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Last month, a 19-year old player at the Naval Academy who had suffered a serious head injury as a high school player collapsed during football practice. He was rushed to the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland and was found to have swelling and bleeding within the brain. He died three days later.
The player's death -- tragic and avoidable -- punctuates a string of woes that are threatening college football.
The gravest threat is pending litigation by players, past and present, for head injuries. NFL players recently settled similar litigation with the league for $765 million. The potential liability for college athletics far exceeds that of the NFL.
There are 2,000 active NFL players on 32 teams. There are more than 27,000 college players at the Division I (D-I) level, over 18,000 at the D-II level and 25,000 at the D-III level, for a total of 70,000 active players in the NCAA. There are 35 times more active college level players than NFL players, and the brains of college players are less developed and more susceptible to serious head injury.
Billions & bankruptcy
With many more players (potential litigants) and players with less developed brains, the NCAA has a potential liability for head injuries that runs into the billions of dollars. It is a prescription for bankruptcy.
In 2012, only one out of every 10 athletics departments at the most commercially viable D-I level generated sufficient revenue to cover their expenses. From 2011 to 2012, subsidies increased by nearly $200 million, at a time when budgets are being cut in higher education.
Intercollegiate athletics at the D-I level is an expensive, debt-ridden enterprise.
The colleges' problems are further amplified by the National Labor Relations Board's recent finding that football players at Northwestern are school employees and the current litigation by players seeking the right to market their names and likenesses. Add the costs together, and the result might be the death of college football and perhaps intercollegiate athletics.
If the NCAA and its membership choose to follow the denial example set by the NFL, which failed to recognize it had a problem until the litigation for head injuries was well advanced, football might have to be removed from the ledger. If the NCAA acts quickly to deal with these issues, football and intercollegiate athletics can be saved.
At the turn of the 20th century, college football was threatened by the death of many players. President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, bringing collegiate leaders together to solve the problem or end football. College leaders responded with new safety rules, in an effort that is ironically considered to be the birth of the NCAA.
The NCAA and college leaders must respond again or end college football. They need new safety rules, new enforcement mechanisms against coaches and athletics personnel, and a compensation system for athletes suffering injuries.
And they must do all this without adding to the expenditure side of the ledger.
To ensure that new rules -- particularly on blocking and tackling -- are enforced, coaches and university personnel must be held accountable, in the same way that they are held accountable for recruiting violations. Player safety must become as important to the NCAA as a competitive and marketable playing field. Coaches and personnel who fail to abide by safety rules and protocols in games and practices should lose the right to coach at the collegiate level.
Most important, a compensation system for head injuries built on a worker's compensation and not a personal injury model should be implemented in a form of a trust that can be funded out of the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue generated by the new television contract for the four-team championship in big-time college football. Such a worker's compensation system has the added benefit of ensuring that the dollars flow primarily to the injured players and not to personal injury lawyers.
Football can be saved. If the NCAA does not act, the president and Congress should follow the example of President Roosevelt and intervene to save football and intercollegiate athletics from itself.
Rodney K. Smith is a former college president who directs the Sports Law and Business Program at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.