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The Off-Season Black Box
Why We Should Be Thinking About College Football Now More than Ever
It’s quite rare when a college football coach criticizes the system in which he is a part of. This is particularly the case when the coach has been tenured as long as former offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Franklin, before his recent resignation from Middle Tennessee State University, had been coaching for nearly forty years. Coaches who have been in the business this long simply don’t come out and criticize the inner workings of college football and the NCAA. As this Washington Post article aptly puts it, Franklin “knew better than most that retirement in college football involves accepting its code of silence.”
Code of silence regarding what? The article doesn’t elaborate but we can guess it has to do with the secret inner workings of the system that casual fans don’t understand—exactly the secret inner workings I’ve been trying to illuminate at this newsletter. What I’ve come to learn over the past ten years is that college football largely exists inside a “black box” where the public generally has no idea what is going on inside the field houses, locker rooms and coaching offices that make up the system. It is in this black box where exploitation can occur.
Franklin lifts up this box just a bit and, as usual, what’s inside looks ugly. In the Washington Post article above, and even more so in this local report from a Tennessee news outlet, Franklin details just how lax his program was with protecting players from COVID-19 during the past season. As the season progressed, Franklin continually tried to raise concerns with head coach Rick Stockstill and athletic director Chris Massaro only to have his concerns ignored or belittled. He described how this led to more than a third of the team testing positive. One player, according to Franklin, “kept getting sick, kept getting sick, kept getting sick” despite testing negative. He eventually saw his own physician and found out he was positive. Franklin described having to field concerns from a parent who was concerned that her son was “still not the boy I know prior to COVID” and that she worried he would never fully heal. All of this led Franklin to resign after the season—forfeiting hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary to try and tell the truth of what happened behind the scenes.
I obviously commend Franklin for his actions and for letting us into the black box of this past season. However, I don’t want it to go unnoticed that, in his resignation, his whistleblowing regarding last season are only part of his concern. Rather, Franklin seems even more concerned with what is going on right now in the off-season. While everyone has largely forgotten about college football and its players now that the season is over, Franklin is highlighting the fact that players are still on campus practicing despite the fact that most undergraduate instruction remains remote. In highlighting these off-season concerns, Franklin is letting us in on another dark secret of the college football system: the fact that the off-season—its practices, workouts and fall camps—are where players are most at risk rather than in games themselves. As the public has forgotten about them, coaches can largely get away with what they want.
Franklin highlights his concerns primarily as they relate to off-season practices with COVID-19 still raging. In the linked local news article above, he says, “Everybody thinks college football season’s over it’s going to be safe now. Hell no. This is the worst time for college football, because they’re going back indoors. They’re going into the locker rooms, they’re going into the weight room again. For the next four to six months, my goal is to do something to save lives, do my part, all over college football.” Citing the newly emergent more infectious, more deadly, strains of COVID-19 appearing across the United States, Franklin openly worries in the same article that a player will die after catching the disease in a poorly ventilated weight room.
Of course, this was the same worry that led universities across the country to cancel practices last spring as the pandemic began raging across the United States. But now, despite higher case loads, new outbreaks on college campuses and new strains, off-season practices continue. What’s even crazier is that universities are not even trying to hide this behavior as much as you think they would. Yes, it’s definitely still largely in the black box, but a glance at any university football program’s twitter feed in January and February will show a slickly produced film of football “student-athletes” grinding out practices in the poorly ventilated weight rooms that worry Franklin so much.
Added to these new COVID related off-season concerns are the standard concerns regarding off-season practices and fall camps that, I would argue, are where most of the worst damage is done to players. As fan interest turns to other sports in non-pandemic times, and without any sort of independent player representation, spring practices and fall camps have always been where players are most at the mercy of the coaches. For instance, players and parents of players should be paying attention to how many player injuries are happening in off-season practices and in the weight room. While fans and players alike have a certain acceptance of injuries sustained during games, I believe we are far, far too accepting of injuries which happen in the black boxes of the field houses and weight rooms given that these are much more preventable than game day injuries.
However, even though the field houses and weight rooms are much more controllable sites than the field on game days, this is where we see some of the worst injuries, many of which are permanently debilitating. For instance, The Journal of the American Medical Association – Neurology recently released a study which looked at concussion statistics over five college football seasons. They found that 72 percent of all concussions occurred during practices. Even more shockingly, they found that preseason training—despite the fact that it only accounted for one-fifth of the time the researchers studied—contained nearly half of all concussions measured. For those who understand how brutal fall training camps can be, this is not a surprise at all. When Northwestern football players tried to unionize back in 2014-15, the brutality of their fall camps were highlighted as a reason. Players noted that in the one month prior to the start of the academic year, every hour of the day was scheduled by the coach leading to 50-60 hour work weeks being the norm. This fall camp period is almost entirely unregulated by NCAA guidelines thus there seems to be an element of hazing to it and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it is where we find the most concussions occurring.
It isn’t just concussions. In my own reporting, I’ve tried to highlight the shocking number of players that are medically retiring from the game solely from injuries they’ve sustained in practice. These could be concussion-related injuries but they needn’t be. Whatever the case for a particular player, they are then left to deal with the mental health fallout after their physical health degeneration as their teams, coaches and institutions largely abandon them.
Of course, even worse than all of this are the deaths. Recently, The University of Maryland settled a lawsuit with the family of Jordan McNair who died from heat stroke exhaustion caused by a brutal off-season practice in May 2018. The overall numbers regarding NCAA football player deaths are shocking. One study shows that between 2000 and 2016, 33 NCAA football players died playing the game. Six of these were caused by traumatic injuries (severe collisions) while the remaining 27 were caused by intense exercise. Overall, 32 of the 33 deaths occurred during the offseason with February through July being by far the most dangerous months.
What makes all of these off-season numbers so infuriating is it doesn’t have to be this way. Two doctors, commenting on the concussion study linked above, put it most succinctly when they said, “concussions in games are inevitable, but concussions in practice are preventable” given that “practices are controlled situations where coaches have almost complete authority over risks taken by players.” The NFL illustrates this well. Whereas 72 percent of concussions occur during practices in NCAA football, the number in the NFL is only 7 percent. Likewise, since 2001, only one NFL player has died from a workout.
What makes the NFL so different? The existence of the NFL Players Association and the existence of paid players both of which give players real power over the circumstances of their workplace. In 2001, when Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer became the only player this century to die playing professional football, new protocols were designed to prevent these deaths in the future. Stringer’s death, like McNair’s, was caused by heatstroke during training camp and led to an overhaul of practice protocols and symptom treatment. As for practice-related concussions, they are kept in check by negotiated practice time and intensity limits—namely the number of padded practices allowable in the NFL.
Until NCAA football players get their own players association, none of their own off-season circumstances are likely to change and bring them into line with their professional peers. Right now, the NCAA, athletic directors and coaches have all the power and they have proven themselves incapable of reigning in any of this off-season negligence. Quite simply too many coaches are in thrall with the idea of a “survival of the fittest” mentality where sadistic workouts are the norm.
The mind-boggling thing is that a newly formed College Football Players Association wouldn’t even have to demand right away for new limits on the off-season to be imposed—it could simply ask for the enforcement of current rules and regulations that are being ignored right now by coaches across the country. For instance, did you know that in the academic year off-season (like we are in right now for football) players are only supposed to participate in “football related activities” for 8 hours a week? I can’t tell you how many players I’ve told this to only to have them laugh like I was joking. It’s not until I show them the NCAA charts regarding the issue that they believe me. And why don’t they believe me at first? Because I doubt any coach in the country actually adheres to the limit instead finding “innovative” ways around the work rule or just outright ignoring it.
This brings us back to Tony Franklin’s off-season COVID concerns. If during normal times the off-season is the most dangerous time of the year for college football players, think about how bad it is with a pandemic raging. During the season, players were supposedly allowed to opt out of playing and not lose a year of eligibility. Are they now allowed to opt-out of off-season practices? Does anyone know? Does anyone care? Have they been told their rights at all by university compliance departments? I think we all know the answers to these questions. Only a College Football Players Association, with independent player representatives, is going to have a chance of changing the current system. Until then, off-seasons will continue to exist in a black box.
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