The Secret Underworld of College Football
Hello, and welcome to my newsletter. My name is Jason Stahl and I’ve been teaching and researching at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cites for almost two decades. Here is my current faculty profile although I am not sure how much longer it’s going to be online as I just turned in my resignation from this position. It was definitely the right time for me to leave academia and start my new career as an independent writer and investigative journalist. To that end, I am launching this newsletter to which I hope you will subscribe. Your subscription and other forms of support will help with the writing of my second book which I am currently at work on. It will be an investigation into the stark realities of Division I college football. The tentative title for the work is Exploit U: The Secret Underworld of College Football.
I happened upon this project around 2014 as I was finishing writing my first book. As an instructor at the University of Minnesota I had many, many college athletes in my classes and started to take an interest into their situation. These young men and women occupied a weird space on campus—in some respects they seemed privileged (scholarships, notoriety, etc.) but in other respects they seemed like the most exploited students. Their schedules were packed; they always seemed stressed out; and many, especially black men, were putting their safety on the line to make gobs of money for the institution. In short, as a researcher, I wanted to study their world with the hope that the worst aspects of it could be reformed. I felt like I could bring something new to the conversation given how many student-athletes I had come to know personally as an instructor. I told many of these students about the project and they seemed excited at the idea of participating.
However, in early 2017, the project took an unexpected turn as a new coach, P.J. Fleck, took over the Minnesota football team. For the rest of 2017, I saw a severe physical and mental health degradation among many of my football student-athletes. Additionally, I learned about a toxic workplace environment under Coach Fleck that I felt put everyone who worked in his orbit at unnecessary risk of harm.
By early 2018, and with the support of an Associate Dean on campus, I chose to come forward internally at the university with what I knew. I first reported to the faculty athletics representative on campus—Professor Perry Leo. Professor Leo was concerned enough about what he heard from me that he told me I had to talk with people in the General Counsel’s Office including Director of Athletic Compliance Jeremiah Carter. Mr. Carter was responsive to my concerns—particularly with the report a player helped me generate which showed that the team was going over NCAA practice time limits. However, when the player would only come forward anonymously, and not on the record, the matter was largely dropped.
Over the rest of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, my own life went through a series of ups and downs. I went through a painful divorce but also secured a new three-year work contract through negotiation with the dean of my college Dean Jean Quam. I was very happy about the contract as I knew it would allow me more latitude and freedom to work on the problems I was seeing in the football program.
By spring 2019, I was once again hearing multiple reports of problems within the program. Additionally, most of the football student-athletes I came into contact with continued to show signs of mental and physical trauma unlike I had seen under multiple previous football coaches. I consulted once again with the Associate Dean that I had been working with about what I should do with the new information I had. He said we should build a wider coalition and encouraged me to talk with another professor about whether he would help us report. Upon talking with this professor, he encouraged me to report everything I knew immediately to anyone I trusted in central administration at the university. He said that because I was a non-tenure track faculty member, he worried that I would lose my job if I kept secret all that I knew.
So, I did as he advised. With the support of the Associate Dean, in June 2019 I submitted a report of over 4,000 words detailing everything I knew about Coach Fleck’s program that concerned me. I still wonder if this was the right decision given everything that came after. I waited nearly two months without a response before I received written responses to my report from Jeremiah Carter and Athletics Director Mark Coyle. Both indicated nothing of any substance would be done regarding my concerns and to this day I’m fairly certain nothing was.
I briefly considered going to the media with what I knew but decided not to. In my report, I used no student names but I still felt like there were students in the report who could be identified fairly easily by those who knew the team. If I released the report to the media, I feared that there would be retribution for the student-athletes who could be identified. I was exhausted and disheartened by this point and, moreover, my one ally in this battle, the Associate Dean that I reported to, quit his job in August 2019. Additionally, and around the same time, I was reprimanded by Dean Quam for coming forward with what I knew without telling her first.
So, as fall semester 2019 started, I felt exposed. I continued to see the same issues among my football student-athletes, but realistically could do nothing about it. Then Coach Fleck received a contract extension in the middle of the season. I thought about bringing my concerns to the Board of Regents meeting where the contract was set to be officially approved, only to find out that the approval meeting had been fast-tracked and the contract signed off on without public input. Additionally, in fall semester 2019, the new Associate Dean Michael Rodriguez, who took the place of my ally, almost immediately began agitating for me to quit directing a program I ran on campus for first-year students. This agitation got so bad that I felt compelled to send him an email in January 2020 stating that I wanted my contract for this position to be honored through 2022 as it stated.
In the end, it didn’t matter. I was demoted by Associate Dean Rodriguez during COVID-19 quarantine and told I would no longer be running the program I had run for nearly four years. Dean Quam also ignored the contract I had personally negotiated with her and I was abandoned by my department chair Ken Bartlett and the Director of Human Resources Mani Vang when pleading my case.
Obviously, I was angry and hurt. I felt like I had tried to do what I thought was right only to lose quite a lot professionally as a result. So, I resigned from the University of Minnesota as I simply could not go back to work having been humiliated in the way that I was. I will miss teaching all of my students but I will certainly not miss the administrators. Moreover, I simply don’t think I could have done my next book justice under the constraints of academia. I need to become an independent writer and investigative journalist in order to tell the story that needs to be told. If there is one thing I learned from my journey so far it is that it is better to push for reform from outside the institution as opposed to on the inside.
And I do think that now is very much the time for wholesale changes in the way college athletics, and particularly college football, work. With the dual crises of COVID-19 and our desperate need as a country for racial reconciliation, college athletics and universities in general are going to have to go through meaningful reform in the coming decade. With the status quo no longer tenable I hope that my book can be part of a necessary conversation regarding how we want college athletics to look heading forward. Moreover, I want my book to be a resource to prospective college football student-athletes and their parents as they navigate the system at the front end when making a decision about what college to attend.
In closing, I want to say that this will be the last time I discuss my personal situation and past career as an academic. From this day forward, I intend to put those who are caught up in the system at the center of the stories that I tell. Most importantly, I want to center the stories of the student-athletes themselves as they are all too often voiceless within the current machine that is college athletics. In the past two months, these players have been speaking out publicly, many for the first time, on Twitter and in the media. I want my book and this newsletter to be another outlet through which those same voices can be heard. Collectively, I believe we can highlight ways to tear down the current exploitative ways of college football and then build something new and more humane in its place.
I have student-athletes already on board with this project, but if you are a student-athlete (or former student-athlete) who has a story that you feel I should hear, I am here to listen to you and so don’t hesitate to contact me at jmstahl at gmail dot com. Likewise, if you are a coach or assistant coach (or formerly one), I want to hear your stories as well. As should be obvious by now, the University of Minnesota will be my primary case study in this book and so I particularly encourage student-athletes and coaches from Minnesota (current and former) to reach out to me. If you were a student of mine, I especially encourage you to reach out! If you are affiliated with another college or university, definitely reach out as well as I want my book to have a comparative perspective for me to be able to gauge how unique things are at Minnesota.
For those not associated with college athletics but who still want to help, please see my first post “Ways to Support My Work.” Thank you for taking the time to read this post through to the end!
UPDATE (10/16/2020): For those just encountering this post for the first time, I recently begun telling the stories of the types of abuse I was trying to report. My former student, Grant Norton, courageously tells his story here. Please read it if you haven’t already.
UPDATE (12/31/2020): Also, here is a summary of the real-time reporting I did trying to raise concerns about the toxic working environment on the team.