Tuesday, December 01, 2015

the bleak future of college football

theatlantic |  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.