Student-Athlete Safety Issues Shake the NCAA

The NCAA was founded out of a need to provide more safety for students playing extracurricular sports, particularly football. A century later, safety issues may end the NCAA’s long run of lucrative dominance and governance of all thing intercollegiate athletics.

According to Ben Strauss of the New York Times, six class-action lawsuits were filed on May 17th on behalf of former college football players against their former universities, conferences, and the NCAA. The suits seek financial relief over the negligence handling of sports-related head injuries sustained by the former players. These suits target the big fish of the college sports’ pond: Penn State—which desperately needs to escape more negative athletic headlines—Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia, Utah, and Oregon. Vandy, Auburn, and Georgia come from the Southeastern Conference, home of seven straight football national championships between 2006-2012. Auburn beat Oregon in the 2009 national championship, and Utah launched the career of Urban Meyer who now coaches at Ohio State. Urban and his Buckeyes grabbed a national championship in 2014 before the SEC returned again to dominance.

The lawsuits sent shockwaves through the increasingly frail infrastructure NCAA President Mark Emmert and his team constructed from their headquarters in Indianapolis.

Back when Teddy Roosevelt roamed the White House, his son, Ted, broke his nose playing in the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Historians of education like Frederick Rudolph and John R. Thelin remind us during the turn of the 20th century, college football was a motley gathering of self-financed and self-governed students. Free from the shackles of administrators, boosters, and conferences, the students coached themselves and scheduled their own games. Since football was less regulated, proper safety precautions became a danger—thus Ted’s broken nose.

As John J. Miller explains in The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, Roosevelt convened a group of college presidents largely hailing from the northeast to discuss ways to regulate the game but still adhere to its vital jingoistic élan, which Roosevelt embraced. Several meetings later—I like to picture TR chewing on an unlit cigar and bombastically pushing the stiff academics to action—the predecessor to the modern NCAA was born. It was renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association in 1906 and has operated as a voluntary membership organization since.

Fast forward to today and the safety issue is again an ominous blip on the NCAA’s radar. The NFL, also mired in issues related to player safety, is on the hook for roughly $900 million paid out to former players over 65 years in a similar concussion lawsuit. A.J. Perez, with USA Today, reports that former NFL player Bubba Smith granted permission for his brain to be examined for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) following his death. Smith passed in 2011 and on May 24th of this year, news spread that Smith did, indeed, suffer from CTE. Ninety-four former NFL players have had their brains examined for CTE following their deaths. Ninety suffered from CTE.

I’m not a neurologist, but brain injuries don’t suddenly start at the professional level. It was only a matter of time when we began to realize that slamming head first into another person at a high rate of speed—helmet or not—and doing so repeatedly would lead to cognitive and physical consequences.

What’s more, one would expect more concussion lawsuits directed at the NCAA simply because more players participate in collegiate than professional football. The 32 NFL teams cap rosters at 53. That’s 1,696 players, not counting practice squad players. Student-athlete football players? Just looking at Division I football, we have 128 teams. Each team is allowed 85 scholarships, which brings us to 10,880 players. This number doesn’t count players without scholarships and the many, many student-athletes competing at the Division II, III.

The NCAA alone cannot monitor the safety of such a high number of players. And I am sure more lawsuits are coming.

Just as I‘m not a neurologist, I’m not a lawyer. So I am not sure how the litigation and inevitable appeal will play out. Who knows if these former football players will see a dime or if the defendants will be held liable for creating a situation where players are not directly compensated for slamming into each other repeatedly all in the name of entertaining boosters and filling the coffers of the schools, conferences, and the NCAA.

The NCAA has their hands full right now. An independent report by law firm Pepper Hamilton found the Baylor athletic program had little interest in pursuing sexual assault charges against their athletes, which led to the demotion of former president Kenneth Starr (yes, that  Kenneth Starr of Clinton-scandal fame) and the firing of the most successful head football coach in Baylor history; the Wainstein report found that UNC decided two-decades of sham classes was an acceptable way to gather multiple national championships in multiple sports; and, according to Steve Berkowitz of USA Today, the Supreme Court may grant cert on the O’Bannon case about EA Sports’ video games using players’ likeness without consent.

For a long time, the NCAA has stood proudly on two pillars: amateurism and safety. These are the lighthouses guiding the NCAA through the treacherous waters of public (even congressional) oversight. The first pillar is a joke. But that is OK because, just like Santa Claus, we are all in on it and have a good time. But the second? When that pillar is shaken, the pillar on which the NCAA was founded, no one chuckles.

According to a 2015 independent consolidated financial report conducted by Deloitte & Touche, LLP and disclosed by the NCAA, the NCAA retains over $855 million in total assets (down from over $922 million in 2014).

Safety issues, which birthed the NCAA, might bring down this multi-million dollar apparatus to which all major athletic programs voluntarily submit.

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