Sports: Now Money in College Football Is Killing Students

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon.

Tragedy that this summer has hit college football evokes memories of deaths that once nearly caused a football season to be cancelled. This was after the 1909 season, when six players were killed while competing in college games. Action taken then led to creation of the rules committee that eventually became the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). So far, there is no sign that universities, held captive by television promotions, are prepared to take action by delaying the season's start to protect vulnerable athletes from the stress of hot weather. That's because it would be at the price of diminishing the influence of TV and its big paychecks to televised teams.

Recall of that earlier tragic period of football is fed by current deaths from a related cause that bring renewed concern about how to protect lives of young men who play the game. The most recent, the death of Northwestern University starting safety, Rashidi Wheeler, is the second fatality of a college player during this summer's pre-season practice. A University of Florida player died at practice a week earlier. Uncertainty over player well-being was further stirred by the death at practice of a professional player for the Minnesota Vikings.

In 1909, gridiron death was result of an easily seen characteristic of the early game: violence of mass contact generated by an offensive maneuver called the flying wedge. This year's deaths are mystifying in that they have occurred not in games, but during practice. Instead of violent contact, cause of death seems related to practice exertion in the heat and humidity of summer.

Four years before the trauma of 1909, many serious injuries in football games fed public criticism of the sport. President Theodore Roosevelt, a believer in the game's values, called a meeting of university representatives to devise ways of minimizing brutality in the game. They created a rules committee that was forerunner of the NCAA. It produced rules to minimize violence by opening up the game, including legalization of the formerly outlawed forward pass.

What the committee failed to do was address the cause of most injuries, the interlocking of hands by members of the offensive team to create a wedge-like formation within which the ball-carrier moved toward a thundering crash with the defense. Deaths of six players, all on defense, came after they were hit by the impact of the wedge.

The fatalities resulted in radical changes in game rules, without which the following season was in danger of being cancelled by federal edict. Basic change was to make illegal the wedge of interlocking interference. The offense was required to emploly a new formation still in use today: seven of its 11 players had to take down positions on the line of scrimmage. Ever since, game fatalities have been rare. So the early cluster of deaths in practice this summer produces the game's greatest safety concerns in almost a century.

Those who recall the old All Star Game at Soldier Field, sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, could point out that the team of college seniors were based at Northwestern, and practiced for the early August game on the very field where Wheeler died last week. Back then, heat during pre-game practice in July seldom approached that faced today by teams in early August. As a former Northwestern athletics staff member, I watched the All Stars prepare for the game. Their approach was easygoing compared to the intensity in workouts of players striving to win starting positions on a nationally ranked team (Northwestern and Florida).

Revising rules of the game won't solve this problem. What is needed is a far-reaching change -- one the NCAA and the presidents of universities must give high priority. They should make changes related to the way the game has evolved in the last half century because of the dominant influence of television coverage.

When I was a Northwestern student in the 1950s, the regular season was nine games. It since has expanded to 12 games, mainly with early-season additions. This year most schools open the season the first Saturday of September. The expansion is mainly to gain more exposure on TV, earning the significant dollar amounts television pays for rights.

One of the results of the new money has been a geometric rise in the size of head coaching salaries. Some are at the million-dollar annual level, and almost all exceed by two or three times the annual pay of the university president. Of greater concern is the effect of lucrative TV contracts on player health. When seasons start weeks earlier to accomodate expanded TV schedules, practice begins weeks earlier-- in the oven environment of early August.

The game could return to a more rational level if presidents and the NCAA ruled no game be scheduled before students are in class for fall semester. That would end the anachronism of freshman football players competing in two or three games before they ever attend a class. It also would move back the start of pre-season practice, when the sustained heat of summer has begun to lapse.

TV coverage and No. 1 rankings are exciting. But they are meaningless compared to the safety of the men who play the game for us.

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