Meeting of the Minds: What are the changes ahead for college football?

Slate organized a panel on the state of college football earlier this week, and the question of whether the sport should be banned on the collegiate level. Junior Seau’s suicide last week has added fuel to the fire regarding player safety, but reformers are also pointing to the relationship between major sports and the academic mission of higher education.

I don’t think anyone sees major college football going away any time soon, but what kind changes do you see coming, if any?

Ty Hildenbrandt: Well, it seems like the playoff movement has finally hit critical mass, which naturally means that we’ll need to find something else to overanalyze.

My hunch is that the next frontier is compensating players, especially now that the public conversation has, once again, shifted to player safety in the game of football.  Combined with the existing arguments proponents have made for this setup over the last decade, the controversy surrounding player safety could add another reason to the growing list of why college players deserve more than just scholarships.  I’m not saying I fully support this model, but I can see the topic heating up once college football realizes how much money its new postseason is actually worth.

Kevin McGuire: Clearly Mr. Bissinger was thinking outside the box and going to the extreme with his idea to ban college football. While the possibility of college football being packed up in a memory box and stored away for the rest of history seems like a completely ludicrous idea to most, it doesn’t mean Bissinger doesn’t bring up some interesting points that are worth discussing. Now that the whole playoff issue seems to developing, the next biggest topic to overanalyze and debate seems to be whether or not players should be compensated. I don’t see any change being made here at any time, because I just don’t think the NCAA can afford to open this door, but I do suspect that there will be more vocal calls to pay players by some.

Aaron Torres: Obviously, most of this whole “Should college football be banned” debate centers around the idea of head injuries and concussions. And while we can agree that the debate itself was (and is) asinine, there might be a broader, big-picture thing to come out of it. Knowing what we know about the long-term effects of head-injuries on football players (in college and beyond) should we have some kind of uniform, NCAA-mandated concussion policy going forward?

Granted, it probably won’t happen (if only because we know that the NCAA has the equivalent jurisdiction of a mall cop), but why not? The NFL has one, yet in major college football, the decision isn’t even made from conference to conference, but instead, school to school. And as we learned with Tim Tebow a few years ago, at most schools, a player will be rushed back on the field the second he’s allowed. And truthfully, I’m not blaming the coaches per se; it’s a win at all costs business, and it’s hard to blame them for playing their best players, at any given opportunity.

So why NCAA-mandated concussion policies? I’ll leave the specifics up to the medical professionals, but don’t think it’d be a bad place to start.

Michael Felder: I’m glad you mentioned the debate and concussions. To be blunt, I don’t care nearly as much about concussions today as I did a year or even a month ago. Concussions are not the problem as Gladwell astutely pointed out last night. That’s where people are missing the boat. When you get knocked out, get hazy and can’t get up or struggle to pass your concussion test, you get sidelined. The issue here is the repetitive blows to the head that do not register concussion symptoms, that’s where the long term damage comes into play.

I’d like to see contact standards and practices altered to stave off some of the damage being done. It does not take getting knocked out to cause trauma to the brain and this focus on dangerous hits or concussions is taking away from the central crux of the issue; blows to the head. Monitoring impact registers is a start, a sort of “pitch count” if you will with respect to how guys are allowed to continue in order to limit exposure to head blows is a good start. Jim Mora mentioned something to that effect in his pre-spring presser, he gets it. The total number is the issue, not a handful of big hits here and there.

It is not the end of college football and quite honestly I think, right or wrong, too much is propped up by this game for it to be snatched away. Universities’ identities, athletic departments and people’s jobs rely on this “game” to fill stadiums and draw crowds. The system sucks, there are schools striving for a measure of success they will never achieve, players being herded to their own brain’s demise and it sucks.

I’d love to see the game broken down. Ripped apart. Reassembled from an institutional standpoint so that it can relieve some of the stress that is placed both on its players and the system itself. Split divisions, stop this ridiculous illusion of fairness and amateurism and move towards a sustainable solution. As it stands now it is hurtling towards implosion from a systematic level as the game approaches critical mass from the financial side.

Aaron Torres: Damn Felder, how much coffee did you drink this morning?! Kidding, but in all seriousness, that was just about the most intelligent, well-put statement I’ve heard on the subject. If only we could’ve snuck you on the panel last night, maybe something could’ve actually been accomplished.

So with that, let me ask, what would your suggestions be? I know that out of the NFL lockout, one of the biggest “givebacks” to the players side was reduced padded practices and less hitting as the season wore on.

Putting all of the “big picture” issues you discussed aside, and just focusing on the “pitch count” element, what would your changes be?

Michael Felder: To start immediately I’d put sensors in the helmets. All of the helmets. Trainers can monitor the force of hits throughout practice and games. Chart your hits and as guys reach a limit you pull them. One big hit can get you pulled or, as is the case with the pitch count ideal, a cumulative number of small hits would lead to being pulled. That’s where I’d start.

Practice is weird to me and difficult to restrict because even as we have less full pad and scrimmage practices we still have a lot of hitting. You can’t get a lot of work done in shells and eliminating shoulders practices limits ability to work critical technique.

From there I’d also like to see more counseling and norming of counseling for players. Let them know it is okay to talk about symptoms, about mental ills and to be comfortable asking for help.

Allen Kenney: Mike is spitting truth on this.

Regarding the head injuries, everyone involved needs to take a step back and fundamentally re-think how they play, how they practice and how they teach. Football is inherently dangerous, but that doesn’t mean the risks can’t be limited and see the game itself remain intact.

From the point of view of player safety, it’s stupid to talk about “banning” football, because that implies some kind of bizarre paternalistic attitude towards players and their right to play if they so choose. People opting not to play poses a far greater risk to the game’s future. As more information becomes available and people gain a greater understanding of the long-term effects of the sport, it’s inevitable that the number of people who are willing to take on those risks will start to dwindle. On top of that, we could see liability risks to the NFL and schools skyrocket.

He may come off like a lunatic, but I think Bissinger’s arguments about the need to divorce football university life is pretty strong. You could certainly argue that college football plays a role in building communities and promote a school’s brand, but you’re kidding yourself if you think football as we know it really serves some kind of academic purpose. I love the sport, but that’s the truth.

Does that mean banning college football? I don’t think so, but I think we’d all be better off if we could fundamentally restructure the “business” side of the game.

Dave Singleton: Not everything that takes place at an instutiton is going to wholly serve an academic purpose. If the point is that football doesn’t serve an academic purpose, then why eliminate football? Why not mandate the complete elimination of intercollegiate, club and intramural athletics?

Continuing the theme, if college football is such a distaction, then let’s get rid of all student activities and organizations? Sure, you can learn leadership and teamwork and time management from these pursuits, and sure, they do instill responsibility from those students that get involved in them, but they are a distraction as well, and they really do not fit into the academic mission of the institution. Let’s get rid of all of it and make the traditional collegiate experience nothing more than going to lecture and going back to your apartment/residence hall to study.

Go big or go home.

Picking on college football (more specifically, Division 1 FBS) is such low hanging fruit I shouldn’t be surprised that a modern day reactionist hack like Bissinger decided to hop on the bandwagon with the thinnest of arguments. Never mind that he was literally throwing crap at the wall in the debate, arguing against himself at times. The athletic directors, university presidents and conference commissioners have made it low hanging fruit though, so it’s only fitting that Gladwell and Bissinger would try and pluck it from the tree.

The sense of community, the sense of pride that exists at schools with big time intercollegiate athletics is something that cannot be easily removed. That pride is a part of the institutional culture and it does serve as part of its identity.

Is it productive for every school? No, it is not. I think a restructing should have been done about a decade ago when the Big East was raided by the ACC the first time. I think D-1 FBS football should be pulled out and handled separately—either by an new governing body agreed upon by the 124 FBS schools or pulled into a special arm of the NCAA.

Or…a decision needs to be made by all 124 schools, looking at themselves as a football program, as an athletic department and as an institution of higher education, and they need to decide if they are going to fruitlessly chase the pot of gold that they can never reach…or make a different choice.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.