collegiate sports are all about the amateur athlete, then colleges and universities can avoid the niceties of paying athletes or providing them with workers’ compensation and disability coverage.

We are beginning to learn that concussions take their toll later in life.  I hope that Pat White and Jarrett Brown, both quarterbaks at WVU, never suffer from their college football concussions.  But the evidence at hand suggests that their golden years may not be so golden. 

WVU linebacker Reed Williams sacrificed his shoulders for college football.  Who will pay for his arthritis medicine in 2050?  Likewise for the women, who pays for former basketball player Meg Bulger’s future knee replacement?

Honestly, I think the Romans had more respect for the wellbeing of their gladiators than the NCAA does for amateur athletes.  But I am being unfair.  The Coliseum in Rome never had a television contract.

Pat White’s season-interrupting concussion serves to illustrate my point.  When he returned to the field, much was made of the special helmet he was wearing.  His new helmet was designed to protect him from another head injury. 

Why wasn’t Pat White wearing the best helmet in the first place?  How does a coach look Pat White in the eye and say, “After you’ve suffered a doozy of a concussion, then we’ll buy you a really good helmet!”

Someday, an injured player will sue his or her university, and the judge will rule (correctly, I believe) that the school is the player’s de facto employer.  When coaches make seven figures, and Wyoming wins a bowl game ($750,000 payout), it’s hard to pretend that we still live in the days of Knute Rockne winning one for the Gipper.

Last season, a thousand college athletes left something on the field, and all they got were numbered T-shirts.