The Bleak Future of College Football

The sport is becoming an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.

USA Today Sports / Reuters

Football can be a force for good. The University of Missouri’s football team proved it earlier this month when student athletes ​used a facet of campus life many often decry—the cultural and economic dominance of college football—​to help force a national debate about the persistence of racism on American campuses. Football can build a sense of community for players and fans alike, and serve as a welcome escape from the pressures of ordinary life. The sport cuts across distinctions of race, class, geography, and religion in a way few other U.S. institutions do, and everyone who participates reaps the benefits.

But not everyone—particularly at the amateur level—takes on an equal share of the risk. College football in particular seems headed toward a future in which it’s consumed by people born into privilege while the sport consumes people born without it. In a 2010 piece in The Awl, Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds, and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called “glorified servitude,” and even as information comes to light about the dangers and injustices of football, nothing is currently being done to steer the sport away from that path.

The football-consuming public has only recently started to grapple with the magnitude of the dangers inherent in playing football—traumatic brain injury and painkiller addiction chief among them—and to understand that you don’t need to play 10 years in the NFL to suffer permanent physical, psychological, or neurological damage. Though football’s dangers compound over time, they manifest right away, even at the lowest levels. Therefore, as more information comes out, more and more parents are hesitating to let their sons play organized football. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from January found that 37 percent of respondents would prefer that their children play any other sport, which seems understandable—what parent wouldn’t protect his or her children from unnecessary risk?

Unfortunately, the degree to which children are protected from the risks of playing football is very much related to the level of privilege—racial, economic, and social—the child experiences while growing up. That same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that while 50 percent of respondents with postgraduate degrees would prefer their children not play football, only 31 percent of people with a high-school education or less would say the same.

There’s a good reason for that disparity—better-educated and wealthier people have more access to information about football’s concussion crisis. A 2013 poll conducted by HBO and Marist found that 63 percent of college graduates and 66 percent of people making more than $50,000 per year said they’d heard “a good amount” about football causing concussions, compared to 47 percent of those who made less than $50,000 per year and half of those without a college degree.

In other words, children are being put in danger not because of their own carelessness, or a difference in parenting style, or even because poorer, less privileged kids have fewer ways to climb the class ladder. It’s because many of their parents—especially those who earn less or who haven’t attained as much education—aren’t getting the information they need to make the best decisions for their families.

Of course, any discussion of privilege in the power dynamics of football has to contend with racial privilege as well. In college football, where coaches and administrators are paid six- or seven-figure salaries while players are paid nothing, who has the power? Who bears the risk? A handy tool from the NCAA called the Sport Sponsorship, Participation, and Demographics Search offers some illuminating data. In the 1999-2000 school year, 51.3 percent of Division I football players were white, and 39.5 percent were black. By 2007-2008, those numbers had evened out (46.6 percent white, 46.4 percent black), and in 2014-15, 40.2 percent of DI football players are white, and 47.1 percent are black.

Compare that to the university employees who profit most directly from football: coaches and administrators. In 2014-15, 81.6 percent of Division I athletic directors were white—87.4 percent if you don’t count HBCUs. The numbers skew even farther if you include all three divisions. The NCAA reports 1,081 member schools that aren’t HBCUs, and among those a little over 90 percent have a white athletic director. The numbers are about the same for coaches: 82.8 percent of Division I head coaches and 81.5 percent of coordinators are white, while 15.2 percent of head coaches and 15.6 percent of coordinators are black.

While the head coach and coordinator numbers more or less represent the population of the U.S. as a whole, there are two bits of context worth noting. First, the population of college-football participants gets whiter the farther up the chain of power you go: from players, to graduate assistants and position coaches, to coordinators and head coaches, to administrators. Second, the racial dynamics of the head-coaching ranks don’t come close to matching the makeup of the body of players from which coaches are almost universally drawn.

In short: In the world of college football, the more privileged a person’s background, the more power he (sometimes she, but usually he) has, and the less risk he assumes. And if those survey numbers about parents holding their kids out of football wind up reflecting the future, that imbalance is not only going to increase, but it’s going to be reflected significantly along class lines as well as racial lines.

Not that any of this comes as a particular shock. But unless something changes, college football is going to reach a point where the distribution of risk and profit in college football is so grotesquely unfair, and the ethical ramifications (ideally) or the optics (probably) of unpaid poor and/or black men destroying themselves for the profit and amusement of white men will make the sport, as it exists now, unsustainable.

So what, if anything, can be done?

There’s a growing belief that football is so dangerous it’s unethical to contribute to its hegemony in American culture by consuming it, publicizing it, or contributing to it financially. Every minute passed discussing the sport adds to its cultural importance; every dollar spent on tickets or apparel feeds the machine that turns healthy boys into broken men, and along the way produces toxic levels of sexism, militarism, retrograde masculinity, and corporate greed. The only way to stop the dangerous chokehold football has on American culture, then, is to deprive it of the attention and money that make it work.

But while the urge to boycott is understandable, it’s so far been ineffective as a tactic for enacting change. The most direct impact of football’s brain-injury crisis has been the proliferation of thinkpieces calling for concerned consumers to boycott the NFL, a movement that’s gained steam as the league bungled domestic-abuse investigations against Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. But the league posted $7.2 billion in revenue in 2014—more than double what it pulled in in 2010. Last May, Keith Olbermann called for viewers to boycott the NFL draft and the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, in response to inaction by the governing bodies of both football and boxing to confront their athletes’ high-profile predilection for intimate-partner violence. The draft’s ratings dropped significantly from 2014 (though it’s unclear how much of that is due to the influence of Olbermann and others like him), but it was still the third-highest-rated draft ever. The Pacquiao-Mayweather fight took in $400 million from 4.4 million pay-per-view buys in the U.S. alone. If a boycott of football could bring about real change, it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s possible that football is such big business it almost can’t be starved, even as universities spend self-destructively in pursuit of on-field success. So until and unless such a mass defection can be organized, the best avenue for reform runs through the existing fan and media structure, not by opting out. A football community only composed of people unconcerned about player safety and workers’ rights would never pursue reform on its own. But by remaining part of the conversation and within the community, empathetic fans and media members can exert pressure on the power structure to diversify its own ranks and ensure better treatment for players.

The NFL has made small steps toward improving player safety and minority hiring, but concussion protocols and the Rooney Rule, which mandates that NFL teams interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs, didn’t come about under threat of boycott. They were the result of an internal push from players, fans, and media who remained involved with the game. The next step is to pursue some evolution in the rules or technological breakthrough that could reduce the risk of playing tackle football. If that’s not feasible, then it’s worth fighting to ensure that players are compensated according to the risk they’re undertaking.

Refusing to participate in college football—or to let your kids participate—because you're horrified by its nature won't compel the people with power over how the game operates to make it safer, or its economic structure less exploitative. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and it doesn’t cease to be a problem just because it doesn’t affect your kids anymore. Seven high-schoolers have died playing football this year, and tens of thousands of college players have performed for millions of fans, for free and at great personal risk. Football is supposed to build a sense of community, and true communities look out for everyone’s kids—not out of self-interest, but because it’s the right thing to do.