Opinion

Football leaves reason far behind

Sometimes the poignancy and irony of adjacent newspaper stories seem, to me at least, more obvious in print than on the Web. Here’s an example:

Last week the sports section of my local paper carried this story: “Petty expects to play despite concussion-related symptoms.”

The football program at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, is having a good year. The Bears are playing their first season in a gorgeous, brand-new $266 million stadium. They’re 11-1 and, as of this writing, are ranked No. 5 in the nation.

But a lot depends on quarterback Bryce Petty, who has thrown for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was knocked out during the previous game, suffering a “mild concussion.” On the following Monday he had a headache. But the Big 12 title was on the line, and Petty played despite still experiencing “concussion-related symptoms.”

My paper devotes nearly 20 column inches to this story, as well as space for a picture of Petty preparing to throw.

Immediately adjacent to this story are three column inches titled “Vigil honors player found dead.” Kosta Karageorge, 22, an Ohio State football player, had gone missing on Nov. 26 and was found four days later in a dumpster, dead from a gunshot wound, apparently self-inflicted. Otherwise, Ohio State is having a good year, too.

Many were shocked by Karageorge’s death. But his mother said he had suffered from concussions and had “spells of confusion.” According to USA Today, Karageorge texted his mother on the day he disappeared, referring to his concussions and apologizing for being “an embarrassment.”

Whether Karageorge suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the brain disorder connected with too many hits to the head – remains to be seen. Mostly we associate CTE with NFL players, a third of whom, according to one study, will suffer from symptoms of CTE – depression, headaches, memory loss, drug and alcohol abuse – by the ends of their careers.

But considerable evidence indicates that the damage starts much earlier, even in high school and before. Which makes sense: getting hit very much in the head can’t be good for the brain.

But this column isn’t about concussions. Big football institutions like the NFL, Baylor and Ohio State aren’t likely to pay much more than lip service to concerns over the fact that football is impossible without life-altering, or life-ending, injuries to boys and men.

The third, two-column-inch article, adjacent to both of the first two, makes a poignant comment on the current state of football. The University of Alabama at Birmingham announced last week that it will be disbanding its football program, the first Division I school to drop football in 20 years.

UAB’s reasons involve economic realities rather than player safety. Football is expensive.

The big schools in the top five conferences derive considerable income from television broadcast rights and some have developed their own networks. But just beneath the surface is a large second tier of colleges and universities whose football programs are not profit centers. They have to be subsidized from other sources, including student fees.

According to Dr. David Ridpath, as reported in the New York Times, students attending colleges in the Mid-American Conference will spend $2,500 over four years to support athletics.

As the big schools increase benefits for student-athletes, schools at the next level are finding it harder to keep up. UAB already subsidizes two-thirds of its $30 million athletic budget. Its president, Ray Watts, says, “Football is simply not sustainable.”

Watts is getting angry pushback. The brief reference in my paper to UAB was titled “Students rally to save program.” They marched on the administration building chanting: “We want football.”

So, on a single page in my local paper we find: A suicide by a young man who believed he was suffering from sports-related concussions. A quarterback so vital to the success of his team and its profit-making football program that he’s eager to risk his future mental health. And a university president excoriated for making a sound economic and ethical decision.

One wonders if football has become important beyond all reason.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at jcrisp@delmar.edu.

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