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College football returns with big questions about injuries, paying players and education gaps

This season kicks off with a big game but even bigger questions

On Sept. 2, top-ranked Alabama will take on third-ranked Florida State in a neutral-site game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The night game will answer some early-season questions about the two teams, including the development of Alabama sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts and the improvement of Florida State’s defense, which is led by redshirt sophomore safety Derwin James, a preseason All-American.

Still, barring a blowout defeat, both teams could overcome a loss on Sept. 2 and still contend for the national championship.

But FBS is challenged by questions much bigger than who this season’s national championship contenders might be. They include:

  • Is the game too dangerous to play? If so, what if anything can be done about it? Should the players get compensation beyond athletic scholarships? If so, what and how? And can changes be made to make it more likely that players (who seek to) can pursue an enlightening education in the classrooms? Burdened by the demands of a full-time job playing college football, many bright and motivated athletes work, nevertheless, to remain academically eligible to play and nothing more.
  • The dangers of the sport are real and well-documented. Should the NCAA do more to work with players, coaches, sports scientists and equipment manufacturers to make the game less dangerous, less brutal? Should the NCAA employ more ferocious watchdogs to ensure that players are not prescribed drugs that allow them to play when they should be recuperating from injuries? Should programs be mandated to be more transparent regarding the diagnosis and treatment of injured players? I think the answer to all those questions is yes. But will the NCAA and the richest and most powerful conferences just say no to changes that could make it harder for them to value profits over player safety?
  • If the profit motive can trump player safety, is it any wonder that many college players value improving their bodies and their games over improving their minds; every minute the would-be pros spend on non-football activities they risk losing ground to their peers who focus solely upon getting better at their sport, a focus some have maintained since kindergarten.

Besides, far too many football players arrive on campus poorly prepared to compete in the classroom, a societal malady that plagues many nonathletes too.

Nonathletes can be convinced that a good education is the key to a better life. But for would-be pros at big-time football colleges across the country, very few academic pursuits offer as big a pot of gold as multiyear NFL contracts do, even if they are not fully guaranteed.

Some things are guaranteed, though. Colleges won’t give up the revenue big-time football can generate; in the hope of improving player safety and durability, the colleges will not cut the number of games. The colleges will not reconfigure football conferences so that teams won’t have to travel as much as they do now, leaving the players more time to study.

Relatedly, colleges won’t cut the number of regular-season intersectional games. Neither will colleges go back to playing their cool-weather games mainly on Saturday afternoons. The broadcast TV and cable TV networks that have paid billions for television rights wouldn’t allow such changes.

Football fans wouldn’t allow it, either. We crave football, night and day and all through the week. We expect our high schools, colleges and pro football franchises to give it to us. And they do, the players and their welfare be damned.

Which is to say, big-time college football won’t change radically, especially for those who want change that benefits big-time college players, most of whom will not play in the NFL.

But could the NCAA decide that the players’ athletic eligibility and their athletic scholarships not run concurrently? Could Jake or Jaymar Touchdown have four years of athletic eligibility but six years to complete their degrees on scholarship, about the amount of time it takes nonathletes to graduate from college these days?

The NCAA’s romantic (and 100-year-old) notion of student-athlete football players and their amateur status won’t allow salaries for players.They can’t get any of the money from team memorabilia sales, either. But, in a small step in the right direction, might football players — especially those who stay at their institutions for four years, especially those who graduate in six — get benefits such as free annual checkups at their former college’s medical facilities? Could ex-players get free career counseling at their former colleges? Could big-time football colleges provide free training for their former players who want to start businesses?

Or will big-time college football continue, a business as usual: an enterprise that’s designed to benefit most from the colleges, coaches, fans, the media outlets and the select few players who graduate from playing on Saturday to playing on Sunday.

But, ready or not, Monday morning and everyday adult responsibilities await football players who finish their college days with their paths to NFL careers blocked by injury or lack of talent.

Who cares?

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.