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The Reclassification of Football Part III: The Collegiate Game

In Part I of this series we described the NFL as bloodsport. It is an unsafe sport and profession with tremendous injury risk. Its players are adults who acknowledge and accept this risk and participate in it because they believe that their personal rewards (money, fame, love of the game, etc) outweigh their risks. In Part II we discussed how high school and youth athletes are underage and unable to adequately consent to this brutal sport. Furthermore, we are still unable to fully quantify just how dangerous this sport is to developing brains in the long term. Until we know these answers or until the sport can be made safer, it is inappropriate to subject our children to this experiment in brain trauma. Therefore, the game of football that is played at the underage level needs to rapidly evolve into a safer version of the sport. So what will develop is two different classifications of tackle football (just like there are two different versions of boxing, martial arts, wrestling, etc). On the one hand is the dangerous NFL professional version, and on the other is the safer underage non-professional version. So now that leaves us with the collegiate game which is stuck somewhere in the middle. On the one hand the collegiate game is played by adults over age 18 who are able to consent to the risks, but on the other hand they don’t receive the level of reward that the NFL players do. So what happens to collegiate football? Does it need to undergo reclassification as well?

Let’s start with the risk side of the equation. Currently the risks of trauma (brain trauma included) are likely about the same at the NCAA Div 1 level as they are in the NFL. NFL players may have a higher overall rate of injury over the course of their careers, but their careers are longer than the 1-3 years of playing time in the NCAA. On the reward side, the NCAA Div 1 players don’t have any salaries or marketing deals but they do have scholarships and they also have a somewhat legitimate hope of obtaining fame and fortune if they can make it to the NFL. Therefore these collegiate players may also accept the risks associated with playing “NFL- style football” and make the decision that they still want to play. Since football is big business to these top schools just as it is in the NFL, the schools themselves are likely to accept the risks of continuing to offer “NFL-style” football at their institutions and afford the liability and other expenses involved in maintaining their football programs. How will these risks be managed? We will have to wait and see the outcome of all of the NCAA concussion litigation before we can be sure, but just as with the NFL, it is safe to say that at this point both the players and the institutions should realize that PLAYING PROFESSIONAL-STYLE FOOTBALL CARRIES AN INCREASED RISK OF HEAD INJURY WHICH MAY HAVE LONG-TERM EFFECTS AND HELMETS DO NOT PREVENT THIS.

Since both the Div I NCAA football players and their institutions now fully realize and accept these risks of head trauma, it is likely that “NFL-style” football will continue to exist at this level even if it is completely different than the high school version. This may be concerning and intimidating to incoming freshman who have not been exposed to this type of football and some experts believe that this quick transition from one type of football to another puts the athletes at even greater risk since they are not familiar with this style of tackling. So how do athletes make the leap from playing the high school version as 17 year olds to the “NFL-style” as 18 year old collegiate athletes? Well that is what redshirting as a freshman in college is all about, isn’t it? They spend the entire year learning how to play this new style of tackle football with full head contact. The majority of these Div I athletes are scholarship athletes who are essentially being “paid” to learn how to play this game that is generating money for their school. They can then more safely make the transition to the new game at the Div I level without officially being exposed to it.

But what of all the other schools … the Div II and III schools and all of the junior colleges and community colleges where football is not a money maker, there are no scholarships, no chance of fame and fortune and no big budget athletic department to afford the liability? I believe that both the players and the institutions would not believe that the risks vs. reward equation benefits either of them. Therefore here too tackle football is going to evolve into the safer non-professional version that we will see at the high school level. We might find that tackle football takes on an intramural form or becomes a “club sport” at these schools much like rugby. Thus, when all is said and done I believe that we will see a two class system of tackle football in the United States (just as we do with wrestling, boxing and martial arts). On the one hand, we will see the brutal bloodsport version that will be played at the professional level as well as the NCAA Div I level (which as we all know is essentially the minor leagues of professional football anyway – but that is another discussion). On the other hand will be another “non-professional” version of tackle football that will be played throughout the remainder of collegiate, intramural, interscholastic and youth leagues. This version will still be tackle football but will carry less risk of trauma, specifically head trauma. In these leagues, the head trauma will be reduced to an “acceptable level” by eliminating all purposeful head contact from the game. Determining what that “acceptable level” actually is, will be our greatest challenge in the field of sports medicine head trauma research. But until we know those answers, I believe we need to err on the side of caution and protect the brains of our children.

In summary, American tackle football is being reclassified. It is not just a collision sport. It is a brutal sport. With the high injury rates and the long term risks of head trauma we can no longer consider it safe. With every passing year more of the players themselves begin to acknowledge this and refuse to let their own sons play the very game they love. In spite of this, I have no doubt that football will continue to persist as a brutal sport at both the NFL and NCAA Div 1 levels. It is too much engrained into American culture. It is too big to fail. But the NFL and Div I NCAA is such a small percentage of football that is being played in America and at all other levels it must evolve into a safer sport. As described in Part II, this evolution into a non-brutal sport can only occur by eliminating all purposeful head contact by changing the rules, changing the equipment and most importantly, changing the culture. It is a lot to ask for and it won’t be easy, but now that football has been reclassified, this country has an ethical, social, moral and possibly even legal obligation to do so. Keeping our heads in the sand is no longer an option.

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